In the Australian outback, the indigenous language proposal struggles to inspire

AREYONGA, Australia (Reuters) – In this dusty corner of the outback, Tarna Andrews sat in the local schoolyard, leaving behind a series of problems that plague her largely indigenous community: lack of jobs. Inadequate healthcare. Spotty internet.

Andrews has been teaching for 38 years in this tiny settlement, where dogs roam streets of red dirt about 140 miles from the nearest major city, Alice Springs.

On that cloudless afternoon, she searched for answers but failed. Would Australia’s Indigenous referendum on October 14, if successful, mean better housing, jobs, health care and other improvements in Areyonga, known locally as Utju, where many live hand-to-mouth?

“We don’t see people from the government coming and talking about what we need,” Andrews, who is Indigenous, said in an interview. “If I vote, will the government listen to me?”

(For a photo essay click)

In just over a week, Australians will vote on whether to recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the constitution and enshrine an advisory body called Voice to Parliament to provide non-binding advice to lawmakers on matters affecting the first inhabitants of the continent. Polls show it is likely headed for defeat.

The voice had its origins in the Uluru Statement From the Heart, a 2017 document that sets out a roadmap for Indigenous relations with Australia more broadly. The final paragraph states that First Nations people “strive to be heard.”

But six years later, more than two dozen people in Areyonga and elsewhere in the Indigenous heartland of Australia’s Northern Territory revealed in interviews with Reuters last month that the Voice is struggling to connect with some of the people it is primarily designed to help .

While only two strongly opposed it, most cited a lack of information about the voice in their communities and confusion about its purpose. Several said they had never heard of it.

Even those like Andrews who had indicated they would vote for the change questioned whether it would solve their practical, everyday problems, from crumbling houses to the lack of paved roads.

“This is a really difficult question for Aboriginal people,” said Sarah Gallagher, a 48-year-old Indigenous health worker who was undecided. “People should come to our community and explain the vote to us.”

Polls show national support for the vote has fallen to about 40% from about 60% earlier this year, with voters instead prioritizing economic issues. Experts attribute the slump in part to misinformation as well as a lackluster “yes” campaign and conservative opposition.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, whose center-left Labor government supports the proposal, has described it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help close a glaring gap in socio-economic outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. He resisted calls to provide more detail, saying the design of the vote would be determined by Parliament through legislation.

“People say to me, ‘What’s the voice about?’ “It’s about acknowledging and listening to achieve better results. That’s all it’s about,” Albanese said during a visit to the Northern Territory in August.

The lack of specificity was a refrain of the Voice’s critics and raised fears on the right about its intentions. In this climate of uncertainty, where polls show many voters are undecided, the anti-vote campaign with the message “If you don’t know, vote no” is successful.

Unlike New Zealand, Canada and the United States, Australia has no treaty with its indigenous peoples, who make up about 3.8% of the population. As part of government policy, they suffered the expropriation of their homeland and the forced separation of their children from their parents well into the 20th century. Many live in poverty and have lower life expectancies, high incarceration rates and poor educational outcomes.

About 100km east of Areyonga, the town of Hermannsburg is more developed, with better internet services, a paved access road and a handful of tourists visiting the home of the late artist Albert Namatjira.

Some residents expressed similar reluctance to the Voice.

On the porch of the home he shares with 15 relatives, 70-year-old Patrick Oliver told Reuters he had heard about the concept just two months earlier and wanted to know how it could help the community of about 600 people.

“Things like the Land Rights Act, will that change with the Voice? That’s something I’ve been wondering about,” he said, referring to laws that allow Indigenous Australians to claim land rights based on traditional occupation.

Across the street, several burned-out cars lay abandoned, a monument to the city’s challenges.

“There are no jobs here anymore… the kids are running wild,” Oliver said.

Nearby, Conrad Ratara said officials needed to come to Hermannsburg to explain both sides of the debate.

Like Oliver, Ratara still planned to vote yes. But all he had received so far was a piece of paper about the referendum, he said.

“But I can’t read,” said Ratara, 61. He fears the vote could be lost because many people simply don’t understand it.

Reaching out to Australia’s indigenous people can be challenging as communities are spread over long distances and speak more than 150 languages.

Les Turner, CEO of the Central Land Council, which is leading the Yes campaign in the region, said there had been 72 information sessions about the vote across the southern Northern Territory with around 2,300 participants.

“But they are asking us to go back and hold meetings,” Turner said in an interview in Alice Springs.

He acknowledged that it was difficult to reach everyone. Still, he said: “It is also up to all Australians to find out what the referendum is about and what it means for this country towards a better future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

A council spokeswoman said about 40 people attended a meeting in Hermannsburg on August 23 and that the council facilitated further meetings in Areyonga following Reuters’ visit in late September.

Referendums are difficult to pass in Australia because majorities are required nationwide and in four of the six states. Votes from the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory only count for the former. No referendum has succeeded without cross-party support, a fact not lost on Albanese, who recognized the difficulty when conservative opposition parties said in April they would campaign against the proposal.

Some Indigenous people who oppose the vote, such as Lidia Thorpe, an independent senator for Victoria, say it doesn’t go far enough and should include a treaty.

But the most prominent “no” figure is Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, a Conservative senator from the Northern Territory, who said the proposal lacked detail, was ineffective and would divide Australians by race.

In a speech in Canberra last month, Price said Albanese “owes the Australian people a clear, concise and realistic demonstration of how his voice will deliver the results that all good Australians want for our marginalized communities”.

Kathy Coulthard, an Aboriginal artist from Alice Springs, said the vote would lead to “European and Indigenous Australians fighting each other to have their say”.

“I’m leaning towards no now, but I’m still undecided,” she added.

Alice Springs catapulted to prominence last year after crime rates soared and some residents blamed Aboriginal youths for property damage and assaults caused by drugs and alcohol. In response, authorities reintroduced alcohol restrictions.

The government has said the Voice will help address such issues by consulting with communities to find solutions.

When Reuters visited Alice Springs last month, it saw “Yes” campaign posters on walls in the city center and in government office complexes. The “No” campaign had no visible presence.

Nationwide “Yes” rallies on Sept. 17 drew several hundred, mostly white, supporters to an oval next to the dry Todd River.

“I see that the vote to Parliament is not just about the recognition of the Constitution that we rightly deserve, but also a mechanism to get out of the mess we find ourselves in,” said Natasha McCormack, who stood on a pickup truck and read the Uluru Statement From the Heart to a cheering crowd.

“Some people are a little bit afraid of it, but as Albanese said, it’s a very humble request.”

Bill Yan, a Conservative member of the Northern Territory Parliament, said the failure to provide more information had “created a lot of confusion and a lot of division”.

Back in Hermannsburg, Oliver thought about what would happen if the referendum failed.

“I don’t know what a no vote would mean for us,” he said. “(Things) could stay the same.”

(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Additional reporting by Jill Gralow; Editing by David Crawshaw)

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