Protesters rallied Saturday against the disproportionate number of Aboriginal Australians dying behind bars, highlighting their plight as the nation prepares for a historic Indigenous rights referendum.
Aboriginal Australians are among the most heavily incarcerated ethnic groups on the planet, according to official figures, and are far more likely to die in state custody than members of the general population.
The many disparities faced by Aboriginal communities have been put under the spotlight ahead of next weekend’s referendum, which will decide if Indigenous Australians are recognised in the constitution for the first time.
The proposal — dubbed the Indigenous Voice to Parliament — would also give First Nations peoples a greater say in national policymaking.
Despite being backed by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, a string of high-profile celebrities and some of the country’s biggest businesses, recent polls suggest the so-called Voice is likely to fail.
Some Indigenous activists see the referendum as a compromise solution that does not go far enough to address historical wrongs.
With national debate increasingly dominated by the October 14 vote, the Black Sovereign Movement is instead urging the country to focus on more pressing issues — such as Indigenous deaths in custody.
Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe told a rally of about 100 people in Melbourne on Saturday that the referendum was set up to “appease white guilt”.
“This is not about giving us any rights at all. No rights,” said Thorpe, who is Indigenous.
Protester Julie Bain said the Voice was an “extremely weak” and “divisive proposal”.
“It wasn’t needed to have a referendum,” she said.
“There are much higher priorities.”
Demonstrators opened the Melbourne rally with the traditional burning of native plants, holding large photos of Aboriginal Australians who had died while incarcerated.
Similar rallies were organised in other cities such as Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide.
Although Indigenous Australians make up around two percent of the population, they represent almost 30 percent of the national prison muster.
A 2020 report by the Australian Institute of Criminology found First Nations people died in police custody at a rate more than six times higher than non-Indigenous.
Since 1991 more than 500 Aboriginal Australians have died in state custody, a trend lamented by the current centre-left government as a “national shame”.
– PM casts vote –
Recent surveys show about 60 percent of Australians are against the Voice to Parliament, versus 40 percent in support — a near reversal of the situation a year ago.
Opponents have derided the referendum as a stopgap measure that could taint the constitution while entrenching racial divisions.
Albanese, who cast his vote in Sydney on Saturday morning as part of early polling, has been scrambling to turn around sagging enthusiasm.
“This is a reminder that these opportunities do not come around every day,” he told reporters.
“(It is) a once-in-a-generation chance to recognise our First Australians in our nation’s founding document.”
Aboriginal Australians, who settled the continent around 60,000 years ago, carry the flame for some of the world’s oldest continuous cultures.
But more than two centuries after the first British settlers dropped anchor in Sydney Harbour, they are still far more likely to die young, live in poverty, and wind up in prison.