SYDNEY — Australia’s Senate passed legislation on Monday that paves the way for the country to hold a landmark referendum later this year on whether to recognize its Indigenous people in the constitution.
In a final vote in the upper house of parliament, 52 voted in favor of the bill while 19 voted against, allowing the bill to be passed with an absolute majority.
The referendum will ask Australians whether they support altering the constitution to include “Voice to Parliament,” a committee that can advise the parliament on matters affecting its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.
“Parliaments pass laws, but it’s people that make history,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said in a news conference after the bill was passed.
“This is your time, your chance, your opportunity to be a part of making history,” he said.
Mr. Albanese will now have to set a referendum date, expected to be between October and December. It will be the first referendum Australians will vote on since 1999 when they rejected the establishment of a republic.
Aboriginal people, making up about 3.2% of Australia’s near 26 million population, track below national averages on most socio-economic measures and are not mentioned in the constitution. They were marginalized by British colonial rulers and not granted full voting rights until the 1960s.
Lawmakers supporting the bill clapped and cheered as the final numbers of the vote were read out in the house.
“It is a very simple request….to be recognized in the constitution,” Malarndirri McCarthy, an Indigenous woman and Labor Party senator told the house. “A majority of the Indigenous people want this to happen,” she said.
Support for the constitutional change has been wavering in the recent weeks.
Getting constitutional change is difficult in Australia. The government must secure a double majority in the referendum, which means more than 50% voters nationwide, and a majority of voters in at least four of the six states must back the change.
In the past there have been 44 proposals for constitutional change in 19 referendums, and only eight of these have passed. Most notably, a 1967 referendum on indigenous rights saw a record Yes vote.
The government has been backing the referendum and has staked significant political capital on it. Top sporting codes and several major corporations have proclaimed support for the campaign.
Mr. Albanese said he is confident that “a positive campaign will produce a positive result.”
Groups opposing the constitutional change have argued that it is a distraction from achieving practical and positive outcomes, and that it would divide Australians by race.
“If the yes vote is successful, we will be divided forever,” said Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the opposition spokesperson for Indigenous affairs. The main opposition Liberal Party is asking people to vote “no” in the referendum.
Independent Indigenous Senator Lidia Thorpe, who has also been a vocal opponent of the bill, said the change will only create a “powerless advisory body”. — Reuters