“No Voice” (Sydney), Alexandre Mitchell, 2024 (50 x 70 cm, Indian ink)

October 14, 2023, will be remembered among indigenous Australians and their supporters as one of Australia’s darkest days. Since the 1967 referendum, it was the most important referendum in Australian history, asking citizens to alter the Constitution and recognise indigenous Australians by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. The final count was a 61% ‘No’. 

Shockingly, almost no-one outside Australia was aware of this appalling result. It was drowned out by the noise of enormous and violent protests for the Palestinian cause all over the world, including in every major city in Australia. These demonstrations were organised two days after the massacre of Israeli civilians by Hamas on October 7th. In fact, it was as if nothing mattered in Australia but a conflict happening some 12.000 km away.

The indigenous Australians’ voice was silenced although they have lived in the same country for 50.000 years and want to live in harmony and reconciliation with the descendants of their colonisers, for they were truly colonised. Newsreels have shown vast numbers of angry demonstrators, screaming hateful slogans in every major Australian city. In contrast, Indigenous Australians seek out reconciliation or at least did so until this referendum. They believe in change and co-existence and have so much to offer the world with a very long cultural history and complex belief systems many of which we are only beginning to grasp.

Some indigenous Australians voted No themselves, probably because they felt this law was a sham considering what they felt they deserved, but most Indigenous Australians voted Yes (83%), for they saw this law as a stepping stone to recognise them and to begin to draft proper treaties, recognising their loss, their stolen lands and stolen lives. It was a chance to start building afresh. 

Here are some extracts from the  extraordinary “Uluru statement from the heart” (full-text) pronounced at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention: how could non-indigenous Australians vote “No” after reading or hearing this? It is baffling.

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs more than 60,000 years ago. (…) We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country. (…) We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution. (…) We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

The result of this referendum has shown the world that Australians are not so laid-back or welcoming. It is a stark reminder of Australia’s dark history and the long way ahead to truly live together in a culturally fractured society.


Further reading