Australia has voted NO overwhelmingly in a referendum to recognise Indigenous people in its constitution which was written in 1901.
The proposal, to recognize Indigenous people in the constitution and create an Indigenous body to advise government on policies that affect them, needed a majority nationally and in four of six states to pass.
“This moment of disagreement does not define us. And it will not divide us. We are not yes voters or no voters. We are all Australians,” he said.
NO campaigners labelled the vote as divisive, while YES advocates framed it as a historic chance for change.
The result marks the end of a bitter months-long debate that some fear could leave permanent scars.
Reports of racist abuse towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have skyrocketed throughout the campaign, according to mental health providers.
And the prevalence of mis-and-disinformation has prompted commentary over whether Australia could be entering a “post-truth” political era.
Nearly 18 million people enrolled to vote – of those more than six million voted early, and many were voting in a referendum for the very first time.
The NO result was declared less than an hour and a half after polls had closed in Australia’s east coast, as counting continued at polling sites across the country. The final results showed a NO in every state, and in the popular vote.
Addressing the nation, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese – who called the referendum earlier this year – said he respected the vote and “the democratic process that has delivered it”.
“This moment of disagreement does not define us, and it will not divide us, we are not Yes voters or No voters, we are all Australians. And it is as Australians together, that we must take our country beyond this debate, without forgetting why we had it in the first place.
“Too often in the life of our nation, the disadvantage confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been relegated to the margins, this referendum and my government has put it right at the centre.”
But for some in the YES camp, the devastation was visible.
“Our Indigenous leadership put themselves out there for this… we have seen a disgusting No campaign that has been dishonest, that has lied to the Australian people,” Yes advocate Thomas Mayo told the ABC.
“I’m not blaming the Australian people at all, but who I do blame are those who lied to them,” the Kaurareg Aboriginal and Kalkalgal, Erubamle Torres Strait Islander man added.
Despite several disputed claims about the Voice turning up in its official pamphlets, the No campaign has rejected accusations that it knowingly spread false information about the proposal.
And for their camp, it was a day of celebration.
“This is a referendum that we should have never had had because it was built on the lie that Aboriginal people do not have a voice,” leading No advocate and Bundjalung man Warren Mundine said.
“I’ve heard around Australia that [people] want practical outcomes for Indigenous people, they’re sick and tired of governments mucking up things, they want it to be fixed. And they do want to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recognised in the constitution.”
The referendum marked the 45th time Australia has attempted to change its founding document – but only eight proposals have cleared. It was also the second time the issue of Indigenous recognition was put to a national vote – the last attempt was in 1999.
Throughout the Voice debate, the two sides had offered competing visions for the country’s future.
At the heart of the Yes campaign’s argument was the idea that the Voice – which sought to create an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander body to advise governments on the issues impacting their communities – could tackle “the entrenched inequality” their people still face.
The suicide rate among Indigenous Australians, for example, is almost double that of non-Indigenous Australians. And despite representing less than 4% of Australia’s population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people account for 32% of all prisoners.
The No side however, saw it differently.
Its campaigners said the Voice would spark division, warning of “different classes of citizenship” and special rights if the Voice was successful.
“It will have an Orwellian effect where all Australians are equal, but some Australians are more equal than others.
“Instead of being ‘one’, we will be divided – in spirit, and in law,” Opposition leader Peter Dutton said at the start of the campaign.
Many of the nation’s best constitutional minds have disputed those claims, arguing that the Voice would not have conferred special rights on anyone.
But the campaign’s slogan “divisive Voice” which covered No banners and posters, ultimately resonated with voters.
“It’s clear that the referendum has not been successful, and I think that’s good for our country,” Mr Dutton said, in a press conference.
“This is the referendum Australia did not need to have… what we’ve seen tonight is Australians in their millions reject the Prime Minister’s divisive referendum,” he added.
A more “progressive” No movement, spearheaded by Aboriginal Senator Lidia Thorpe and the Indigenous-run Blak Sovereign movement, opposed the Voice for different reasons.
They called instead for a legally binding treaty between First Nations peoples and the Australian government to be prioritised.
“This is not our constitution, it was developed in 1901 by a bunch of old white fellas, and now we’re asking people to put us in there – no thanks,'” Ms Thorpe said, reacting to Saturday’s result.
Sources: BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corp.