By Praveen Menon
SYDNEY (Reuters) - A referendum to constitutionally recognise Australia's Indigenous people would fail if held now, opinion polls out this week show, adding pressure on the government to improve its messaging before the date of the vote is announced.
Australians will vote in a landmark referendum later this year on whether they support altering the constitution to include a "Voice to Parliament", an Indigenous committee to advise parliament on matters affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.
Supporters argue voting yes will help mend fraught ties with the Aboriginal community and "unite the nation", while recognising the 65,000 year-old culture will bring progress for Indigenous health, education, employment and housing.
Some opponents, however, argue the move would hand excessive powers to the Indigenous body, while others have described it as tokenism and toothless.
A Guardian poll this week showed more Australians are planning to vote no in the referendum than yes, a first in the survey. Other polls also showed a majority in most states will vote against the constitutional change.
"My prediction is that only 46% will vote yes, and therefore it will go down in flames," said Matt Qvortrup, a visiting professor of constitutional law at the ANU College of Law and a global expert on referendums. "Typically in referendums there are issues that people aren't familiar with. And when people are not familiar with an issue they get a little bit of anxious, and then they vote no to them."
Parties on both sides of a debate released official pamphlets last month, and are holding road shows about the upcoming vote.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says he is undeterred by the poor polling numbers.
"I believe Australia is ready," he said in a radio interview on Wednesday, which marked World Indigenous Day.
"We are the only former colony in the world that hasn't recognised its first peoples. And what this is about is a very simple proposition. It recognises Indigenous people in our Constitution."
"And secondly, it's about listening to Aboriginal people through an advisory body, because you get better results when you listen to people who are directly affected."
Australia has no treaty with its Indigenous people, who make up about 3.2% of its near 26 million population and track below national averages on most socio-economic measures.
The issue of granting Aboriginal communities more say flared again this week, when the West Australia state government overturned new cultural heritage protection laws. Laws were changed after the destruction of ancient rock shelters in 2020 sparked outrage, but were criticised by landowners as unworkable.
Getting constitutional change is even more difficult in Australia. The referendum must gain more than 50% of votes 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.
Albanese has said the referendum will be held between October and December, but has given no fixed date.
The government has staked significant political capital the referendum's success, while top sporting codes, major corporations and welfare groups have proclaimed support for the campaign.
The 'NO' campaign did not respond to Reuters request for comment, but campaign head and Indigenous leader Warren Mundine has slammed big corporations for backing the proposal and said the Voice to Parliament will just adds another layer of bureacracy.
"YES" Campaign Director Dean Parkin said 40% Australians are still undecided and there was "plenty of time" to engage them.
A failed referendum would "not look good" for Australia's international image, but need not necessarily be bad for Albanese who could emerge as a leader who stands for the modern Australia, Qvortrup said.
"Australian prime ministers who lose referendums win elections."
($1 = 1.5225 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Lincoln Feast)