Indigenous Australians seek clarity over historic vote

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STORY: Here in the remote outback of Australia's Northern Territory is Areyonga – one of the indigenous communities the country's upcoming referendum is supposed to give a voice to.

But as Reuters discovers, the "Voice" campaign is struggling to connect with some of the people it’s aiming to help.

The nationwide vote seeks to change Australia’s constitution to recognize the Aboriginal and Torres Strait people.

And create a “Voice to Parliament” to give them a channel for advising the government on matters affecting Indigenous Australians.

Yet, in Areyonga, schoolteacher Tarna Andrews says there are members of her small community who don’t know the details of the proposal.

“Some people are a bit confused what it means, 'yes' and 'no', especially the old people and some young because it’s, cause community really need more information.”

Andrews explains the problems the community has long faced: a lack of jobs, health services, safe housing.

And, now, a lack of communication - on a vote that supporters say could change the community’s future.

“Aboriginal people have not been treated well. Because there are no changes... It needs to be changed. Like, the community, we don’t see people coming from the government, coming and talking about what we need. We never had anyone coming out.”

The Voice proposal began with the 2017 “Uluru Statement from the Heart”, a roadmap for Indigenous relations with wider Australia.

Supporters say it will bring much-needed progress to First Nations communities.

But the latest polls show the October 14 referendum is on track to be defeated.

Some in the “no” camp want the country to prioritise nationwide economic issues.

While others say it's unclear what the proposal really covers - and believe it's racially divisive.

Including some in the community, like Aboriginal artist Kathy Coulthard.

“I think I’ll vote no. I think it’ll divide Australians. It’s very unsure, no one knows what’s going happen, how it’s going happen.”

Some Indigenous people say it doesn't go far enough.

Meanwhile, experts also cite misinformation as a big problem for the Voice.

And, reaching out to Indigenous Australia can be challenging.

Communities are scattered over vast distances and speak more than 150 languages.

The Central Land Council is at the forefront of the area’s “Yes” campaign.

CEO Les Turner said there had been dozens of information sessions about the Voice across the southern part of the Northern Territory.

“We’ve done it in eight different languages and translated what the referendum is and that’s available on our website. But it’s also upon all Australians to find out what the referendum’s about, what it means.”

Still, during Reuters’ visit to the area, several said they had not even heard about the vote.

Over in the more developed Hermannsburg community, where there are better internet services, Conrad Ratara highlighted another problem.

“They just send a piece of paper. I can’t read. Some people can’t read. Some people can hear what you’re talking about. We need people to come.”

A Central Land Council spokeswoman said the group has since also hosted sessions in Hermannsburg and Areyonga.

Indigenous Australians make up about 3.8% of the population today.

Under colonial government policies, they lost homelands and children suffered forced separation from their parents until well into the 20th century.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said he hopes the referendum will help close glaring gaps in socioeconomic outcomes between Indigenous and wider Australia.

But with the vote fast approaching, some in the community like Conrad Ratara fear it may be lost - because many people simply don’t understand it.