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Australia is asking its people one question and it’s not whether to keep the King

<i>Fairfax Media/Getty Images</i><br/>An Aboriginal land rights protest in Spring Street
Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Fairfax Media/Getty Images
An Aboriginal land rights protest in Spring Street

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN

Within 24 hours of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the first cracks were forming in a carefully choreographed Australian response to the passing of its Head of State.

During a televised match between Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) teams in Melbourne on Friday, players stood to attention to hear an Acknowledgment of Country immediately followed by one minute of silence for the Queen.

However, the juxtaposition of a declaration that players stood on “unceded” Indigenous land followed by a tribute to the former monarch of the country that claimed it was uncomfortable for some.

By Saturday, all other minutes of silence for AFLW games had been canceled, and the director of one of the clubs, the Western Bulldogs, released a statement saying the tribute “unearths deep wounds for us.”

The incident demonstrates the lingering pain felt by Australia’s First Nations people since the occupation of their country by British settlers in 1788. In other Commonwealth Nations, the Queen’s death has prompted rumblings — some louder than others — of moves to abandon the British monarchy for a republic. But in Australia, despite Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s pro-republic views, there’s no concerted push in that direction.

In interviews and press conferences since the Queen’s death, Albanese has repeatedly said now is not the time to time to be talking about a republic. And on Tuesday, the Australian Republican Movement seemed to agree, suspending its campaign on the issue until after the period of mourning “out of respect for the Queen.”

But for Albanese, the reluctance to push for a republic right now is not just a matter of respect for the late monarch. The Labor leader made a pre-election promise to hold a referendum to recognize Australia’s First Nations people in the constitution within his first three-year term, if he won office.

When asked about it on Monday, Albanese said: “I said at the time I couldn’t envisage a circumstance where we changed our Head of State to an Australian Head of State but still didn’t recognize First Nations people in our constitution and the fact that we live with the oldest continuous culture on Earth. So that’s our priorities this term.”

A resounding ‘no’

Changing the constitution requires the majority of Australian people across the country, as well as the majority in most states to vote “yes” in a referendum, a notoriously difficult task. Since Federation in 1901, only eight of 44 proposals for constitutional change have been approved.

The last rejection came in 1999, when the country’s citizens were asked if they wanted to replace the Queen and Governor-General with a President.

Back then, campaigning focused on cutting ties with an archaic monarchy and moving forward as a bold new multicultural nation intent on forging its own path. Indigenous issues weren’t high on the agenda, though Australians were asked a second question, to approve a new preamble to the constitution that honored First Nations people for their “kinship with their lands.” That failed too, with Aboriginal elders of the day complaining they hadn’t been consulted on the wording.

It wasn’t a surprise. Indigenous people had long complained their voices hadn’t been heard by successive governments, so much so that in 1999, Yawuru man Peter Yu, now Vice President First Nations at the Australian National University (ANU), took the advice of a local elder to take their message to the Queen.

“A very old senior leader said, ‘You better go and see that old girl overseas … because they call her name the wrong way over here,'” Yu recalled. The old man meant that the only time Aboriginal people heard the Queen’s name was when they were arrested, Yu told CNN. “They felt that, given the community’s respect for the Queen, her name was being sullied and her reputation being besmudged, and that therefore we needed to go and explain the situation,” he said.

So they did.

Yu and an delegation met Queen Elizabeth for around 30 minutes in Buckingham Palace, and received a much warmer welcome from the monarch than either government in the UK or Australia, he said.

Today, Yu says views within the Australia’s Indigenous community on the Queen are mixed — as they are in most communities.

“There are strong emotions,” he said. “And we are continuing to suffer the full force of the consequences of colonization. But do we hold her personally responsible for it? I don’t,” he said. “Who I hold responsible for it is the Australian government … governments who deliberately neglected their duty of care. That’s what I’m angry at.”

Voice to Parliament

By the end of his first term, Albanese has promised a referendum on the Voice to Parliament — a body enshrined in the constitution that for the first time would give Indigenous people a say in laws that affect them.

John Warhurst, Emeritus Professor of political science at ANU and former chair of the Australian Republic Movement, says a referendum on the Voice to Parliament is “undoubtedly the first priority” over a republic.

“You won’t get argument about that among republicans,” he added.

The Voice to Parliament is important for a number of reasons, said Warhurst. “It’s a line in the sand about Australia’s colonial past. It’s a line in the sand about race relations in Australia … and I think the message internationally would be a shocking one, too, if we fail to pass this referendum.”

However, not all Indigenous people back the concept.

Telona Pitt, a Ngarluma, Kariyarra, and Meriam woman of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island descent, is the admin of the “Vote no to constitutional change” Facebook group, which has 11,000 members.

She believes not enough Indigenous people were given a say in drafting the document that led to plans for a Voice to Parliament. And she says the government is already aware of Indigenous problems but hasn’t done enough to fix them — and that won’t change with a referendum on a Voice to Parliament.

“All it’s going to do is just disempower Aboriginal people and power up the Parliament against us,” she said.

Pitt says a referendum should be held among Indigenous people to see who supports the change before any questions are put to the wider public.

Warhurst says approving the Voice to Parliament would ease the passage of further constitutional change — but on the flip side, rejecting it could mean a longer road to a republic.

He said after the Voice to Parliament passes, Australia may be ready to consider life after the monarchy.

That may not happen for another five to 10 years, but campaigning on the issue would have to start early “from scratch” as Australia is not the same place it was in 1999, he said.

Potentially, convincing Australians that it is time for a republic may be easier by then, as the nostalgia of a lifetime under the reign of the Queen will have passed for older generations, who grew up with much closer ties to the British monarchy.

“Queen Elizabeth’s presence was influential for some in sticking with the status quo,” Warhurst said. “So I think now that we’ve moved on to a new King, part of the reluctance in the Australian community has gone.”

However Yu, from ANU, said the issue of Australia’s Indigenous people must be addressed before any talk of a republic.

“How can you have a republic without settling the matter with the First Peoples?” he asked. “For me, It’s a nonsense. It has no integrity. It has no sense of moral or soul.”

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