Much has been written about why Indigenous recognition is important. Such recognition would be a legal change to address the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands and rights, and the widescale damage to Indigenous lives and culture.
At the top of the recognition agenda is a national First Nations Voice to Parliament. This would be an advisory body made up of Indigenous Australians that would interact with parliament and review bills affecting Indigenous people.
Currently, the reform enjoys support from both the federal government and opposition, though exactly how to achieve this reform remains a point of contention.
If the Voice goes ahead, one big question is whether the change should be made via the Constitution – and the level of public support for such a change.
Our research suggests support for legal reform on Indigenous issues is not only high, it’s also durable. Public attitudes have shifted to such an extent in the last 40 years, there is little reason to think a constitutionally enshrined Voice wouldn’t pass a referendum if it was held today.
Governments believe public support for change is weak
The views of both the Turnbull and Morrison governments have been that the Voice to Parliament needn’t be enshrined in the Constitution.
However, this view goes against the advice of experts, who strongly favour enshrinement to give the Voice stability – especially to prevent its disbandment, as happened with past Indigenous governing bodies. The Voice may also need constitutional status to have a genuine impact on law-making.
It’s never easy to change the Constitution. It requires a referendum, with 50% of voters and 50% of the states voting “yes”. Of the 44 referendums since 1901, only eight have been successful.
Recent governments have argued public support for constitutional enshrinement is too weak to lead to success in a referendum.
But here’s what the polling says
The government’s pessimism here is belied by recent polls suggesting very high support for Indigenous recognition.
In the Australian Election Study surveys conducted by the Australian National University, around three-quarters of voters were prepared to support a change to the Constitution to recognise Indigenous Australians in both 2016 and 2019.
However, recent polls tell just part of the story. Our study of several decades of Australian Election Study polling shows not just transient support for Indigenous recognition, but something potentially deeper.
There has been a gradual firming up of positive attitudes towards legal reform for Indigenous people overall. Because of this, support for a constitutional change is unlikely to collapse in the course of a referendum campaign.
In surveys over 40 years, the results tell a remarkably consistent story. Though it would have been unthinkable in the 1980s, the clear trend since then is towards more favourable attitudes on Indigenous issues.
In the early period of the surveys in the 1980s, only one in five voters thought support for Indigenous Australians – whether it was land rights or assistance from government – had “not gone far enough”.
In 1987, voters who thought that land rights had “gone too far” outnumbered those who thought they had “not gone far enough” by almost five to one.
By 2019, however, those believing support for First Nations people had “gone too far” and those believing it had “not gone far enough” were almost equal. This shows a considerable decline in voter hostility towards Indigenous affairs.
Notably, the consistent upward trend is also “secular”, meaning it is unrelated to whichever party is in government and the policies they promote. The long-term change in public opinion seems to rest instead with long-term social and economic changes and a gradual liberalising of attitudes in the country.
Why have attitudes changed?
Since the 1960s, attitudes towards a wide range of social issues have become more liberal in almost all established democracies. Numerous studies show dramatic changes on issues associated with equality, such as women’s rights, same-sex marriage and abortion.
The causes of these long-term changes in attitudes are often traced to shifting value systems creating a more tolerant and egalitarian society. Underlying this fundamental shift are unprecedented increases in economic prosperity, physical security and educational opportunities.
We assessed several factors in our study. One possibility is younger generations are more likely to vote “yes” to constitutional reform than older generations. Older generations tend to prioritise physical security and economic well-being as opposed to equality and personal fulfilment.
Our data show, however, that factors such as age were not necessarily significant. There were other explanations for the shift in people’s attitudes that were stronger.
Especially significant was whether a person has pursued higher education – a category that, since the 1960s, includes many more Australians than before. Australia has been a world leader in the expansion of higher education. In 2018, just over half of 25- to 34-year-olds had a tertiary education.
A greater proportion of people are now better educated, meaning they have received training in the cognitive skills needed to evaluate complex political issues and come to a more considered personal view on Indigenous issues.
Lessons for referendum design
Importantly, education does not take place in schools alone. Some referendum processes do more than others to inform voters through things like online tutorials, televised (including reality-style) programs and “voting advice applications” (like smartvote). This may counter some of the lack of knowledge among voters.
Citizens’ assemblies are another possible tool. These involve recruiting randomly selected citizens as decision-makers and thoroughly informing them on the issues so they can take the lead in writing referendum ballots and information materials.
Our results suggest cautious optimism should replace cynicism about the prospects of constitutional recognition. Unprecedented rises in educational attainment may have brought Australian voters at least part way towards a more nuanced and open-minded understanding of Indigenous affairs.
Referendum education programs in the lead-up to the vote itself may take Australians even farther along this path.