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Indigenous activist urges Australians to back rights reform

SYDNEY (AFP) – A leading Indigenous Australian activist said yesterday he feels “hope and terror” ahead of an October 14 referendum on the rights of First Nations peoples.

Opinion polls indicate a majority of voters would vote “no” to the proposal to recognise First Nations people in the constitution for the first time.

The so-called Indigenous Voice to Parliament would also give them the right to be consulted on laws that affect their communities as they battle poorer health, lower incomes and higher barriers to education.

“We would be untruthful if we didn’t say we have a mixture of hope and terror about the answer to this referendum,” said a lawyer and land rights campaigner Noel Pearson, who supports the “yes” case for the “Voice”.

“No one wants the invitation of friendship and love to be unrequited.”

Pearson said the “Voice” would help to address issues such as the “lifelong damage” caused by rheumatic heart disease in Indigenous children of Cape York Peninsula in Australia’s far north.

“But it’s the lifelong damage to the ears of our nation’s decision makers that has allowed this disease to prowl around Cape York decades after it has been eradicated everywhere else in mainstream Australia and around the world,” he told the National Press Club in Canberra.

“It is a disease of the unlistened to. It is a disease of a people who have spoken but not been heard. ‘No’ gets us nowhere when it comes to confronting rheumatic heart disease. ‘Yes’ makes it possible.”

Acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease, both preventable, particularly affect Indigenous children aged five to 14 in regional and remote areas, according to a government agency, with nearly 10,000 cases diagnosed by the end of 2021.

Recent surveys show about 60 per cent of voters are against the “Voice” reform to the constitution versus 40 per cent in support – a near reversal from a year ago.

More than 200 years since British colonisation, Indigenous people – whose ancestors have lived on the continent for about 60,000 years – have shorter lives than other Australians, poorer education and are far more likely to die in police custody.