Australia has overwhelmingly rejected a plan to give greater political rights to Indigenous people in a referendum.
All six states voted No to a proposal to amend the constitution to recognise First Nations people and create a body for them to advise the government.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said defeat was hard: “When you aim high, sometimes you fall short. We understand and respect that we have.”
Opposition leader Peter Dutton said the result was “good for our country”.
The referendum, dubbed “The Voice”, was Australia’s first in almost a quarter of a century. With the majority of ballots counted, the “No” vote led “Yes” 60% to 40%.
Its rejection followed a fraught and often acrid campaign.
Supporters said that entrenching the Indigenous peoples into the constitution would unite Australia and usher in a new era.
No leaders said that the idea was divisive, would create special “classes” of citizens where some were more equal than others, and the new advisory body would slow government decision-making.
They were criticised over their appeal to undecided voters with a “Don’t know? Vote no” message, and accused of running a campaign based on misinformation about the effects of the plan.
The result leaves Mr Albanese searching for a way forward with his vision for the country, and a resurgent opposition keen to capitalise on its victory.
Addressing the nation, the prime minister said he respected the vote and “the democratic process that has delivered it”.
“This moment of disagreement does not define us, and it will not divide us, we are not Yes voters or No voters, we are all Australians. And it is as Australians together, that we must take our country beyond this debate, without forgetting why we had it in the first place.
“Too often in the life of our nation, the disadvantage confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been relegated to the margins, this referendum and my government has put it right at the centre.”
Mr Dutton said after the result that Australia “did not need to have” such a vote. “What we’ve seen tonight is Australians in their millions reject the prime minister’s divisive referendum.”
Leading No advocate and Bundjalung man Warren Mundine said: “This is a referendum that we should have never had had because it was built on the lie that Aboriginal people do not have a voice.”
For some in the Yes camp, the devastation was visible.
“Our Indigenous leadership put themselves out there for this… we have seen a disgusting No campaign that has been dishonest, that has lied to the Australian people,” Yes advocate Thomas Mayo told the ABC.
“I’m not blaming the Australian people at all, but who I do blame are those who lied to them,” the Kaurareg Aboriginal and Kalkalgal, Erubamle Torres Strait Islander man added.
‘A roadmap for reconciliation’
The Voice to Parliament was proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a 2017 document crafted by Indigenous leaders that set out a roadmap for reconciliation with wider Australia.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – who make up 3.8% of the nation’s 26 million population – have inhabited Australia for about 60,000 years but are not mentioned in the constitution. They are, by most socio-economic measures, the most disadvantaged people in the country.
The referendum marked the 45th time Australia has attempted to change its founding document – but only eight proposals have cleared. It was also the second time the issue of Indigenous recognition was put to a national vote – the last attempt was in 1999.
The Yes campaign said that the Voice could help tackle the entrenched inequality their people still face. The No campaign saw it differently.
“Instead of being ‘one’, we will be divided – in spirit, and in law,” Mr Dutton said at the start of the campaign.
Many of the nation’s best constitutional minds have disputed those claims, arguing that the Voice would not have conferred special rights on anyone.
But the campaign’s slogan “divisive Voice” which covered No banners and posters, ultimately resonated with voters.
A separate No movement, spearheaded by Aboriginal Senator Lidia Thorpe and the Indigenous-run Blak Sovereign movement, opposed the Voice for different reasons.
They called instead for a legally binding treaty between First Nations peoples and the Australian government to be prioritised.
“This is not our constitution, it was developed in 1901 by a bunch of old white fellas, and now we’re asking people to put us in there – no thanks,” Ms Thorpe said, reacting to Saturday’s result.
As scenes of tears and silence at Yes events flooded the media, all sides of the debate called for a period of national unity and reflection while the dust settles.
But for Australian’s first inhabitants, who showed strong support for the Voice in early polls, advocates fear the referendum could be seen as another rejection.
“There are so many people who aspired for our country to be seen differently tonight, and that is going to be deeply felt,” assistant minister for Indigenous Australians Senator Malarndirri McCarthy said.
“We have had many disappointments over decades and centuries really, we are resilient people, and we will take stock,” the Yanyuwa woman added.
Dean Parkin, the director of the Yes23 campaign group, attempted to allay claims from opponents that the objective had been to take rights from non-Indigenous Australians.
“I want to speak very directly to those Australians who voted no with hardness in your hearts, please understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have never wanted to take anything from you,” he said.
“We have never and will never mean you no harm.
“All we have wanted is to join with you, our Indigenous story, our Indigenous culture, not to take away or diminish what it is that you have, but to add to it, to strengthen it, to enrich it.”