A vote talks to 'Yes' voting campaigners at a polling center at Brisbane State High School on October 14, 2023.
Brisbane, Australia CNN  — 

Most polls have closed in an Australian referendum that will set the tone of relations with the country’s First Nations people for decades to come.

Counting was underway Saturday in several eastern states and territories, with very early results pointing to a possible defeat for the proposal, according to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).

Voters were asked to approve an amendment to the constitution to recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and to create a body – the Voice to Parliament – of Indigenous people to advise the government on matters that affect them.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had called it a “simple proposition,” but months of debate revealed a complex mix of hostility and apathy toward the proposal.

To pass, the Voice needed a majority Yes vote nationwide and in at least four of six states – a feat only accomplished in eight of the past 44 referendums since the first was held in 1906.

The last referendum to pass was in 1977, before the arrival of the internet in Australia, and well before the rise of social media that has helped polarize debate and supercharge the spread of misinformation around this vote.

On Thursday – two days before polls closed – a YouGov survey of more than 1,500 prospective voters, gave the No camp a commanding lead of 18 points – 56% to 38% with the remainder undecided– a pattern roughly reflected in several other polls. Voting is compulsory in Australia, so turnout was expected to be high.

A No campaign worker hands out leaflets outside an early voting center on October 4, in Ballina, Australia.

For ‘love of country’

A record 17.6 million people were expected to cast a vote, and the result was expected within hours of polls closing on Saturday.

The prime minister had approached the campaign as a personal mission, and this week he returned to Uluru, the huge rock formation in the country’s center, where Indigenous leaders agreed in 2017 to reach out for constitutional recognition.

Sitting in the dirt holding hands with Indigenous women, his eyes welled with tears as they sang a traditional song.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese sits with Indigenous leaders in the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park in central Australia on October 10, 2023.

Explaining the emotional moment to reporters later, Albanese said: “To be able to sit in this red dirt, there was a sense of how big Australia is, our culture, and the incredible privilege.”

Albanese has pitched this vote as an expression of love.

“This is a campaign about love for our fellow Australians, and about respect,” Albanese said. “But it’s also about love of ourselves, whether we have the courage to love what Australia is. It isn’t something that began when a few ships came in 1788. This is Australia, that fullness and richness of our history.”

In the final days of the campaign, Yes campaigners reiterated the message, releasing statements urging people to “choose love over spin” and sending text messages that spoke of the need to win “hearts and minds.”

Indigenous leader Noel Pearson, one of the architects of the calls for constitutional change, said in a speech to the National Press Club in September that the largest motivation for voting Yes was the “love of country.”

“It is not the love of each other that joins us, it is our mutual love of country … we don’t need mutual affection to succeed in this referendum,” said Pearson.

Amar Singh, Noel Pearson and Rachel Perkins join Yes supporters and local residents during an event in Sydney on October 7, 2023.

No love for Yes campaign

However, a leading No campaigner mocked Pearson’s speech, accusing the Yes campaign of promoting empty slogans.

“The Yes campaign, it’s the vibe. Everything’s love. Like they’ve … had a few joints,” Nyunggai Warren Mundine said to laughs from the audience at a No event in Brisbane on the same day as Pearson’s address.

“We are about real solutions, accountability, all the billions of dollars that got spent, we want outcomes,” said Mundine, a member of the Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yuin people and leader of the Recognise a Better Way campaign group.

The Voice was conceived to get better outcomes for the most disadvantaged Indigenous Australians among 800,000 people – or about 3.8% of Australia’s total population of 26 million.

Of 19 targets aimed to “Close the Gap” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, some statistics are worsening, including the standard of development for children when they start school, the number of children in out-of-home care, and the rates of adult imprisonment and suicide.

Albanese said if the referendum failed he would respect the democratic vote of the nation and wouldn’t legislate a Voice to Parliament.

“I don’t believe that it would be appropriate to then go and say, ‘oh, well, you’ve had your say, but we’re going to legislate anyway,’” he told the told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Insiders program on Sunday.

And there would be no change in the constitution or policy governing Indigenous affairs.

Mundine told his audience in late September that the No campaign would be seeking better outcomes through greater economic participation and accountability.

“When we get up in the morning on the 15th of October, after we’ve defeated this Voice, we’re going to make those people accountable,” Mundine said.

“We’re going to make those kids get to school. We’re going to make people get into jobs and run businesses and invest in their communities. And we’re going make their communities safe … and make sure those family and community values are back there,” he said, without explaining how that would be done.

“No more virtue signaling. No more dividing us,” he continued. “We’re all going to put our shoulder to the wheel and we’re going to make all these politicians and all these people do the job and make sure they spend our money properly.”