What the whole debate about an Indigenous Voice to Parliament demonstrated, with brutal clarity, is that Australia is a morally backward society.
In a history that has long been suppressed and denied, Australia’s First Peoples endured massacres, the raping of their women, the stealing of their children, the exploitation of their labour, and the dispossession of their lands. (Remember John’ Howard’s egregious contempt for what he speciously labelled “black armband history.”) The grim reality of the country’s racist history concealed many evil events that were commonplace, from the earliest days of white settlement to the twentieth century, and even today. Until the 1967 referendum the Constitution specifically forbade First Nation peoples from being counted in the census. They were to be regarded as constitutionally invisible.
Today the gap between Australia’s First Peoples and the rest of us is widening. Death rates, incarceration rates, school drop-out rates, domestic violence rates, crime rates, suicide rates and a host of other terrible statistics mount ever upwards, without any effective policy resolutions or political will to end of this evil state of affairs. Most Australians adopt a dully complacent response to all the negative evidence associated with the gap, shrugging it off as if it’s nothing to do with them. What they fail to understand is that their complacency makes them deeply complicit in a slow-burning ethnic cleansing.
During the debates (if we can call them that; they were mostly slanging matches) about the Yes and No cases for the Voice to Parliament referendum, the No side resorted to numerous lies, distortions of the truth, and misinformation. Their leaders insisted that we must be respectful of No voters. But how can anyone respect people who have chosen indifference over concern, hostility over love, exclusion over inclusion, cruelty over compassion?
Leaders of the No case like Peter Dutton, Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine preached a deeply reactionary form of politics for the duration of the campaign. Their adoption of the slogan: “If you don’t know, vote no” has to be one of the most ignorant, ethically despicable, and anti-democratic moments in the history of federal politics in Australia.
Dutton’s adoption of Trump-style political tactics was evident from the outset of his leadership of the Liberal Party. His grim espousal of those tactics has divided the country and hastened the wrecking of the Liberal party. It has also led to the well of good will in Australia’s political culture rapidly drying up. Dutton is a political version of El Niño, imposing a moral drought across the Australian continent. If his harmful influence is allowed to persist, the future of Australian politics is very bleak indeed.
However, Dutton is only a particularly nasty symptom of the destruction of the Liberal Party as a liberal-conservative, centrist party. That he was able to force his shadow cabinet members to toe his negative line throughout the referendum debate says it all. Most of the so-called moderates in the party, like Simon Birmingham, meekly did as they were told, dishonouring their party as few have dishonoured it before them. The very idea of a conscience vote, once a hallmark of Liberal politics in Australia, has been thrown out the window by Dutton, apparently “he who must be obeyed”.
Malcolm Turnbull was the last gasp of the Liberal party’s genuine liberal-conservative stance on the Australian political spectrum. However, even he was captive to the contrived rush of the party to the far right which is now dominated by a constellation of hard-line populists, wall-eyed ideologues, sundry carpet baggers, and religious fundamentalists.
Julian Leeser stood out as an honourable Liberal, resigning from the shadow cabinet and campaigning very effectively for the Yes case. It will be interesting to see how he is treated in the wake of the referendum result. Will he be welcomed back into the shadow cabinet? Will he want to go back? Or would he prefer to become an independent MP and sit on the crossbench with the Teal independents, most of whom hold political values dear to him?
On the Labor side, Anthony Albanese proved to be an uninspiring advocate for the Yes case. On election night in 2022, he passionately announced that the referendum was a first-order priority for his in-coming government. After he took office, the passion quickly faded away, leaving behind a quibbling and distracted prime minister. A small coterie of Labor MPs performed well for the Yes campaign. The Minister for Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney soldiered on with courage and conviction, despite poor health and obvious fatigue. But she received only tepid support from most of her Labor colleagues, many of whom were noticeably absent on the campaign trail, or weirdly mute.
Throughout the campaign, the independent MPs demonstrated how valuable they are in the present parliament. Zali Stegall, Helen Haines, Zoe Daniel, Allegra Spender, Monique Ryan, and David Pocock defied some very nasty attacks on them in social media, advocating the Yes case with courage, dignity and conviction. The hope is that not only will they all be returned in their electorates, but that their numbers will be significantly increased in the new parliament.
The leaders who absolutely stood out for the Yes side in the referendum were all Indigenous leaders. For example, Thomas Mayo was heroic in his efforts to win a Yes vote. His polite, patient and clear speeches were statesmanly and very persuasive. Noel Pearson’s speeches were often poetic and powerful. Marcia Langton endured some appallingly racist attacks but maintained a stoic and impressively persuasive argument for moving the whole country towards genuine reconciliation. The example of these wonderful people, along with other First Nations colleagues, has demonstrated how weak and woeful are the major political parties and their leaders.
What the whole debate about an Indigenous Voice to Parliament demonstrated, with brutal clarity, is that Australia is a morally backward society. The one glimmer of hope is a new generation of voters and potential leaders is coming. They will help the country to steer clear of the political morass of resentfulness, racism and inhumanity into which Dutton and his ilk would take the country.