Remember Brexit? Australians will regret voting No on the Indigenous Voice

Sep 21, 2023
The Australian and Australian Aboriginal flags.

Australians have been able to witness the voter remorse that can arise when a nation votes on a specific question of policy in a referendum that has the potential to set their country on a new course. Referendum questions with that level of significance don’t come along very often for democratic nations but when they do the cost of getting them wrong can be far bigger than we might expect.

Notoriously, a momentous question was put to British voters in 2016 which resulted in 52% opting for the country to leave the European Union, making the UK the first nation ever to do so. But eight years later after having had a taste of the consequences, 57% of Britons reported that Brexit was a mistake, almost double the 32% who still thought it was the correct decision. Some polls showed as much as 63% rejection of Brexit. The trend in all polls shows clearly that voter remorse has been growing steadily on this in Britain as, at least according to some protesters, “the wheels have fallen off the Brexit bus of lies.”

Regardless of whether the pro-Brexit campaign was based on lies, it is easy to see that Britons voted in favour of Brexit in response to sharply styled propaganda which preyed on fears that they were getting the raw end of the deal for their membership of the EU and feelings of resentment about immigration, supposed “loss of sovereignty” in decision making, and loss of standing as a great imperial world power. By inciting Britons to blame others for these losses, it stoked and then preyed on racist resentment. But as the results now show, succumbing to feelings of resentment between races did not restore the UK’s economy or greatness. What ensued was net loss.

This might give Australians pause as we approach the need to vote on an Indigenous Voice in the Constitution. In our case, the vote is not about whether we should step away from a union in order to gain back our sovereignty, prestige and economic strength. It is not about breaking a union. It’s about forming one. It’s about whether we should recognise First Nations people in the union we call a Commonwealth. If our answer is Yes, this will open the door to their inclusion in the Australian Federation as individuals and peoples with nothing more than the same rights to a voice in our democracy that the rest of us take for granted. Put simply, it will open the door at last to their acknowledgement as political equals in their own country.

However, despite the fact that Australians pride themselves as supportive of the fair go for all, many Australians will still baulk at acknowledging First Nations people as political equals. And their fears are being stoked at present by campaigns based on lies about how the Voice will give something to First Nations that will allow them somehow to overpower the political influence of 97% of the country’s population and the influence of the corporate backers and lobbyists of the major political parties. It’s preposterous, of course. The machine of democracy simply doesn’t and can’t work that way. Nevertheless, the No campaign is pumping hard with messages implying that, somehow, non-Indigenous Australians will be opening themselves to unfair treatment – that they have something to lose, relative to Indigenes, by voting Yes.

This is perfectly poised to distract voters from asking themselves the question that Brexit supporters failed to ask. Rather than just telling themselves there was much to lose by staying in the EU, they should have also asked themselves what they would be likely to lose by breaking that union? And Australians should be asking themselves what we likewise might lose by refusing to form one? What have we got to lose by voting No?

The minute we ask that question, out come the obvious answers. Chief among them is that if we say No to an Indigenous Voice in the Constitution, we can hardly argue that it’s fair for non-Indigenous Australians to have a voice in their polity. We may well remove the possibility of a right for everyone to make representations on decisions that affect them. If it’s not fair for First Nations people to have that right, then it’s not fair for the rest of us either. And at a point in the development of democracy where, as a machine, it works more to exclude the voices of all but those who can buy governments (such as corporations and their lobbyists with their parliament house passes), that’s a really dangerous precedent to create. In this regard, a No vote means we all lose. We create a basis that potentially could exclude us all from the agency we need in democracy.

But that is not the end of the loss. Just as the Brexit vote did for Britain, the impact of a No vote on the Voice will extend to losses in Australia’s bargaining power globally in building trade agreements necessary for a sustainable domestic economy. Our stocks of soft power and influence will be diminished, if only because the world will perceive that we have rejected the equality of people of a certain race. This will signal to other countries, particularly those of the global south, that Australia is not a party that can be trusted as a trading partner. If we do not respect the equal rights of our own citizens, how can we be relied upon to respect theirs in any agreement we might seek with them?

Then there is the risk we take by declaring ourselves a nation prepared to continue making decisions based on race rather than harmonised relationships with all peoples. And since we live in a region of the world that is not predominantly white, that will push Australia into an isolated enclave with less capacity to form good relationships with neighbours and therefore less capacity to prevent military conflict. In any detached and pragmatic assessment of whether possible gains from a No vote will outweigh the losses, locking ourselves into the position of an isolated outpost or pariah should give us all pause.

When it all boils down, there is really only one thing Australians are being asked in this referendum. Do we want to form a democratic union of equals? In answering this it must be understood that the current Constitution does not acknowledge the right of First Nations to a voice in decisions that affect them. It doesn’t recognise them at all. As such it cannot provide for a union, let alone one of equals. Nor could a merely symbolic recognition – that is, one without a guaranteed Voice – create political equality in the democracy. A No vote now will mean the loss of the possibility of such a union for a very long time.

That loss may not be a problem for some. But in consideration of the aggregate of all these losses it may be easier to attend to the lessons of the Brexit vote and the “Bregret” that has now settled on the UK. That scale of regret needn’t happen here if Australians vote to begin the task of forming a union of equals, recognising that with a No vote there is much to lose and really nothing to be gained.

After all, what does anyone gain with a No vote other than a sense that Indigenous persons should not have the right to a voice because there is a fear it may somehow, someday, be heard above all others, despite the remoteness of that possibility in a democracy? In all probability that sort of gain amounts to zero. Conversely what might we all gain from a Yes vote? Just for starters – the possibility of a union of equals, which is surely what we all came together for when we first formed the Commonwealth of Australia.

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