The Voice and the problem of race

Jul 13, 2023
Hands,black and white.

Defeat for the Voice referendum will reverberate internationally. Surviving suspicions about our racist past will be refreshed. It will come at the same time as our renewed embrace of our ‘forever friends’ in Britain and the United States and our growing enthusiasm for closer ties with NATO.

Race is constantly referred to by both sides in the contentious debate about the Voice to Parliament. This is only to be expected. Australia has wrestled with the problem since the end of the Second World War. It became a matter of the highest priority for our foreign policy during the 1960’s. Two questions stood out—the White Australia Policy and the treatment of the Aborigines. It was a case of two settled and still widely supported policies which were increasingly out of time and serious liabilities as world opinion underwent rapid and dramatic change.

The global commitment to racial equality intensified with the foundation of the United Nations and the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Rapid decolonisation increased the momentum for change. Within a generation 96 erstwhile colonies gained their independence and by 1961 African and Asian countries had gained a majority in the U.N’s General Assembly. White settler states – Australia, United States, Canada and New Zealand – came under mounting pressure to reform their common legacy of racial discrimination. South Africa’s fate was a continuing warning. Deeply committed to Apartheid it was expelled from the U.N in 1974 and suffered from rapidly intensifying hostility.

Australia attempted to tough it out until the 1960’s using well-worn rhetoric. The Aborigines, it was traditionally argued, were unique stone-age people who needed to be protected from the modern world not incorporated within it. Policy adopted towards them was an internal domestic matter as were our immigration programmes. These arguments had served Australia well during the first half of the C20th but by the 1960’s they were totally discredited. Criticism rained down on Australia from many parts of the world. The Department of External Affairs, as it was at the time, collected critical editorials sent in, as requested, from their far flung ambassadors but, in reply, instructed them to avoid any public reaction. But it was clear that Australia had been left isolated as the currents of world opinion had swirled out of reach. The General Assembly passed a Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1963 the principles of which were embodied in the resulting Convention in 1965.

The Whitlam government reacted swiftly to meet the challenge. Immigration policy shed its racial bias, the provisions of the racial discrimination convention were embodied in legislation in 1975 and the Northern Territory Land Rights Act was introduced to parliament and eventually passed by the incoming Fraser government in 1976. After a period of failed attempts to push legislation further the High Court intervened with the radical decision in the Mabo judgement of 1992 to overturn the doctrine of terra nullius. It was a judgement that was widely studied and applauded overseas. Australia it was thought was in decisive retreated from its racist past.

The current debate about the Voice threatens to reverse that perception. At the heart of the controversy is the argument that it seeks to give powers and privileges to indigenous Australians not accorded to other minorities. It discriminates on the basis of race and is consequently divisive. The truly surprising feature of the debate is that there is virtually no reference to what by now is the settled global view about the distinctive rights of the world’s nearly 500 million indigenous people. These were embodied in the ILO Convention 169 of 1989. Then in 2007 the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People. One hundred and forty three countries were in favour and eleven abstained. Australia signed the document in 2009. As with so many international developments the Declaration has received very little publicity in Australia. But attention has stepped up recently. A year ago the Law Council of Australia called on the federal government to comprehensively adopt the Declaration ‘in order to protect the human rights of the First Nations People.’ It was the Council observed, the authoritative international standard informing the way governments across the globe should engage with and protect the rights of indigenous people. The Human Rights Commission has provided similar support. Foreign minister Penny Wong has placed indigenous rights high among the priorities of her innovative foreign policy. A recently appointed Indigenous Ambassador has been briefed on his role to give global support to the Declaration.

What is clear beyond reasonable doubt is that since, at least 1989, both global opinion and international law have upheld the view that the world’s indigenous people have a distinctive set of rights pertaining to them. Why then are the modest reforms embodied in the Voice so contentious? Are the proponents of the no case simply unaware of the widespread support for the principles contained in the 2007 Declaration? Or is it a consequence of a belief that Australia can ignore global opinion and international law and that they don’t apply to us? That, after all, was the way many Australians resisted the global campaign against racial discrimination in the 1960’s.

The absence of any reference to the international implications of the referendum campaign is surprising. No-one it seems has seen the intense debate as an opportunity to educate the electorate about the principles that Australian governments have committed us to. In a recent report to the U.N’s Economic and Social Council the government declared that Australia was, committed to ensuring that our ‘First Nations peoples are heard, respected and empowered’ and that ‘their voices have a say in the decisions that affect them.’

Defeat for the referendum will reverberate internationally. It may be as consequential as the Mabo judgement. Surviving suspicions about our racist past will be refreshed. And it comes at the same time as our renewed embrace of our ‘forever friends’ in Britain and the United States, our renewed allegiance to the English king and our growing enthusiasm for closer ties with NATO and an increasingly xenophobic Europe.

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