The Voice debate is about more than who wins: this is a battle for fundamental values

Aug 10, 2023
Core values diagram with magnifying glass and conceptual words on blackboard.

We need to return to respectful dialogue. We are facing a critical test of Australian democracy and the resilience of the peaceful infrastructure of the public sphere and civil society.

There is more at stake in the current Voice debate than simply which side will prevail. What is at issue also is our capacity as a society to address difficult and contested issues.

A fog of words is settling over us, pumped out by different smoke machines. The different machine-operators seem to be more concerned about their voter-share and media-time than what is at issue. If the nature of the debate continues unchanged we face a further dissolution of that fragile thing we call the ‘public sphere’. The existence of a public sphere conducive to meaningful dialogue is central to the process of democracy. Without it, casting a vote becomes an empty procedure and democracy loses all content.

On the face of it, the Voice proposal seems straightforward. Australia is holding a national vote to decide whether there should be a First Nations body to provide advice to the Australian parliament and executive about issues relating to the welfare of First Nations people. Voters will individually consider the arguments for and against and come to their decisions. The problem is that the debate about what ought to be a simple question has not proceeded in a straightforward way. Instead, it has become so contaminated by multiple agendas that doubts have been raised about whether meaningful and productive debate is even possible at all.

This is important for several reasons. First, if we are unable to conduct a debate about the Voice in a setting of relative social trust, it is unlikely that whatever result transpires will command lasting acceptance. Second, there are many other, more difficult, questions about the ethical foundations of Australian society that need to be addressed. If we cannot meaningfully talk about the virtues and limitations of a Voice there would seem to be little likelihood of making progress with this wider range of issues — from gendered identity or artificial intelligence to questions about energy futures, foreign wars, or signing on to a nuclear-based military capacity. Third, more broadly, if attempts to address such issues are so vulnerable to the operation of sectional interests it may not be an exaggeration to wonder if long-term social cohesion can remain secure.

The consequences of a breakdown in social trust can be seen starkly elsewhere in the recent riots in Paris or the attack on the Capitol in Washington. In other words, the contest that has developed about the Voice is not a simple struggle for influence and power among political parties and social elites. It is a battle that has consequences for the strength and durability of the Australian public sphere and our collective ability to negotiate and abide cultural and ethical differences within it.

Of course, the public sphere is itself a highly contested space within which contending interests abound from different constituencies of state and civil society. As a network of associations separate from the state, comprising different communities, cultural and religious groups, business, trade unions, the media and other organisations, civil society is inevitably a site for intense differences about values, attitudes, beliefs and cultural perspectives. These are often vividly displayed in the rich cacophony of voices that arise in relation to questions of both local and national significance.

Allowing and resolving the presence of multiple conflicting viewpoints has posed a fundamental challenge for all versions of democratic theory and practice. While there is general agreement about the value of open, respectful dialogue, there are differing views about whether the key criteria should rest on rational argument and rigorous reasoning, or acknowledgement of different, maybe even irreconcilable, worldviews, value positions and styles of discourse. It is also recognised that the conversations that together form the vigorous ferment of the public sphere can be easily distorted or compromised. Particular voices can be excluded—for example, traditionally, those of women and people of colour. Governments can seek to silence proponents of unwelcome viewpoints: the persecution of Julian Assange and Witness K are good examples of this. Access to information can be controlled through the familiar mechanisms of embedded journalism and directives from media oligarchs.

These problems have multiplied as society has become increasingly diverse and the axes of difference have expanded to incorporate new ethical viewpoints, gender perspectives, and cultural traditions. The development of social media, largely unregulated and unaccountable, has unleashed access to innumerable claims and theories that are unverifiable and of uncertain provenance. The advent of Trump-style politics has severed altogether the link between factual claims and established standards of truth.

Against this background of risks and threats, the public sphere has survived as the site for a play of contending discourses, subject to a number of informally stated, and incompletely observed, rules. Most importantly, there has in Australia been an acceptance that, however vigorous the disagreement, discussions should be conducted non-violently and in a respectful manner. Debates, it is generally agreed, should be free from internal and external coercion. No-one should be excluded, and everyone should have an opportunity to participate. Anyone should be able to introduce topics for discussion, make contributions, reflect and criticise. In the midst of the tumult, there should be a shared sense of solidarity and a common commitment to the well-being of others and to the community at large.

This equilibrium has at best always been a fragile one. However, arguably, in Australia it is now being put definitively at risk by the manner in which the Voice debate is evolving. This disturbing state of affairs is perhaps unexpected: after all, the conversation started in a promising way as an acceptance of the invitation posed by the Uluru Statement from the Heart to bring the entire Australian community together in a healing process to forge a new path in its post-colonial history that acknowledges past wrongs and uncovers new, mutually agreed solutions.

It was recognised from the beginning that there would be areas of agreement and disagreement. Areas of agreement included the relative disadvantage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations and the injustices to which they have been subjected, the questionable legal foundation of colonial settlement, and the need for some kind of reconciliation. Areas of disagreement included questions about the extent to which a constitution should identify particular cultural groups and whether a “Voice” could validly represent a diverse array of cultural and linguistic groups. There was uncertainty about how the play between high-level public policy proposals and the complex challenges of implementing them at local levels would be managed. And among some radical groups of Aboriginal people there was understandable apprehension about a broad legal formulation that lacked substantive guarantees and the fear that it would result in yet another round of dashed hopes and broken promises.

These questions should have been able to be articulated openly and in good faith, with honest scrutiny of the facts and arguments by all sides, allowing voters to reflect on the different viewpoints and come to their decisions. However, that is not how the debate has progressed. Instead of respectful dialogue premised on the need to address foundational problems facing Australian society it has exacerbated divisions and re-opened old wounds. Instead of creating a novel sense of common purpose it has generated mistrust and cynicism. Instead of dispassionate analysis in a setting of secure, shared values it has produced personal vituperation, recriminations, an explosion of racism and a hardening of entrenched ideological positions. Instead of an opening of minds and a new generosity of spirit it has unleashed a torrent of pusillanimity.

The reasons for this will be debated for a long time. We will need to make sense of this fracturing and to explain the readiness to make exaggerated, unfounded or false claims. We may point to a transformation of the nature of knowledge, expressed alternatively in the post-truth partisanship of contemporary politics and the black-box narrowing of claims to intellectual authority. Or we might point to the long crisis of legitimation that has confronted states and public institutions across the world. But these are big and unwieldy explanations. We need to get down to the detail of our own politics in Australia when we seek a fuller understanding.

Claims that Australia Day will be abolished, that the Voice will become a third chamber of parliament, that the courts will be overwhelmed, that Australia will be re-racialised—although known by all sides to be unfounded—have made their mark. Divisions in all communities—Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal—have played a part. The calculated machinations of political actors, focused on securing local advantages for themselves regardless of the costs, have also been important. However, what has been most decisive has been a failure of both sides to engage with each other, with trust, respect and maturity.

There is a poignant irony here. The Voice proposal was always primarily not about large-scale practical innovation but about symbolism. After all, the proposed advisory body is to have no actual decision-making authority and its details will remain subject to the predilections of whatever government is in power. But if this fails it is possible that another symbolism may well carry the day. The apparent inability of the nation to be able to conduct a mature reasoned, respectful debate about an issue central to its collective identity will likely inflict lasting damage on the body politic. It will further erode confidence in public institutions and undermine the viability of social policies.

This is not an extreme prediction. We have already had a taste of what is at stake. On the one hand, the questioning of health policy during the COVID emergency stirred up by fringe groups in some states quickly degenerated to threats of violence or in some cases actual violence. On the other hand, the state showed itself capable of supercharging surveillance and curtailing movement as its key policy initiatives. Overseas, many European countries are facing significant challenges posed by violent demonstrations in support of both traditional right and left-wing causes. The daily descriptions of the large-scale collapse of law and order, mass shootings, and catastrophic social division in the United States are all too familiar.

It would be reckless to discount the dangers in Australia of a progressive erosion of public trust in the ability to engage in constructive reflection about fundamental issues defining our identities and common values and purposes. But it is perhaps not too late to change course. It remains possible for respect for differing views to be restored, for genuine talking and listening, and for trust in the veracity of factual claims to re-established.

Some immediate steps are possible. It is important that the debate about the Voice is depoliticised, with politicians from all sides stepping back from their smoke machines. The voices of ordinary people, including especially, ordinary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, should be restored. Strict criteria should be observed regarding fact-checking and the avoidance of exaggerated, intemperate claims calculated to provoke discord.

The authors of this article have themselves taken the trouble to create what we consider a fair summary of the issues and a compendium of key resources that avoid ideological distortions and political partisanship. It is available free of charge to all Australians to assist them to make up their minds about how to vote. Interested people are invited to visit Voice to Parliament info and download the pdf, read the text or search it using a ChatGPT-powered search facility.

We are facing a critical test of Australian democracy and the resilience of the peaceful infrastructure of the public sphere and civil society. If we are to cohere as a polity, we must find a way to allow the multiplicity of perspectives to flourish while supporting a stable consensus about process. Dialogue in this sense is not a mere bland slogan: it is the motor of a healthy and active public sphere.

“The Voice, A question to the people: Questions and answers about the proposed First Nations Voice to Parliament”, can be accessed here.


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