The Voice has been silenced, but now we must listen

Oct 17, 2023
Close-up on a brick wall with the flag of Australian Aboriginal painted on it. Image: iStock

As vanquished Australians, white and black, fell back in ruin, defeat and humiliation on Saturday, the most galling prospect they must face is that for many of the victorious, the Voice battle was but the first engagement in a longer war. They do not want to give their enemies time for regrouping, or even for trench-building by which they can defend what they have got. Now, they might think, is the time to preserve the momentum for fundamental change in indigenous affairs.

The first skirmish in the next battle will be over what, if anything, rejection of the Yes case means. For some it suggests a mandate for new, and very conservative, policies and programs in Indigenous affairs. It will be divined by referendum debate talk about the failure of existing systems, and by suggestions of waste and corruption – and the alleged need for a comprehensive audit. Undertones about great big bureaucracies suggest the need for smaller ones, or so it will be said. More fundamentally, the victors will insist that the electorate repudiated current policies and programs, current leaderships in almost every area of Indigenous affairs, and the need for new players, and new leaders. Including, of course, Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine.

And, some others will think, the result is a mandate for fundamental changes in other fields of politics too. Whether against woke notions, the nanny state, or “new” rights and freedoms Australians claim to have but which are seen to be against fundamental Christian morality, except when practised by Donald Trump. There are still some who think that rights to same-sex marriage can be taken away. In their dreams perhaps the right to abortion, and the right of the state to set minimal workplace standards preventing discrimination on religious or sexual morality moral grounds. And more mischief on the gender debate. It was not for nothing that leaders of Americanised Christian cults – who claim to represent all Christians– entered the Voice debate strongly on the side of No in the last days of the campaign.

Those who want to contest such versions of what the result means had better get involved fast. The right to say what the rejection meant will not easily be ceded to those who wanted a Yes vote. Those who wanted a No outcome will think they have won an important moral victory, and that they deserve the spoils.

The ongoing agenda of the No leadership

But for most of those who have led the No struggle and generally kept to a well-rehearsed script, the agenda is what they expect to be a revolution in Indigenous affairs. First, a complete changing of the national leadership in Aboriginal affairs, particularly those who led the Yes campaign. Even though they seem to have easily commanded majority support among First Nations people, it will be said their vision of Indigenous society, and their critique of Aboriginal disadvantage was rejected by most Australians and cannot work. By contrast, the voice of Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine seem to summarise the views of most Australians, more obviously since the polls show that support for the No case started well below 50 per cent and increased steadily through the campaign.

Beyond the cleanout of leaders is an agenda to completely change the policy framework. Price and Mundine have never denied significant Aboriginal disadvantage. But they have argued that the present top-down system creates and sustains a culture of victimhood that militates against real change. To put it in terms that some critics, including No advocates, have used over the years, Aborigines must get off their fat bums and take charge over their own lives. They must stop blaming everyone else for their situation and accept some responsibility for years of failed programs and poor results. Even more particularly, they must stop using “culture” and frustration, as some sort of excuse or permission for personal, family and community violence, abuse of drugs and alcohol, and for family and community dysfunction.

Welfare funding, it will be said, has served only to entrench pauperisation and dependence, and to reduce initiative, including the incentives to search for work, to save and to build capital. Likewise, land rights trusts have inhibited the capacity of Aboriginal families to buy their own land and build homes against which they can borrow. Or to set up businesses within their own communities. The Aboriginal welfare system should operate as a reward for responsible behaviour including looking after and supervising children, being sure that they are attending school, and that they are tucked in their beds at night. And, of course, it should not allow feckless and irresponsible Aboriginal citizens to squander their money on alcohol, tobacco and drugs, on gambling and, perhaps, promiscuity.

While no one – or very few – will mention the word “assimilation” directly, many of the “solutions” have an underlying idea of pushing Indigenous Australians to become like everyone else, particularly in the economic and employment marketplace. In much the same manner that the nation is all for Irish or Scottish dancing troupes, or Italian soccer and Polish national dress no one would want to stop First Nations people celebrating their dancing, art, or songlines, so long as they did not make too much song and dance about their “specialness”. It would even be unlawful to discriminate against them, provided that the laws did not embrace wokeness, restriction of freedom of speech, or the right to be, as George Brandis once put it, a bigot.

Those who have watched Aboriginal affairs over the years will recognise that many of the broad ideas in the solutions folder have had a rub before, not least in the Northern Territory Intervention 15 years ago. Ostensibly a response to allegations of a very high prevalence of child sexual assault and neglect in Aboriginal communities, it involved the use of the Army, the suspension of human rights legislation touching Indigenous Affairs, and the imposition of the Basic Service Card, unable to be used to buy cigarettes or alcohol, on everyone in affected communities. There was legislation against the importation of pornography, and extra police in communities (though without success in discovering, prosecuting or convicting the allegedly lurking paedophiles. Almost all professionals working locally in indigenous affairs were removed, apparently on the basis that they were tainted by their association with failed policies. A new order of staff and community management – implemented by folk able proudly to boast that they had no background and experience in the field – was established. Locally run and controlled Aboriginal organisations were deprived of funding, and their services were provided instead by non-Aboriginal contractors with useful links to powers that be in regional towns and cities. Consultation became a dirty word, because the minister and the Canberra and regionally based bureaucrats were not interested in listening.

Coercion policies based on instinct and convictions are a disaster

The policy was a complete disaster. It was piously claimed, by anecdote if not statistical evidence, that some women were delighted with the new policies because they reduced violence, and humbugging, moral coercion to get hold of welfare benefits. It was also said – at least until actual evidence flatly contradicted it, that children were now better nourished, and more likely to attend school. Jenny Macklin, under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, devoted her own taste for coercive controls and knowing better than the recipients what Indigenous people wanted and needed – so they remained in place right through the later Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison regimes. Only in recent time has there been renewed talk of consultation, and Indigenous people taking charge of policy and programs. The Voice did not itself describe the new mechanisms or say how Indigenous opinion and advice was going to be gathered at local, regional and national levels. But it stood as a powerful symbol for the Australian community’s admission that it got the point, and that a new era of close Indigenous involvement in the planning, design, implementation and review of Aboriginal programs was to begin.

There was never an evidence base for the coercive policies of the Intervention, or the duplication of aspects of it right around Australia. What was involved instead – and what is involved in the formulations of the family Price — was conviction politics. The conviction politics in play in Indigenous Australia do not have any sort of origin in Indigenous ideas or experience, but in the free market politics of bodies such as the Institute of Public Affairs, and the Centre for Independent Studies, which have employed and trained both Mundine and Price and helped them develop and rehearse the arguments, the slogans and the strategies for their campaign. They were by far better prepared than the Yes campaigners, even if the Yes team had leaders of far greater experience in Aboriginal politics, programs and policies. The Yes team included more extensive reputations in politics, academia, the law and the media.

The No campaign worked far more effectively, not least on emotions and the heart, than the cooler, but more impersonal logic of the Yes side. They were also more effective in shrugging aside contradictions in their arguments, and in playing to what research had informed them involved public anxiety about the state and the personalities of Aboriginal affairs.

Many of those appalled by the outcome will attack the winners for pandering to false or misleading fears about creating two categories of Australians, or of First Nations people getting rights and privileges that other Australians did not have. They were frustrated at how slippery some of the No advocates were, and at the incapacity of Yes advocates to have their explanations understood as “facts”. They are right to complain, but there is little to be gained by whingeing, since attacking the result is akin to saying that voters, or many of them, were fools, or perhaps racists or conspiracy theorists. In any event, neither side was short of resources, or platforms. If the No case was as dishonest as many commentators, including myself, claim, it should have been easier to refute and repudiate. Down the track, I expect, it will be recognised that many leading Yes advocates were vulnerable for their very distinction and status, and for their relative abstraction from everyday realities in Indigenous or the wider Australian society.

A No vote changes nothing

Constitutional recognition aside, Yes or No changes no rights, responsibilities or obligations, whether for First Nations people or the wider community. Yes would have specifically empowered some laws to be made by the parliament (law already possible anyway).

Anthony Albanese, in short, is not inhibited by the referendum result, or by some absence of power because of its failure, from beginning new programs and policies of greater involvement of First Nations people. He should be sensible about not spitting in the face of electors by carrying on with a Voice as if the proposal had won. But nothing that voters decided can or should stop him seeking to improve services, consultation and control over programs for Indigenous Australians, and in reorganising policies and services in accordance with what they say they want.

The victorious No advocates will have won no new power. They can say they prevented constitutional recognition, but that, ironically, is something most say they would not have minded. It was the Voice proposals that were most strongly opposed — they failed to win support, but no alternative was mandated or even put forward. No proponents are limited in what they can claim the referendum to have decided, and their interpretations will be sharply contested.

That will not stop them trying. Jacinta Price is shaping up as a new Pauline Hanson. She had very little Indigenous support – she is a senator only because of her success in attracting non-Indigenous voters in the NT, some of whom admire her for saying things about Aboriginal politics they would not dare say themselves. Noel Pearson cuttingly referred to the No campaigns using some Indigenous people to beat up on others. But the very fact of victory or triumph gives her a big platform to be able to claim to be representative of Aboriginal opinion, or as the new face of realism about policies and programs. Other Indigenous people will dispute this vigorously but among her admirers, it will matter little that she leads and speaks for no Aboriginal groups of substance.

It was not an election for a new government, whether for the Commonwealth generally or over Indigenous Australians. The Leader of the opposition, Peter Dutton, may have played the referendum as a partisan contest, seeking to focus on Labor’s general sins as well as its Indigenous proposals. In that sense both he, and his supporters may take some pleasure, and perhaps some encouragement for Dutton’s negativity politics. Yet the polls suggest that voters have clearly differentiated Labor’s general government from the referendum proposals. Even as the Yes vote fell and No increased, Labor remained well ahead of the coalition on questions of intended vote at the next general election, and preference for Albanese as a better leader than Dutton.

For Dutton, a victory, but a very limited and limiting one

Moreover, the outcome cannot be seen as a triumph for the coalition party organisation. While Dutton played a prominent role in the campaign, he did not lead it. It was led by Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine, both of whose leaderships may end up being a problem for Dutton himself. Some – by no means all – coalition MPs engaged in public debates, but only Dutton, of the parliamentary representatives, had much of a profile. Nothing that he did could be said to have been likely (or intended) to woo back moderate conservative opinion; indeed, most of the Teals campaigned hard for a Yes vote.

The campaign was not masterminded by the usual political strategists or advertising people. Grass-roots activists may have included coalition voters. But they were not conspicuously recruited from or by the party. Many people on the political fringe, consumed by conspiracy theories, anti-vaccination sentiments and fears of One World government, became involved. As Ron Boswell could tell Peter Dutton, these people, even more than Christian cultists infiltrating the party, have far more potential for long term political embarrassment than for contribution to winning. They tend to become cancerous growths, themselves the political issue.

Around the states and territories and even at national level, the Liberal Party is in disarray and disunity. It holds power, and then only tenuously in Tasmania, having lost it in all the states and territories. In many states, including Victoria and West Australia, representation is at rump status. That has not changed despite the referendum.

People sometimes described as “progressive No” voters helped muddy things. Their sabotage was principled: they thought the energy should be on sovereignty and treaty issues, and that the Yes campaign was too much led by people from the Indigenous middle class, rather than people from the grass roots. It is unlikely that their support for a Yes would have changed the outcome: they have little to bargain with for a seat at the next table. In some respects, their negativity served the general No case, because it allowed non-Indigenous voters leaning towards No to say that even Indigenous people were divided. Some will see parallels with the 1999 republic referendum where John Howard split republicans who wanted an elected rather than an appointed president, into supporting the status quo – the monarchy.

One could make a very good argument that there was never a more inconsequential Australian referendum, given that, as even the proponents insisted, it changed no legal relationships, created no new rights and gave no new responsibilities. Symbolically, however, it was possibly the most important ever, touching as it did on the relationship between the original inhabitants, with a sovereignty never formally ceded, with the displacing new settlers. It happens at a time of crisis in the relationship. For those who care, now is not the time to abandon the struggle for a new partnership and a new future. If without a Voice.

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