Voice vote may demand blood in the water

Jan 31, 2023
Uluru Statement from the Heart, May 2017, Aboriginal Convention, Central Australia

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the referendum on the Voice will be won not as a virtually unanimous offering to First Nations Australians but narrowly in an ugly, bitter and divisive brawl between older and younger Australians. Even a win will have the capacity to leave divisions in the nation, and in political parties that will endure for many years.

It’s not an outcome anyone should want. The arguments might have been largely among non-Aboriginal Australians, but those most likely to receive lasting wounds and slurs during the debate are likely to be Indigenous Australians. The very debate could provide a licence for false, racist and discriminatory assertions and generalisations. Some of it will be calculated to go beyond claims that a yes vote in the referendum would put Indigenous Australians in a privileged place compared with other Australians. It might suggest that Indigenous Australians should have to fight even for their present place under the table, grateful for any crumbs let fall upon the floor.

Some of the warriors for a no vote will claim that a defeat for the proposition should undermine the present consensus – such as it is – to lift Indigenous Australians from their present disadvantage. They will use a no result to question the rationale for all existing policies or programs – especially any designed to work collectively for Aboriginal families and communities rather than for individual self-help. Indeed, it may lead to attempts to wind back existing laws including collective Aboriginal title of land and environmental legislation.

If the polls continue to suggest that the yes vote will triumph, if by a narrowing margin, Labor strategists could push the idea for its pure politics. They will calculate that if the coalition fails to wholeheartedly support the referendum it will paint itself as reactionary and racist for a long time to come. That will cause considerable division inside both the Liberal and the National Party, because there is a contest going on inside each between the more liberal and progressive views of most of their younger members, and the more conservative views of many of their older members. Older members are a declining proportion of the membership and the support base of each party, even as they appear to have the numbers in party governing councils.

Albanese should not shy from making the argument bitter and divisive, if only because there is no bottom to the tactics opponents will use.

This debate also puts in focus the argument about whether ultimate coalition success depends on becoming more conservative, or more umbrella parties with room for representatives of moderate liberal opinion. The rights of First Nations Australians, like the rights of gays, same sex marriage and abortion have been, historically, one of the issues that has tended to divide coalition moderates from conservatives. Albanese might reason, in short, that hostility to a yes vote from conservative Liberals and Nationals will not only make the party seem less attractive to the electorate but widen the chasm between party moderates and conservatives caused by the success of the teals. General opinion polls, not focused on the Voice, suggest that the Labor government is far more in tune with public opinion, and far more generally moderate and liberal, than the approach of leading coalition spokespeople, from Peter Dutton and David Littleproud down.

Labor strategists might just reason that a no-holds-barred boots and all approach has far more potential to do serious damage to the coalition than it does to Labor, even at some risk to the outcome. Voters whose support might be wavering might even be persuaded to vote yes if the government shows itself willing to push the matter to the brink. Many are aware how Australia’s reputation has suffered in recent years from perceptions that we have been hostile to refugees, a laggard on human rights, and a recalcitrant on the environment. The country’s previous administration fell victim to Trumpism, the influence of reactionary American religious cults, and addiction to secrecy, poor public financial processes and indifference to open and accountable administration. The advent of Labor might be shifting some of these perceptions, but a national vote against Aboriginal aspirations would be very damaging to Australia’s international image.
Within Labor some would argue that it could only fall in public perception if it lost enthusiasm as opinion polls suggested a tighter result than expected, simply because the opposition was playing it rough. Labor has enough internal critics questioning whether it has the spine for tough fights or fights on principle. The referendum is a top election commitment. Failure for Labor could mirror the serious loss of internal support suffered by then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, when he was panicked by polls and retreated from his climate-change policies. He was replaced within four months.

It is not just Labor which has to consider what will happen locally and internationally, and in the political, social and economic aspects of government if the referendum is defeated. At first instance, the Opposition might feel exultant because of a win against Labor and vindicated for taking a hard-line oppositional stance. Down the track, the coalition will have to deal with constituencies and lobbies bitterly disappointed by popular and Aboriginal reaction to the defeat, and sullen and indifferent to calls to “move on.” The result could only reinforce the perception of Dutton as hostile to Aboriginal aspirations and test his apparent belief that problems of Aboriginal community dysfunction are best addressed by more firm policing, firmer penalties and a reward-and-punishment approach. Yet as the NT Police Commissioner has remarked in relation to long-predicted community tensions in Alice Springs, police cannot jail their way out of problems.

It’s not a debate for reason alone. It involves emotion and an appeal to our better instincts, if at no sacrifice to our interests.

At this relatively early stage of the campaign Labor appears to have lost the more detail argument, mostly by not having well-prepared lines to address the easily predictable questions. Albanese has appeared wooden, as has Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. Linda Burney and Pat Dodson have been somewhat more effective, if with less artillery. If Labor is fair dinkum, it ought to be treating the referendum as it would an election campaign, with all the best brains, and rehearsed lines, of its best advisers, strategists and tacticians. It is beyond Albanese’s capacity to improvise on the spot; and he is not demonstrating the relatively calm and confident approach he is using with most other problems of government. The campaign also needs far stronger attack lines, designed to bring its opponents into the open. It needs a strategy of undermining the opposition’s campaigning use of Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine, damaging but vulnerable campaigners many are reluctant to fight head on simply because they are Aboriginal. Some of the players, particularly Aboriginal advocates for the Voice are going to have to shed that reluctance, even as they resist accusation of being bullies.

At the beginning of the campaign, polls suggested considerable public support. Most Australians have a generally benign goodwill for Aboriginal Australians, and, generally, they do not see their interests as being in collision with any of theirs. A Voice capable of addressing issues of miscommunication and poor consultation, as well as past and present matters of history, disadvantage and shocking mistreatment and discrimination was not seen as representing any sort of unbridgeable challenge to the ordinary Australian imagination. More so because there has been evidence for years that younger Australians – just the people said to be moving, permanently towards Labor, are desperate for some sort of historic and symbolic act of reconciliation between white Australians and the people displaced by white settlement. They are sick of the combativeness, hostility and denial of an older generation of politicians, some of whom seem to think that any concession to their fellow citizens will be perceived as weakness.

It seems that the opposition’s response, which began with the Nationals deciding to oppose the referendum altogether began to create unease among some of those who were complacently thinking of how they could do a good thing without paying any sort of financial, social or political price. What was used to create anxiety was the idea that the benefit that Indigenous Australians stood to gain – recognition in the constitution and a right to be consulted by parliament about legislation – involved taking away something from non-Aboriginal Australians. It would, it was said, though without anything in the way of proof, create two separate classes of Australian citizen, one better off than the other. It could be a platform from which this newly enfranchised class could blackmail the rest of the nation for benefits or legislation or further special rights. There were insinuations that the architects of the scheme had a blueprint of detailed small print that demonstrated that a yes vote was a practical threat to how Australia could be governed. Most of this is, of course, nonsense, as many Liberals and Dutton well understand. But the very raising, and the very phrasing, of such doubts and objections in the wider community has persuaded some that the safe and sensible course is to preserve the status quo. To vote no.

Most Australians not yet sure of how to vote retain a generally benign view of Aboriginals and Aboriginal policy, and goodwill and a sense of shared citizenship. They recognise that the gap between their material, social and spiritual welfare and that of most other Australians is a continuing product of colonisation. They understand that closing the gap involves ongoing national investment in addressing systemic disadvantage in health, education, access to services and job training. They understand that Aboriginals, with or without a formal Voice, should be consulted about their future.

The no pitch suggested that the Voice would be a wrong turn. Wrong for Aboriginals. But wrong for Australians generally because it might imperil equality before the law. (To which any number of judges have responded “Rubbish.”) Like all successful political pitches, it involves both reason and appeal to the heart and the emotions. The chief problem for the yes side is that it is trying to oppose the argument with logic and reason alone. They are being all too ineffective in arguing the feel-good factor, the positive benefits to Aboriginal-white relations from an act of reconciliation and closure of hostilities. On offer from the Voice and the Statement from the Heart is the offer of beginning a new chapter in Australian race relations, and a new and more positive partnership in addressing problems of entrenched disadvantage. It marks a new era of respecting the status of First Nations Australians.

There are some who assume that the referendum will be like ordinary referendums, notoriously difficult in Australia. On these, experience suggests that even the opposition of one organised political group – as in 1967 from the Democratic Labour Party against a proposal to cut the nexus between numbers in the senate and the house of Representatives – will cause a proposal to fail. But the general expectation is that the 2023 proposal will be treated rather more like the same-sex marriage plebiscite, and that all that Labor will need is a lead over the no vote in four of the states. A lead at the time of the vote, obviously. That the yes vote appears to be slipping underlines the need for a revived and better led campaign.

The real opponent is the well-funded Institute of Public Affairs, acting in the interests of big media, big mining and big business

Labor must also deal, head on, with the real opponents. There are groups whose dedication to a no vote goes far beyond any dispute about appropriateness, timing or general goodwill to fellow citizens. These are people – many of whom are closely associated with the Institute of Public Affairs – infected with an Americanised libertarian view of the world. It is fundamentally hostile to any notion that Indigenous Australians, as a group, are disadvantaged, or that the gap can be addressed by community level action – apparently a despicable form of socialism. The only groups the IPA thinks should be treated collectively and in a beneficial way are media companies, hydrocarbon and mining interests, and wealthy taxpayers, who are paying too much. This lobby has ample access to funds, particularly from mining companies. It, and fraternal lobbies refuses to disclose details of their fundraising, but one particularly generous donor is Gina Rinehart, and another is Rupert Murdoch.

Liberal leaders flock to their meetings, and a surprising number of existing coalition MPs have been groomed and trained by the IPA, which also offers considerable help in promoting political careers, including at preselections. It runs training programs – again on American designs, for a surprising number of conservative activists. Some are said to be with techniques like those of the Movement in the 1940s and 1950s, techniques in which Greg Sheridan and Tony Abbott were schooled in the last days of the remnant movement in the 1970s. Most of the key players in the no campaign, including Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine, have close associations with the IPA. I do not suggest that either of these intelligent and earnest people are merely mouthing scripts written by others. But the phrases and the concepts they employ are virtually identical to those adopted by the IPA. And by some of its leaders, including people such as Janet Albrechtsen, who have privileged pulpits from which they can write regular columns claiming they are being silenced, “cancelled” and “deplatformed” by the “woke.”

The IPA and some of its sponsors have both a philosophical and a financial stake in the outcome of the referendum, though not one which would command much support if their agenda were out in the open. In politics, particularly in conservative politics, a “no” vote could be parlayed into arguments about winding back legislation and legal rights won by Indigenous Australians over the past 50 years, including over land, mining royalties, heritage and environmental legislation, laws about the powers of community organisations, and issues of compensation, restoration and respect for traditions, culture and employment obligations. There are some mining companies with active notions of corporate citizenship, employment opportunities and partnership in community development. Some of this owes more to making the best of obligations that exist anyway. But some miners, and some of their lobbies, have long histories of resisting any benefits or rights going to Aboriginal interests, of ignoring or overriding heritage legislation, and engaging in active attempts to undermine Aboriginal political organisations, particularly by splitting off discontented factions. Beating the referendum on the ostensible ground of stopping Indigenous Australians having rights that other Australians do not have is a useful platform to re-open campaigns against land rights or native title.

If No wins, referendum opponents will say Australians have voted against beneficial legislation for First Nations peoples.

Beyond serving the immediate interests of miners, it is also the opportunity to further fight culture wars against the “woke” and the “enlightened.” These are people who, as Florida governor Ron de Santis put it, subscribe to the theory that there is something imperfect about the United States of America (or Australia) which modern citizens should want to change.

For the IPA, the history of settlement and dispossession, however lamentable, forms no part of the referendum proposition on the table. For them, the present disadvantage of Indigenous Australians, again however lamentable, owes more to the way that Indigenous Australians have allowed themselves to become pauperised and impoverished by welfare systems, and encouraged to think of themselves as helpless victims rather than actors in their own personal advancement. They want to persuade people that rights and assistance should be stripped away, arguing, that “woke” policies and government interventions, however well intentioned, have not improved their situation and generally have made it worse. For them, only policies based on personal responsibility, providing individual rather than collective rights and rewards for work, will create the wealth, human, social and economic capital, and incentives to lift people from their misery. The inequality, and material and spiritual poverty of the US is a testament to the truth of their gospel.

Depriving the IPA and their sponsors of their special privileges and advantages, and their access to the power they enjoy should be one of the more compelling reasons for voting yes.

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