What the Voice means for Australia’s reputation

Aug 18, 2023
The Australian and Australian Aboriginal flags fly at Bondi Icebergs Club, Bondi Beach, Sydney. This image was taken from the coastal walkway at sunset on a cold, sunny winter day on 17 June 2023.

The outcome of the Voice referendum will affect Australia’s reputation – a fact voters should consider, writes John McCarthy.

Sometime towards the end of the year, we will vote on a referendum about whether to change our Constitution to establish an independent Indigenous voice to our parliament and government on matters which affect the lives of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders.

When casting our vote, most of us will think in domestic terms. Few will think of the external ramifications of the vote. We should. The result will affect our reputation.

Australians understand personal reputation. It goes to the heart of an individual’s standing in a family, workplace or community.

We focus less on national reputation.

If asked, most of us would prefer that our country enjoyed the respect of others. But many would not think about it, or, if they did, wouldn’t much care.

There are two questions. If we vote No, would we suffer national reputational damage?

And if the answer is that we would suffer such damage, so what?

As to the first question, make no mistake: our national reputation would indeed be bruised by a No vote. And that vote would be seen as inspired by issues of race.

This will be tough to accept. We have strict laws on racial discrimination. White Australia is gone. We have become a generally harmonious multicultural country.

Against this background, the argument will go: how dare others put us in the dock? The Americans and many of the Europeans have divisive race issues. In our own region, discriminatory practices based on race, religion or caste are widespread.

The trouble is that the world is not fair – a verity with which Indigenous Australians are entirely familiar.

Australia is judged on race more harshly than most countries partly because we are still seen in our region as part of the erstwhile white colonial West.

And while White Australia went long ago, it is remembered in our surrounds, including in the vulnerable nations of the South Pacific.

These recollections of Australia provide a fertile bed for a recrudescence of regional concerns about matters of race in Australia.

It was partly because of the long-held perceptions of White Australia that the Apology in 2008 received such positive international acclaim. Australia had changed!

But just as the Apology drew praise, a No vote on the Voice will engender disappointment. The refrain will run that, after all, Australia is the same old place.

If we vote No, those beyond our shores will see the result not against the background of the complexity of the issue, nor of the Government failing to make its case, nor of the chicanery of many opposed of the Voice.

Rather they will see the result in terms of a predominantly white country denying an underprivileged Indigenous minority the opportunity – which over 80 percent of that minority wants – to have a greater say in the national affairs which affect it. An oversimplification maybe. But that is how we will be judged.

Well then, so what?

A No vote will not much impact our international interests as we normally think of them – mainly in terms of our security and our prosperity. Just as we in Australia are hardnosed when making decisions on guns and butter, so too are those with whom we deal.

But the way in which our nation is regarded – again that word reputation – will affect us.

Countries with good governance enjoy more trust than those whose administrative and judicial systems are unreliable. Trust is a solder in international relations.

It follows that nations with internal divisions are generally seen as less reliable partners and as less formidable adversaries than those without significant social and economic fissures. Self-evidently, a No vote risks widening the gap between our Indigenous population and much of the rest of Australia. Less clearly, it could widen divides between the older, more traditional, Australia and coming generations.

And if Australians are to aspire to a revival of the fading liberal international order of yesteryear, we must adhere to the main tenets of that order. If we vote No on the Voice, however skilfully we explain that result, we will be seen as a country whose advocacy of international decency is freely laced with hypocrisy.

Reputation counts.


First published in Asialink August 16, 2023

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