Mothball politics

In the final days there is God. In New South Wales and Queensland, Facebook ads are targeting older voters, warning that the Voice is a threat to Christianity. Lyle Shelton claims it will “embed Indigenous spirituality into the constitution”.

With his usual, confected unease, he says: “Christians for Equality has been launched to promote reconciliation and recognition and to prevent Australia’s constitution from being used as a lever for anti-Christian ideology.”

Shelton is a camphorous little man, a mothball in the drawer of Australian culture. He has been on the losing side of most debates in the past decade. It is sad to see him among the likely winners.

Shelton’s intervention is a reminder of how closely the “No” case has followed the ridges of colonisation. The arguments are all assimilationist. They refuse to accept any special connection to the land. They ignore the realities of dispossession. Now they track back to old panics over faith, to the sun-blasted, child-snatching parishes where religion was used to obliterate culture.

As it is for the “Yes” case, the “No” case is about unfinished business. Not in a positive way. Not as a chance to heal any part of the past. Simply as an opportunity to undo the stitches of reconciliation.

The cranks of the history wars have returned with their hospital gowns on backwards. They are using the referendum to re-prosecute the truth about white settlement. The country was taken on a lie and the people who took it never stopped lying.

Two months ago, Noel Pearson asked: “how does the elephant sit down with the mouse?” This is the real question of the referendum. Put another way: how does Australia come to a new relationship between First Peoples and settlers? How can the past be reckoned with and a new future be made possible?

In the same interview, Pearson was asked what picture formed in his head when he imagined a “No” result this weekend. Like other campaigners, he said he couldn’t contemplate it. “My answer is … What do you say? What do you think is going to happen if the outstretched hand of Uluru is refused?” He continued: “The fact is a ‘No’ result will not be costless. It will have a huge cost attached to it.”

That cost becomes clearer and clearer. It will not be just the repudiation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It will not be just the rejection of First Nations people, of their right to be recognised in the Constitution and to advise on the laws that affect them.

It will be a dull march back into history, a return to the denialism and silence that has defined white Australia. Honesty will be torn from the trees. Any notion of shared understanding will be shredded.

For all the misinformation and deceit, all the lies of the campaign, we will be left with one ugly truth: given the chance, Australia would still sooner destroy Indigenous people than listen to them as equals. The central impulses of colonisation are all still there, brutal and unrepentant.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "Mothball politics".

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