Comment

John Hewson
Coalition objections to the Voice

The appalling allegations of racist behaviour towards Indigenous players at the Hawthorn AFL club are a stark and disturbing reminder of the latent racism that unfortunately seems to underlie the attitudes of some Australians and many institutions right across our society. It’s never far under the surface, so it doesn’t take much of a scratch to that surface for it to emerge.

Racism was clearly exemplified by the emergence of Pauline Hanson and One Nation and the way the Coalition then sought to capitalise on her maiden speech, with then prime minister John Howard refusing to condemn her comments. He’s described Hanson as “articulating the concerns of people who felt left out”.

Hanson has also subsequently played the race card on issues such as Muslim immigration, and most recently with her attack on Senator Mehreen Faruqi. It was also evident in Scott Morrison’s theft of the preselection for Cook, having lost the ballot 82-8 to Michael Towke, a strong candidate. The Liberal Party organisation gave the seat to Morrison, ignoring the ballot, essentially on the grounds that they couldn’t have a Lebanese representative in the seat so soon after the Cronulla race riots.

Although it’s only early days, these racist attitudes are emerging in discussions of the proposed referendum on recognition of the First Australians in the constitution, and in particular the concept of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

A conspicuous example was a recent Andrew Bolt commentary on Sky News – a real low point, with Bolt attempting to scaremonger on the issue, ignoring the substance of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, simply claiming that it would be racially divisive.

 

I am hopeful that these prejudices are waning in our youth, who seem increasingly interested to know the truth of our history and have some difficulty understanding why the issue of reconciliation has been ignored and left to drift for such a long time.

In a small but instructive way, I was encouraged in this view recently by my youngest daughter’s (year 6) school project, in which the students were required to select a leader, domestic or global, and to research their legacy. Two out of a class of 14 selected an Australian Indigenous leader – namely, Charles Perkins and Cathy Freeman – and both delivered their research findings, by way of a speech and library display, with real knowledge, passion and enthusiasm. I doubt this would have happened even just a few years ago.

We know from a long history of failed referendum questions how easy it is to run the “No” case: to create uncertainty and concern about the detail, leading to the line that “if you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it”. This allows the prejudice and racism to be masked. On the Indigenous Voice question, some now seem to be pursuing a strategy of just muddying the waters, hoping to overcomplicate the issue. This was certainly the early response to the Uluru Statement from Malcolm Turnbull, who used the furphy argument that it called for a third chamber of parliament. In a similar vein, some are arguing this is what we had in the past with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), even though that body had programs and allocated money. It was considered by many to be corruptible and ineffective. It is deliberate obfuscation to link this view of ATSIC to the Voice, with the aim of killing it off.

However it is encouraging that the most recent poll done for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald suggested that some 64 per cent of respondents support a Voice. Support was lowest in Queensland, at 59 per cent. This could be a concern, given the need for a double majority for a referendum to pass. That is, a majority of voters and in a majority of states, the latter having typically been the more difficult.

The first emotive advertisement from the Uluru Dialogue group seeks to take the higher ground by focusing on the historical significance of the vote – “History is calling” – as a start on the journey of nation-building. It is a very strong pitch to argue that “silence never made history, and history is calling”. But we must wait to see how that resonates against the latent racism and prejudice that the “No” case will seek to stir.

An aim of this advertising campaign is to encourage us to talk about the Voice with family and friends and within communities. This can be a very powerful strategy, as we saw with the impact of the community- based independents at the May election. Many of those movements began by talking, sometimes kitchen-table discussions that ultimately permeated the broader communities, resulting in action.

A basic thrust of the “No” case is to demand more and more detail on a series of questions. How will the Voice operate? Who will be the Voice? How will they be chosen? On what issues? And so on, all to confuse, not really to inform, just hoping to create enough uncertainty so that voters will be reluctant to endorse what they don’t understand.

In his speech at the Garma Festival, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese suggested a simple question: Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice? And seeking to add just three sentences to the constitution:

“There shall be a body to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.”

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney has suggested that it may concentrate on issues such as land rights legislation and native title, cultural water allocations and perhaps childcare.

 

The chances of a referendum succeeding are helped if there is a degree of bipartisanship. So far it is difficult to determine where Peter Dutton will take the opposition on this issue, and if he will remain true to form and stick with his recent line of questioning and being obstructionist, embracing Tony Abbott’s politics of “nope”. It is difficult to imagine Dutton being constructive, especially given the strength of the opposition to just about anything Indigenous across both parties of the Coalition and his desire to develop a hardline right alternative to the Albanese government, which will see him attempt to block most genuine reform.

Dutton will probably aim to avoid a fractious Coalition party room, where differences are significant and divisions real, as we saw in the handling of Labor’s climate legislation. As Paul Bongiorno has pointed out, that only served to “send a clear message that it had learned nothing from the causes of its defeat at the polls”.

There is an embarrassing and concerning spectrum of views on Indigenous rights across the Coalition parties. At one extreme, and I emphasise extreme, there are some who still believe governments and authorities should control the lives of Indigenous people. They object to the money spent on support programs with little success. At the other end of the spectrum are those who are anguished by more than 200 years of guilt since the invasion, throughout colonisation, the Stolen Generations, and by the failures to effectively address the serious disadvantage of these affected communities.

A hint as to how the opposition may ultimately settle on this issue was provided by a senior shadow minister, Senator Jane Hume, in a recent interview on the ABC’s Insiders, when she went out of her way to emphasise that the Coalition is in opposition and so does not have policies – that’s up to the government. Nothing helpful or constructive is likely to come from that attitude.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Politics of ‘nope’".

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