John Hewson
Missed Voice messages

At a recent public meeting on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament in my local community, organised by Labor member of parliament Stephen Jones, the audience raised a repeated concern. The claim was that billions of dollars were spent on “these people” to no avail, and did we really want to spend any more? I was horrified such racism and uninformed bigotry, usually spouted by radio shock jocks, mostly with made-up figures and scenarios, had found its way into our small community. But it seems to travel easily.

One of this country’s most popular ad campaigns was launched in 1975: “Life. Be in it.” The campaign started as a state initiative in Victoria and was then rolled out by the federal government across the country. The ads aimed to change attitudes and behaviour to promote a more active way of living, and in turn a healthier country. The message was positive, it was simple, and of obvious benefit to all Australians.

Where is the ad campaign that succinctly lays out all that is right, that is healthy for the whole country, about the Voice to Parliament? Why should it be so difficult to encourage Australians to understand and objectively assess the Voice, which is such a simple proposal? Instead it has become a political football. This obviously decent, long overdue mark of respect, understanding and inclusion has been hijacked by base politics, which has been defined by gross misrepresentation and scaremongering.

Certain branches of the media have sought to reduce the Voice to a left/right issue, throwing around terms such as “woke” and “political correctness”. Sky News presenter Peta Credlin, who was chief of staff to former prime minister Tony Abbott, has been very vocal, doomsaying and propagating the idea that a “true conservative” would have to oppose the Voice.

This is ridiculous. It is not a question of ideology, it’s a question of doing what’s right in the current Australian circumstances.

This is an issue that’s been around for 235 years. The tragedy is this is the first time it’s really been properly tackled by any government. The proposal ensures appropriate respect and offers a potential pathway to addressing disadvantage among Indigenous communities in ways that those affected feel are most effective. Moreover, it aims to address the huge impacts of systemic discrimination.

I have been staggered by the intensity of some of the objections to these notions. The far right of the current Coalition and their complicit media mates risk doing irreparable damage to what should be in our national interest and a huge step forward for the country and all its people. We should all be able to take pride in our heritage, but we should all be aware of and acknowledge its full story. We must seek to eliminate any continuing unfairness in our system. This is to the benefit of all Australians.

Noel Pearson said in an interview published in this newspaper last week: “I would just remind Australians about the great gulf between the scare campaign and the truth.” The constant refrain from those opposed to the Voice proposal is it will result in billions of dollars of reparations and undermine the process of government in this country. This is simply without foundation and carries echoes of the supposed consequences of the apology to First Nations people that was made by then prime minister Kevin Rudd. None of these scaremongering claims ever eventuated.

This is not a test of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese but rather a test of all Australians – of who we are and who we want to be and how we hope the world will see us. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton would have us believe this is Albanese authoritatively directing Australians and seeking to determine the view of our country, such that if the referendum fails it should be the final nail in the coffin of this government.

The undercurrent of all this is only racism. The suggestion has been the Voice will divide the country on racist grounds and that if you vote “Yes” you are a racist. Of course, this is ridiculous and the underlying truth is that our constitution is racist, written in adherence to the White Australia Policy.

There are only two mentions of First Australians in our constitution and they were both negative, namely that they shouldn’t be counted – an injustice addressed by the 1967 referendum – and that the government shouldn’t be able to legislate programs in their favour.

In these terms, the Voice proposal, which was generated by First Australians themselves at Uluru, can be seen to seek to correct and update our constitution.

Another of the “No” case’s arguments is that the Voice is unnecessary because the Indigenous community already has voices among the elected members of parliament. This is surely called into question when a senator for the Northern Territory, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, joins party leader Dutton in refusing to attend the Garma Festival. Perhaps her voice is simply hers, and not representative of a broader Indigenous Australia. She sees herself as a leader of the “No” case.

The recent polling suggests the “Yes” case is still trailing both nationally and in a number of states. There are still significant uncertainties – with the date of the referendum yet to be announced, many surveys point to a large proportion of undecided respondents, as high as 30 per cent, with at least a couple of months to go before the ballot is likely to be held.

Possibly, as Barry Jones has written, compulsory voting is not helpful to the “Yes” case, as it can empower the disengaged “No” vote. There has been an expectation that voters would follow their party lines, but this is also unclear.

As I’ve said above, I don’t think the Voice should be a partisan issue, though I’m sure the Labor government would be concerned with some of the latest polls indicating the decline in the “Yes” vote has been concentrated in Labor seats.

There is also a view it may be difficult to find support for the Voice in traditional Liberal seats, though voters may increasingly balance the argument that “true conservatives” should oppose it, against distaste for Peter Dutton’s politicking and dishonesty in his exalted, self-declared position as leader of the “No” campaign.

An important age dimension is clear from the polling, however, with younger voters more likely to back the “Yes” case and older voters declaring more support for the “No” case. Dutton will be taking the latter for granted, but I feel this is a mistake as I believe a number of these so-called traditional Liberal voters are finding it increasingly difficult to blindly align themselves with the current Coalition.

Overall, I have been disappointed and in many instances appalled by the nature of the public discourse on this issue. I had hoped for better. I am a conservative and I will be voting “Yes”. Despite the recent polls I remain optimistic and believe in the inherent goodness and common sense of the Australian people, most of whom I expect in the end will vote in the national interest and not be swayed by the noise of the “No” campaign.

Obviously, I am the product of a society that favoured what I am, a white male. Although I have made a considerable effort to see these issues firsthand, I don’t pretend to fully understand the disadvantage faced on so many fronts by Indigenous people.

But I do understand, absolutely, their need to be heard. The need to believe their children will get a fair go, their disadvantage addressed and their history acknowledged and accurately taught to future generations. And most importantly that it will be passed on as they wish it to be expressed – in their own words, with their Voice. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "Missed Voice messages".

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