Barry Jones
The Voice is our Brexit moment

It is becoming clear the Voice referendum is our Brexit moment. The “No” case is being built around misinformation and fear. The basest anxieties are being stoked. As with Brexit, the choice made on October 14 will say a great deal about the country that made it.

A defeat would lead inevitably to a loss in international standing and influence – a perception, quite inaccurate, that Australia has not forsaken its racist past. As occurred in Britain, there will be, a few months hence, a severe case of buyer’s remorse.

Lord Acton, the great English liberal Catholic historian, famous for his aphorism about the corruption of power, wrote: “I exhort you never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong…”

We would do well to remember these words.

“No” campaigners in the current referendum, the first in Australia since 1999, are encouraged to concentrate on generating fear and doubt in voters, avoiding any discussion of evidence, history or statistics. In this appalling campaign, the “No” side just makes stuff up.

The “No” campaign slogan – “If you don’t know, vote no ” – is morally bankrupt. It encourages citizens not to engage with an important issue. Really, if you don’t know, you should find out. This is basic decency on a question of such importance.

Coalition politicians have been circulating material in their electorates that asserts various falsehoods. This, from Dan Tehan, is an example:

If the Voice is approved, it would be the biggest change ever to our Constitution (rule book), in our history…

They want the Voice to cover all parts of the government.

This would give the Voice a lot of power and control over everything, from the Reserve Bank to Centrelink.

It means there would be no issues, like the economy, national security, infrastructure, health, education, and more, that the Voice could not be involved in.

Instead of Parliament deciding the Voice’s powers, the High Court would decide. This could cause legal problems.

Do they really believe any of this stuff? Would any be prepared to sign an affidavit asserting that the claims are accurate?

The assertion that entrenching the Voice as an advisory body would represent the biggest change to the Constitution in our history is not only wrong but palpably absurd.

The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia never operated as written.

From the first week of the Commonwealth’s establishment in 1901, executive power was in the hands of a prime minister and cabinet (not mentioned in the Constitution) and Australia operates as a democracy (a word missing from the Constitution). Aboriginal people are now counted in the census (1967), the High Court is no longer subordinate to British courts (1975) and the Australia Act (1986) provides that the British Parliament can no longer legislate for us. The royal veto over legislation is still preserved.

“No” campaigners assert the 1901 Constitution is a non-racist document and that a “Yes” vote would introduce a racist element, so much so that Australia would be adopting Apartheid. That is both wicked and silly.

The decades leading up to Federation in 1901 coincided with powerful arguments, internationally, about “scientific racism”, the concept of a hierarchy of races with Nordic types at the top, then people from the Mediterranean, Asians, Africans and, at the base of the pyramid, mainland Australian and Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples.

“Scientific racism”, often misnamed “social Darwinism”, led to the appalling doctrine of eugenics with the premise that unfit individuals, and even races, could be “culled”. Eugenics had powerful scientific supporters, both from the left and right. Until the 1970s, that support was especially strong in Australia and central to the White Australia Policy.

Charles Darwin, to his credit, had rejected the hierarchy of races, proposing that all humans had similar physical and intellectual potential, with differences not being innate but the result of climate, diet and disease.

Throughout the 19th century, Aboriginal skeletons were eagerly sought by European and American museums and it was assumed that “the passing of the Aborigines” was imminent.

There was more interest in Indigenous Australians as specimens than as people.

White Australia was a powerful driving force in the Federation movement, and Alfred Deakin, a liberal reformer on most issues, was a zealot on race.

When the Commonwealth of Australia was inaugurated in January 1901, the premier of New South Wales, William Lyne, observed: “Of the three great colonial possessions, Australia’s lot has been the happiest. Unlike Canada and South Africa, she has not had a race problem to solve.”

C. E. W. Bean, our pre-eminent war historian, asserted Australia was the only continent without racial mixture. He did not count Indigenous Australians, seeing them as marginal, irrelevant or headed for extinction. He shared these views with his collaborator Keith Murdoch, Rupert’s father.

The Australian Constitution was an artefact of the contemporary consensus about race and eugenics. First Nations people were dismissed as irrelevant – out of sight, out of mind.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are now estimated to number just 3.8 per cent of the Australian population. A third are below the age of 15.

In the campaign for constitutional recognition through an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, the burden of arguing the “Yes” case has fallen on Linda Burney, Patrick Dodson, Noel Pearson, Megan Davis, Thomas Mayo, Marcia Langton, Pat Anderson, Pat Turner, Tom Calma, Ken Wyatt, June Oscar and others.

This is a dangerous strategy. The referendum involves all Australians, not just First Nations people.

The “No” case asserts the “Yes” campaign promotes division, that it’s framed as special pleading from an elite minority: “This is what we demand.”

In reality, the case is far more modest: “Please listen to us.”

To succeed, the “Yes” campaign requires powerful advocacy from within the 96.2 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians. The argument needs to be: “This is the time to be honest with ourselves. First Nations people have a right to be heard.”

So far, advocates from the 96.2 per cent have adopted a “small target” strategy. Leaders of the Commonwealth government, from all six states – five Labor and one Liberal (Tasmania) – as well as from both territories, have been deferential and courteous, leaving the “Yes” case to First Nations people.

There probably could have been a bipartisan agreement to set up the Voice by legislation – but Anthony Albanese, to his credit, opted for the harder way, because entrenching the Voice in the Constitution was a central element in the May 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart.

It would have been cynical for him to have said, “We’ll listen to you up to a point, but ultimately we reject what you ask for. We will take one step, but not the second – adopting tactics, not principles, emphasising the brutal short term of politics not the unforgiving long term of history.”

The questions in Australian referendums are almost invariably very short, only about principle. There are never any details about how a “Yes” will be implemented.

The composition, size, mode of election and terms of reference for the Voice will be determined by the parliament, not by the prime minister or the government, and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton should acknowledge that he would have to share in its creation.

Since the Albanese government does not have a majority in both houses of parliament, the composition and function of the Voice will require negotiation and compromise, in which Dutton and senators Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Kerrynne Liddle and Lidia Thorpe could play a constructive role.

This should have been clearly stated, and repeated, from the outset.

Unhappily, the disinformation, gross exaggeration and Trumpian appeals to fear and anger shown by some “No” advocates have gone unchallenged. Powerful advocacy for “Yes” is hard to identify outside the Indigenous community.

It’s time to recognise, and reject, racist elements in our history, which are embedded in the Constitution. It’s time to break down barriers and share knowledge and experience, to act decently and recognise that life itself involves risk, every day.

Apart from the 1967 referendum, when there was no official “No” case, and an assimilation policy was broadly accepted by all major political parties, every subsequent change to the status of First Nations people has aroused bitter but unjustified fear and anger.

Every time there has been a change to the status of Indigenous people – Mabo, Wik, the Apology – there have been cries of havoc and alarm. None have had any justification.

Given its unpromising beginnings in 1788, settler Australia has been a country of remarkable achievement, outstandingly successful in most areas. But we could achieve far more for ourselves and humanity generally if we came clean about our past.

We have so much to be proud of. There are about 190 nations on Earth and Australia ranks in the top 10 on most social indicators.

“No” is a confession of failure, of the belief that if we attempted anything new, we’d muck it up. So we remain prisoners of the past, back in Plato’s cave, surrounded by pessimism and apathy.

“Yes” is a vote for optimism, confidence, a vote for the future, an assertion that we are capable of great things, of acting with decency, courage and generosity.

Surely the choice is simple. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 16, 2023 as "The Voice is our Brexit moment".

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