Politics Opinion

Voice Referendum debate a breeding ground for conspiracy theories

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

The binary, stifling nature of the mainstream Voice Referendum discussion effectively provides an environment in which conspiracies get to flourish, writes Tom Tanuki.

LONG BEFORE discussion about the now-imminent Referendum on a Voice to Parliament and Constitutional recognition hit fever-pitch, I wrote here in January to alert Independent Australia readers to the existence of what has come to be known as the “progressive No argument”.

This actually refers to an array of separate Indigenous-led concerns around, for example, why the Voice is taking precedence over Treaty talks, or suspicions around the capacity of an advisory body to affect real change to the benefit of Indigenous communities, or refusals to consider inclusions in what’s seen as an inherently racist colonial Constitution. It’s complicated and I thought it was worth knowing about.

While it was not my intention to insert myself into a conversation that Indigenous voices must lead, back in January I felt compelled to at least point out intelligent voices who had helped contribute to a developing “progressive No” case, because I felt they were being sidelined. I was confounded that mainstream Australia had afforded no space to acknowledge that Indigenous people might consider a ‘No’ vote for reasons unrelated to racism, Liberal interests or political ignorance.

I’m less confounded by that now. Not that the situation has changed; rather, it has gone on for so long that we’re all used to it. I’ve wondered if it’s simply easier for the mainstream to pretend that a “progressive No” sentiment either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter because Australian politics needs to communicate in comfortable binaries. There is a popular argument: because some racists advocate for a ‘No’ case, if you also lean towards a ‘No’ case you are helping some racists even if you have fundamentally different reasoning.

This is the kind of inane commentary I mean when I say “comfortable binaries” – the kind that a lot of mainstream Voice political discourse leans on, the kind that recently got splashed across the pages of the Saturday Paper (already known to suffer from conversational blind spots on political issues, as we've seen in its treatment of the human rights of Palestinian people). I think Australia would rather either sing You’re the Voice or gleefully be a racist in public than have deep and complex conversations about Indigenous sovereignty which we’re maybe not ready for.

The mainstream consensus seems to be that the “progressive No” is only the objection of a handful of permanently discontented Indigenous radicals, and/or Senator Lidia Thorpe, and therefore can safely be quietly set to the side. I think that’s offensive to many of these people, qualified and brilliant academics, thinkers, activists and politicians in their own right; people who ought not to be taken lightly. 

Australia would do well to listen to them directly instead of other people speaking about them. If their voices are co-opted by ghoulish far-Right lobbyists, that’s evidence of a blind spot in the discussion around this Referendum, which does not call into question their political will or integrity. If in January I had listed just a few thought-provoking items of reading, by now the available work on the “progressive No” case has ballooned; now nobody, whether they agree or not, still has an excuse for not knowing what their case is. (Much of that work has been helpfully collated here in this curated list.)

I actually think the effort to ignore sticky, non-binary conversations in media spaces has dealt a blow to the ‘Yes’ movement. For example, I am sensing an absence in this discussion of the kind of motivated Left activist auxiliary presence that arguably helps political campaigns grow, hit the streets and become ubiquitous. There are many energetic Left voices, activists, groups and online presences who are uncertain about their position after paying attention to conflicting voices in Indigenous communities that they have worked alongside and supported. As such, they’ve simply bowed out. 

I would argue this is a failure of the pro-Voice camp to reconcile these differences. But more broadly, I think it’s a failure typical of Australian politics’ mainstream. Often, they’d rather take cues from the political or activist fringe but then pretend it doesn’t exist — this is something that happens regularly and from both the Left and the Right.

More urgently for the ‘Yes’ vote is the growing problem of conspiracies. They’ve been allowed to flourish in the blind spots left by this mainstream debate. As we begin reading that a ‘No’ vote is taking the lead (commonly the case with referendums, which are easier to argue against than for), it is relevant to reflect on how, judging from the online discussion, many of the ‘No’ arguments are fantasist in nature.

A couple of months ago, I noticed a video called ‘Urgent the Final Conflict for Australians’ doing the rounds. It’s by an account called The White Rabbit, which is a QAnon-ish term, so accordingly I expected to see an armchair daydreamer happily pretending they’re allowed to listen in on high-level security briefings while they breathlessly make shit up.

And that’s precisely what I got, of course. For over 17 giddy minutes, I listened to some excited woman in a beanie going on and on about how the Voice is a “Trojan horse” pretext for a UN takeover of Australia. It’s wild. She literally says that you won’t be able to have air anymore if the Voice gets up, which might be the best panic fantasy I’ve ever heard a conspiracist invent. No air! Terrifying!

That video has over 74K views where it was initially posted to Rumble, but that doesn’t begin to account for its meteoric and diffused spread via all the many communications platforms that flourished over the pandemic. The video is posted and reposted everywhere on Telegram, Tiktok, Bitchute and more. Its lies about the UN have since spread far beyond the original liar in a beanie and many Australians now genuinely believe the UN is taking over via a “rigged referendum”.

Others have replaced the evil UN architects of that Voice power conspiracy with – who else – Jewish people, because that’s what the far-Right always does in the end. Organised Australian neo-Nazis, ever the recruiters, have been allowed further into conspiracist circles as a result of this growing partiality to antisemitism.

Some conspiracies are a little less risky for the conservative mainstream to touch, like the ongoing carry-on regarding the length of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Is it one page or 26 pages? You’d think this question could be answered in five minutes, but the real intention is to sow the seeds of doubt so this inanity has become a month-long campaign. On and on they go about the page numbers.

I listened and reacted to all of CPAC 2023 in a recent video and I was astounded by the amount of times the pages thing came up. Senator Jacinta Price mentioned the pages, before suggesting that Voice advocates Thomas Mayo and Teela Reid are beholden to their “elders in the Communist Party”. (It’s funnier if you understand how far-removed Thomas Mayo is from being a “communist”.) Most speakers at CPAC 2023, panderers at heart, felt obligated to at least allude to conspiracy theories around the Voice.

The result of all this is reflective of popular TikToker Jack Toohey’s recent observations. After he made a video explaining the Referendum, the Voice and Constitutional recognition, he reported being inundated with comments from young people responding with conspiracist garbage. “Scary how effective this ‘No’ campaign has been in muddying the waters,” he remarked.

But the waters are further muddied by legitimate questions about the Referendum that the mainstream discussion won’t acknowledge that come from considered Indigenous political voices. Conspiracists and racists must never be seated at the roundtable for this discussion, but they don’t have imposter syndrome and they’ll go in anywhere they can squeeze in. 

But I notice that thoughtful Indigenous commentators continue to be excluded as well. At its worst, the mainstream discussion of the Voice can come off as a cacophony of binary, Farnham-singing simplicity. This discussion is stifled and I think that offers a fertile climate for conspiracists to play in.

(This is not to be taken as an encouragement to vote one way or another. It’s not my place. I hope to conduct a handful of interviews with Indigenous activists and thinkers who I respect very soon, and compile those conversations and their endorsements into a useful video for your consideration. Stay tuned.)

Tom Tanuki is a writer, satirist and anti-fascist activist. Tom does weekly videos on YouTube commenting on the Australian political fringe. You can follow Tom on Twitter @tom_tanuki.

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