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Voice Referendum: Vote 'YES' with no illusions

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The Left is right to point to flaws in the Voice model but must still vote "Yes", as a "No" vote means siding with Peter Dutton and the racist rabble of the Right, writes Dr Martin Hirst

AT THE MELBOURNE Invasion Day rally on 26 January, respected Aboriginal activist Gary Foley described Labor’s current Voice proposal as “lipstick on a pig”.

He’s right of course. The ALP has no real interest in ending Indigenous oppression or giving First Nations people real control over land, water and resources.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s intention is to slap a coat of (literal) whitewash over Australia’s blood-stained dark history. If you want to know what the Labor Party’s real agenda is for Aboriginal Australia look no further than his symbolic visit to Alice Springs in late January, to tout the Government’s commitment to law and order in response to dog-whistling racist moral panic from the Murdoch media and its camp followers in the mainstream press pack. Labor is repeating the racist mistakes of the past when it comes to dealing with First Nations people in the Northern Territory.

However, many on the Left are struggling with the debate around The Voice and Labor’s promised referendum to be held later this year. In his Invasion Day comments, Foley also called the government proposal “disgusting and offensive”. But interestingly, he also appeared to issue a warning of the repercussions if the referendum “Yes” vote doesn’t get up.

Other radicals who are demanding real concessions on treaty negotiations, land rights and reparations before they’ll sign up to the referendum are just posturing. The balance of forces does not favour a radical “No” campaign from the Left. I have thought about it a lot recently, but I cannot see how a left-wing campaign against the referendum can be anything other than a distraction for activists and a complete gift for the racist Right.

The criticism from Foley and other First Nations militants is accurate. The Voice proposal is tokenistic and could potentially derail real struggle for actual improvement in the living conditions in Indigenous communities.

However, we must also acknowledge that the ALP is responding to the 2017 'Uluru Statement from the Heart', which called for greater Constitutional recognition of Australia’s First Nations people. The Uluru Statement prioritised Voice over Makarrata (treaty and truth-telling), which has created divisions within the Indigenous rights movement, but the referendum is the first step in this reconciliation process.


The Voice certainly won’t put a stop to police violence against young Blak people. It won’t put a stop to Blak deaths in custody; it won’t close down Don Dale and other prisons where Aboriginal people are vastly and disproportionately over-represented. It won’t raise wages for Indigenous workers, it won’t improve life expectancy for Blak adults and it most definitely will not eradicate structural racism in Australian economic and political life.

On the other hand, the “No” campaign is headed up by Australia’s alternative Prime Sinister, Peter Dutton. No self-respecting supporter of First Nations self-determination wants to line up with that monster and the disgusting racist rabble of the Australian Right.

Quite a quandary for progressives: The Voice is and always will be tokenism. As Foley says, it is primarily designed to make White people feel good about themselves. On the other hand, I also think it’s fair to argue that a defeat for the referendum – in the absence of any realistic alternative path to sovereignty – will embolden the racists and setback the cause of Blak liberation for a generation.

It is unlikely that Albanese and the ALP will concede to the demands of newly-minted Blak Sovereign spokeswoman Senator Lidia Thorpe who quit the Greens and now claims to represent the Blak Sovereign Movement. Labor cannot afford to make concessions to its left, and any move towards real sovereignty is a long way off. Albanese is more interested in a united front with Peter Dutton than with Lidia Thorpe.

Resources Minister and mining lobby hostage Madeleine King has already signalled that The Voice is just the right amount of change and symbolism. She’s made it clear that Labor wants the resource – mining – and fossil fuel giants to get on board with the referendum and campaign for a “Yes’ vote; telling the Nine papers it was “the least they could do”.

As the parliamentary year gets underway, Greens Leader Adam Bandt has signalled that the remaining Greens will support the “Yes” campaign. The middle-class Black bourgeoisie is also digging in behind Labor’s so far fairly vague proposal. Architect of the Uluru Statement and apologist for neoliberalism Noel Pearson has warned that a defeat for The Voice referendum will setback reconciliation by at least a generation.

That argument has some merit, even though Pearson cannot be trusted and is a well-credentialed sell-out merchant. However, that is not enough reason for me to capitulate and enthusiastically campaign for a “Yes” vote without some qualification.

I think we have to support a “Yes” vote on four principles, but we also must be vigorous in our criticism that The Voice does not address Indigenous disadvantage or oppression. There is no point in maintaining silent consent when it very obviously is a lipstick-coated pig we’re dealing with.


Here are my arguments for a “Yes” vote:

1. A first step

As a revolutionary socialist, I am always in favour of more democracy, not less. While The Voice is always going to be less than perfect it does incrementally add to the overall amount of democracy we experience in capitalist Australia. This is important as it creates space for opposition voices too.

Yes, The Voice will be tokenistic. Yes, the Constitutional change will not really make a difference to power relations. Yes, it is only advisory and can be ignored (it will be if it makes any real suggestions for change) and no, it won’t end Indigenous oppression, alienation, expropriation and dispossession.

However, having a forum to air some of the issues around Makarrata does create space for progressives to intervene. Further, the experience of raising their voice and having it ignored (or being told to be more polite) is an important political lesson for Aboriginal activists and their non-Indigenous supporters.

2. The racist Right

If the referendum is defeated it will be a big victory for the nasty politics represented by Peter Dutton and the right-wing scum who beat the drum of racist hysteria, and who are happy to see the slow genocide of poverty and misery continue. The radio shock jocks, Sky News hate bots, the trolls, the actual fascists and the ugly Australian White racist minority will gloat and boast, they will feel it is a win for their bigotry and hatred.

The racist police right across the nation will see it as a green light to continue attacking Aboriginal men, women, and children in custody and by shooting on sight. The institutional racism that festers at the heart of Australian capitalism will grow new hydra-like heads.

All of this will be demoralising for the Left and progressive forces, it will make it harder to campaign for real action and real struggle to demand Land Rights, Sovereignty, and a real Treaty with real economic teeth at a time when the political terrain is more favourable. A “No” vote will give comfort to the mining and fossil fuel companies that pay lip service to Indigenous communities then blow up their sacred sites, pollute their land, degrade their environment and lock them up when they protest too vigorously.

3. Referendum defeat a big setback

A defeat for The Voice referendum will also set back the cause of Indigenous struggle because it will be seen as a repudiation of any future Constitutional change; and, it will be a slap across the face for the generations who fought for the 1967 Referendum that gave citizenship to Aboriginal people and finally recognised their humanity.

The struggle for change has its ebbs and flows. Yes, we need a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism to really be rid of racism and to really reach a just and necessary settlement with Australia’s First Nations people. But we must be realistic — at this moment in time, we do not have the social weight on our side to campaign against the referendum and offer any kind of feasible alternative.

Also, progressives must support small reformist changes when the alternative is to give succour to the racist filth.

On a more positive note, supporting small reforms can create the space for more struggle, more action and bigger change.

The Left is right to point to the many flaws with the current Voice model, but the Left will be on the wrong side of history if it sides with the “No" campaign in the referendum.

Dr Martin Hirst is a journalist, author and academic. You can follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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