Politics Analysis

Voice to Parliament: 'Yes' vote has many enemies

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Australia is moving towards defeating yet another referendum, this one on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, because it's lacking the full across-the-board support traditionally needed for “Yes” to ever succeed.

A defeat will be mortifying, to say the least, for most Indigenous Australians and for Australia across the world, where it has always been called a racist country.

But it looks as though that may well happen, even despite many people seeing the simple justice of recognising First Nations, as signalled in the 90% “Yes” vote in 1967 — the referendum that determined Indigenous Australians had to be counted as citizens.

Same old politicking

The problem this time is it’s being politicised and you could say deliberately muddled up by recalcitrance on the part of three political parties: Nationals, Liberals and Greens. A lot of Indigenous Australians are not helping either.

These are all just following usual behaviour on issues, but missing the point that a referendum is not ordinary politics. Many members of the public want to be consulted, but don’t want to study what it is about and so they think, to be on the “safe" side, and not make a mistake, they will vote “No”. It can happen that way, as often happened in the past — unless
everything is clear, positive, unanimous and unambiguous from the word “go”. Everybody can see that accordingly, in electoral arithmetic, if a party is not wholeheartedly supporting “Yes”, that means it wants “No”.

Same old Liberals

The Liberals being conservative are by definition prone to dislike change generally. That ideological predilection is partnered with a contemptuous, class-based readiness to take advantage of any ill feeling among the “vulgar masses”. So, there was a Liberal campaign of jingoism to support conscription for Vietnam and win an election in 1966; or dog-whistle racism over refugees on board the ship Tampa to clinch an election in 2001; or the same, now, over Indigenes getting a privileged Voice under the law — stir up “battlers” against privileges for “Abos”.

Their demand for information on “what the Voice will be” is not entirely a red herring. The Labor Government's statement that it’ll be decided by Parliament after the referendum succeeds, is not satisfying what a large number of people think they should know, before voting “Yes”. It is an added risk, that as soon as you give some plan, oppositionists will start debating the plan — attacking the main idea by attacking the example. But that might have to be the cost of shutting them up about providing “details”.

Some models exist, like the elected regional councils that formed the national body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), brought in by Labor. But, as soon as they determined some racketeering had been going on within the Council organisation, it was shut down by the Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard.


You can see how they would play up that last part when attacking the example. One precedent for a special Voice is from the Menzies years, when the ex-service organisation, the RSL, was the only interest group to get direct meetings with Federal Cabinet. That caused resentment, but the organisation represented large numbers and dealt with special needs imposed by war.  

Polls are showing intention to vote “Yes” has slipped from 53% to 47% in four months (though divvying-up “undecideds” still gives 60% “Yes”), since the Liberals pulled the plug and signalled to their constituents they were going to stall and obfuscate. They’re really saying no support unless they like every “detail”. Goodbye, Voice?

Same old Nationals

The Nationals often claim understanding of Indigenous Australians because of their own bush experience, but are generally against Aboriginal interests because of the taking of the land. Early in this debate, they declared “No”, on that occasion literally standing behind a sour, it might appear, unhappy Indigenous woman, Senator Jacinta Price. While she has arguments to be considered fairly, it has to be asked if these are the underlying priorities of her party as a whole.

Since the issue has been raised of the Nationals’ opposition to Black entitlements, it might be time to renew interest in the core of this political party, which is in the grazing industry. What is the full background to ownership or lease-holding of certain large cattle and sheep properties on “once was” Aboriginal land?

Where there is dog-whistling, there is more dog-whistling. Some cheap political gains can be made out of the serious problem of youth street crime and car theft, especially in Alice Springs but in many other towns across Australia. It is close enough to the surface even of media reportage that this is a problem overwhelmingly with young Indigenous Australians, including children.

If Right-wing interests want to make it into an anti-Black feeling and hook it up with arguments about handing over too much to “unworthy” Indigenous communities, it could contribute heavily to “No” votes in parts of the country. Heads of the conservative parties may choose to say the Voice can help with finding solutions, or they can pretend to think it is part of the problem.

Same old Greens

The Greens Party looks set for a repeat exercise where, for the sake of being “principled”, it is uncompromising and shafts the vote. Better to have a “racist” outcome, a “No” vote, than give in to the Government's version of what should happen.

Stubborn party operatives and politically naïve supporters will get the satisfaction of being spoilers, feeling they have taken a righteous stand, and can say they have prepared the ground for bigger reforms another time.

In 2023, the Party is digging in on the idea that a treaty with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders has to come before the Voice, to affirm recognition and strengthen their hand. Will this mean that otherwise, they will declare “No”? In any case, “Yes” has been once more put under a cloud.

It has been doing it for years and now because of it, Indigenous Australians and Islanders are likely to go through a new quality of suffering, an unprecedentedly explicit, venal and cruel exclusion in the form of a loud “No” across Australia.

Past form

Negotiators for the Hawke Government were stunned by the adamant position of the then-two Greens Senators from Western Australia. Time and again they refused any compromise and denied the Government a majority for changes, effectively countering the declared interests of their own party, hardly interested at all in practical politics of the day.

The Goss Labor Government in Queensland, a reform government struggling to build its base after more than 30 years out of office, was attacked across the board, including by the conservation movement and Greens. Expectations had been built up by Goss’ election; many interests wanting everything at once. Greens leaders appeared on the same platform as Nationals or Liberals campaigning on issues.

One was opposing power lines for sharing electricity with New South Wales (a sub-plot being how much individual landholders would get paid for permitting the lines to go across). Another was a campaign against a major motorway extension, where road-kill koalas were repeatedly brought out of freezers to make the case for habitat protection (acreage holders were spared the presence of traffic; the motorway, to relieve massive traffic congestion, was built through other bushlands later on).

The killing off of the Rudd Government’s emissions trading scheme, the CPRS, by the Coalition and Greens blocked a national climate change initiative just when the political timing was right to get such an initiative in place. Labor blames ten years of climate policy failure on the Liberals and Greens. The arguments are complex. The Greens keep putting up reasoned “explainers”, justifications, which still demonstrate deafness to compromise. They say the ‘CPRS was bad climate policy’, so in the end, there was nothing.

A few lines are due to Indigenous voices that are being raised against the Voice. It is another case of “business as usual” that often when agreement is made with Indigenous groups on any issue, like protection of special territory, somebody comes up with contrary arguments a bit later. That’ll be for complex reasons; colonisation and exploitation leave communities fractured. The danger of it for the ”Yes” vote in 2023 is a “divide and rule” process that could undermine the sincerity, decency and sense of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which called for the Voice.

At present, “Yes” leads — but “Yes” is in danger. “Yes” would say much about Australia and the power of reconciliation; “No” would say something else and something hard for us to live down as a people.

Among his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic. He is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Pacific Journalism Review.

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