Binjari, an aboriginal community (Photo by DAVID GRAY/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Dude, where’s my voice?

Australia’s referendum to embed identity politics in its constitution is destined to fail

One of Australia’s most recognisable songs is John Farnham’s power ballad “You’re the Voice”. Released in 1986, it smashed the charts in the country, as well as in the UK where it reached number six. Farnham’s chorus is aspirational, making the listener feel determined to turn things around. This meant that it was used in ad campaigns to push people to enrol in voting. Most recently, it was the official theme song of the “Yes” campaign for a referendum that could transform Australia and become a turning point in the country’s dire relations with Indigenous Aborigines.

This referendum, to be held on 14 October, proposes an amendment to the constitution by establishing a Parliamentary third chamber specifically addressing Indigenous Australian matters. This chamber, called the Voice, would serve as an advisory body. Its goal would be removing inequalities faced by Aborigines, especially those who are living in remote areas in the country’s north, carrying high rates of alcoholism and poverty and lower rates of literacy and life expectancy. Considering the ugly disadvantages these people have faced, it is undeniable that policies previously created to remedy and account for this have not worked.

The campaign to push this proposal is being spearheaded by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, with glowing endorsements arriving from academics, mass media and business interests. It was derived from the Uluru Statement of the Heart, which was made in 2017. It argued that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were the first people inhabiting Australia before the First Fleet arrived in 1788, and that “they are the most incarcerated people on the planet”. The Voice would be a last-ditch attempt to remedy these wrongs.

The Yes campaign has relied on appealing to strong emotions

The Voice will be a symbolic gesture at best and, at worst, a heavy-handed manoeuvre to divide the country by race. The Voice has been a bad idea from its conception, because it is needlessly complex. It takes the arguments supporting it into its fateful, but logical conclusion: an advisory body that, no matter what direction it goes, is obligated to exist via the constitution. Many other government bodies with this purpose have failed, either due to a poor quality of leadership or a lack of funding.

In 1967, a referendum was overwhelmingly passed to allow Aborigines to be included in the Australian population. It removed a discriminatory power that was initiated in Australia’s constitution during its Federation that excluded them from the national census. Adding another power will add to public confusion about treating people based on their skin colour and justifying it through historical grounds.

Across the spectrum, Australia already has just representation from Indigenous Australians democratically elected into Parliament, whether it’s Linda Burney, the current Minister for Indigenous Affairs; or Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs representing the Liberal Party in the Northern Territory. She is one of the leading proponents campaigning for the No side. An advisory body would not represent all Indigenous Australians if it were revealed to be partisan.

Through any political lens, the arguments against the Voice are unfailingly strong. The conservative and liberal positions, particularly from the centre-right Liberal Party’s opposition, are quite obvious. It will add another layer of government, emphasising identity politics, with Price describing the Voice as “lacking in detail” and “racially divisive bureaucracy”.

Even then, there are substantive arguments against The Voice from a progressive perspective. Communities that have been affected by the long history of discrimination against Aborigines argue that their local leaders would be more effective at closing these gaps, rather than relying on larger governments to provide outcomes that could take more than a generation to fix.

So far, the Yes campaign has relied on appealing to strong emotions. It elicits hope of this board’s supposed benefits but then switches to fear, calling its opponents “racist” or “misinformation peddlers”. Arguments surrounding the “no” side are branded as such by journalists and academics. (A fact check lab at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology was temporarily suspended by Facebook for pushing bias). One of the architects of the Voice, Marcia Langton, says that if the No vote prevails, then Australia will not receive a “welcome to country” again. This is a land acknowledgement used in various events and places to highlight surrounding areas first inhabited by Aborigines, which is otherwise pointless.

The rejection of the Voice would not count as a surprise

Australia has yet to experience a major populist moment, but some have described the Voice as a possible equivalent to Brexit and the 2016 Presidential Election in the US by channelling the mood built from these two events. Many of the most established institutions chased a fashionable trend and harshly berated voters who disagreed with them. Whereas those moments of Britain leaving the European Union and Donald Trump winning were seen as shocks, the rejection of the Voice would not count as a surprise. Polls have consistently shown that support for the advisory body has been falling.

Whilst many Yes campaigners are happy to blame the opposing side for manipulating undecided voters, the truth is that much of this would have been avoided had Albanese’s ineptitude in campaigning on it through policy-backed evidence not been apparent. John Farnham wasn’t the first celebrity to jump on the Voice bandwagon. When Albanese first announced the Voice, he awkwardly invited the basketballer Shaquille O’Neal to support the proposal, receiving a lot of confused reactions.

Few referendums in Australia have been victorious, due to the ability of Australian voters to understand a question being asked. The Voice is another one that is hard to comprehend. For the proposal to win hearts and minds, it will need to convince the majority of states (a minimum of four) and voters (more than 50 per cent of states). The 1967 referendum to include Aborigines into the population was easy enough for the country to accept. The previous referendum in 2017 was about whether the question of same-sex marriage should be debated in Parliament. The issue at hand wasn’t legislation in Parliament, so much as the means to enact it. Nonetheless, it was simple enough to earn an overwhelming majority of support such that marriage between people of the same sex finally got legalised in the country.

John Farnham’s charged-up chorus screaming “You’re the voice” is sandwiched between two lines that are quite remarkable: “how long can we look at each other down the barrel of the gunand “make a noise and make it clear”. Rarely have we seen a more glaring example of cognitive dissonance in Australian politics.

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