Luisa Bassinio explains how, as a result of the racist scaremongering of the No side and the weakness of the Yes side, the Australia’s Indigenous Voice referendum failed to pass this week.
This week, Australians resoundingly rejected a proposal to enshrine within the constitution a new Indigenous advisory body, the ‘Indigenous Voice to Parliament’. The largely symbolic change was presented by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of the governing Labor party as modest enough to garner bi-partisan support, while also progressing reconciliation and formal Indigenous recognition. Instead, in a terrible set-back for the Indigenous rights struggle, the referendum was defeated in every single state in the country.
The outcome was the culmination of a determined six month campaign of racist lies from Australia’s political right – namely that the referendum was dividing the country along racial lines, that the grievances of Indigenous people are without basis and that the Voice would allow unjustified ‘special privileges’. The ‘No’ side – bankrolled by the hard right of Australian capitalists, such as mining magnates Gina Rhinehart and Clive Palmer – produced a daily stream of baseless, deplorable comments that dominated the ‘No’-aligned Murdoch media. Conservative Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton described the Voice as an expression of “the madness of identity politics”, whilst social media was full of conspiracy theories that suburban land ownership would be under threat. The deeply racist atmosphere that prevailed explains how such a modest proposal could be so comprehensively defeated.
Conservatives have hailed the referendum result as a “victory for the Australian way of life”. If by that they mean that the referendum result has bolstered the white colonial racist mindset, they are right. Such an impact is particularly disappointing because it comes off the back of decades of steadily increasing support for Indigenous rights in Australia, and has occurred in a context where the conservative Liberal Party remains electorally quite weak. Despite that, many of the inroads that have been made towards a mainstream understanding of the need for Aboriginal liberation were quickly undermined; the No campaign proved that the political right are still able to mobilise effectively to connect with widespread and entrenched racism.
The responsibility for the defeat, however, also certainly lies with the leaders of the Yes campaign. The Albanese government was complacent from the outset. After all, their proposal had the support of the Business Council of Australia and most of the mining companies, eager to prove their progressive credentials as they continue to destroy Aboriginal land and sacred sites, such as the 46,000 year old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge, blown up by Rio Tinto in 2020. But even as the more marginal No side began to effectively cohere itself, the Yes side was consistently insipid in its response; it remained intent on avoiding so-called ‘negative messaging’, with Prime Minister Albanese condemning protests outside No events while refusing to do the same for the racism that flowed within them. This failure to challenge the right’s narrative has been disastrous – it’s allowed for the sort of discourse where conservative politician Jacinta Price could go so far as to suggest that colonisation had only a “positive impact” on Indigenous Australians.
Providing people with clear arguments against the No side and for the Yes was particularly important due to the origins of the proposal. The Voice didn’t grow out of a grassroots campaign, nor was it a demand generally being made by Aboriginal people themselves. It arose out of a meeting of government aligned Indigenous leaders in 2017 and always seemed an abstract expression of their aims. This sits in contrast to the Marriage Equality plebiscite that occurred in 2017, where an overwhelming majority of Australians voted to end the obviously discriminatory laws banning same-sex marriage. That was a demand that had grown out of a decade of protests, that was easily understood and ultimately accepted as a justified progressive change. The Voice referendum wasn’t received by people in those terms.
The lack of the Yes campaign’s connection with a genuine movement was also reflected in the fact that the Yes side failed to convince an element of progressives to support it, with the most prominent example being Indigenous Senator Lidia Thorpe, who split with her Greens party on the issue. This section of society was rightly cynical of a proposal that made no promise to further Aboriginal rights in any practical way, and that came from a government that continues to oversee genocidal policies. Thorpe and others rejected the notion that a potential treaty – the main aim of most Indigenous people on the left – would be progressed by an advisory body incorporated into a colonial constitution. Though such criticisms are valid, the failure to support the referendum has not taken the Indigenous rights struggle forward. The opposite is more likely true, with a number of right-wing figures using their victory as an opportunity to press on with racist arguments around Aboriginal people receiving ‘special privileges’ and slandering them as child abusers. It’s true that the Voice was never going to genuinely challenge Indigenous oppression, but a refusal to support it has certainly not helped that fight either.
On all indicators of poverty, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are identified as the most disadvantaged group in Australia and anti-Aboriginal racism runs through the heart of our welfare and justice systems. Indigenous people are 12 times more likely than the non-indigenous population to be imprisoned and 9.7 times more likely to be removed from their parents as children. Their life expectancy is 8.6 years less for men and 7.8 for women. Suicide rates are around 4 times higher than in the non-Indigenous population. And in one of the richest countries in the world, over 160 remote, largely indigenous communities lack access to clean drinking water. A serious challenge to this appalling system of oppression must be a radical one that unites Indigenous and non-Indigenous people on the streets and in workplaces to cut through the racism that divides us. In recent years, we’ve seen a wonderful blossoming of Invasion Day rallies (celebrated as Australia Day by the State) that point to a way forward. These demonstrations have continued to grow around demands of an end to police brutality, Black deaths in custody and for a genuine treaty with Indigenous people.
Although white supremacy has existed here since invasion, it doesn’t persist naturally. The ideas are fed to us through right-wing politics and media, reinforced by the systems of the state and all done so in the interests of the rich. Where the government’s campaign for the Voice sought to collaborate with big business and make only the mildest of demands that were acceptable to it, our approach has to be one that confronts those very forces. Aboriginal oppression is rooted in the profits that continue to flow from stolen land. Only a struggle that challenges that will achieve the justice and reckoning that Aboriginal people deserve.