Why identity politics lost big in Australia - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Why identity politics lost big in Australia

On Saturday October 14, Australians defeated a ballot initiative that would have changed the Constitution to enshrine an Indigenous advisory body to the federal parliament. By a margin of what’s likely to be 61-39, the nation rejected the change pushed by the federal Labor government in a referendum.

As a result, a constitutional-based ‘Voice’ – an unelected and unaccountable group of Aboriginal Australians that would have given “advice” to the nation’s lawmakers on any matter of its choosing – has been consigned to history.

Proponents of the change billed the Voice as a modest proposal that would help heal the traumas of history and unite the nation. For opponents, the Voice would have been a smokescreen for a treaty with Australia’s indigenous peoples and payments of reparations to atone for the historic “sin” of British settlement, which would further divide the nation.

Proponents had every advantage. Corporations and rich philanthropists gave massive financial support (more than A$50 million). Celebrities, union bosses, the sporting codes and much of the mainstream media were on the Voice’s side. So too were several prominent members of the Liberal party, past and present. Even the machinery of government was working for the constitutional change. According to academic historians, supporting the Voice meant being on “the right side of history.”

By contrast, the opponents appeared to have very little going for them. They raised less than a third of the Yes campaign’s funds. Until the polls shifted against the Voice earlier this year, anyone who strayed from the progressive consensus was treated with shock and distaste. And yet, against the odds and in the face of the received wisdom, the opponents triumphed spectacularly.

Why? Simply put, a majority view had emerged that the Voice was a dud product. It was sold as a conversation between the Aboriginal community and the lawmakers to address Indigenous woes.

However, it was never explained who precisely would choose the Voice, what its constitutional powers would be, how much it would cost, and how it would be better able to address the plight of remote communities than the scores of taxpayer-funded Aboriginal agencies.

Even Prime Minister Anthony Albanese seemed confused and uncertain about what the Voice would achieve. His government, which never sought bipartisan support, provided so few details about the proposal that it created a vacuum for opponents to exploit.

Critics were accused of peddling ‘misinformation’, but they raised legitimate questions about an opaque and elite process that few people really understood. At the same time, the Voice proponents tried to mask the paradox of their proposal: it was sold as both modest change and profoundly transformational. It could not possibly be both, and Australians are not mugs.

The cultural elite has long treated Indigenous Australians as ‘victims’ since the British ‘invasion’ in 1788. And there is no question that terrible crimes were committed against our Aboriginal peoples. But although Australia was once a racist place, it does not follow that Aboriginal people are denied equal rights. According to the distinguished historian Geoffrey Blainey, they had the right to vote long before women in Britain.

True, as CIS research documented for the past two decades, welfare dependency – taken together with needless demands for separate rules, norms and institutions – has led to a permanent underclass in remote communities where about 15% of the 980,000 Aboriginal Australians live. But the other majority live in cities and regional centres, increasingly partner with non-Indigenous people, and their living standards are far higher than those in remote communities.

Like all races and ethnicities, our Indigenous community represents a wide diversity of opinion: as many as 11 Aboriginal Australians represent different parties in federal parliament. The two leading opponents of the Voice – Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Nyunggai Warren Mundine (disclaimer: friends and past and present colleagues) – are themselves Aboriginal.

Far from embracing the left’s narrative about ‘systemic racism’ and ‘white privilege’, they promote a new political paradigm based on the virtues of a strong work ethic and a recognition of the limits of state power to correct social ills. Indeed, polls showed about 40% of Aboriginal Australians opposed the Voice.

Moreover, instead of encouraging free and open debate, many Voice enthusiasts strove to discredit opponents and engage in character assassination. They vilified decent people as “frightened,” “dumb,” “dickheads,” and “racists,” clouding the issue in the hope that Australians would vote according to emotion and not reason. But all the bullying and aggression proved not only that they were about to lose the vote but had lost the argument. Even after the vote, our friends David and Bess Price – parents of our former colleague Jacinta Price – were egged by Yes protesters.

A vocal minority, goaded by media sophisticates, was swift to put its own case, but far less swift to be questioned or examined on it by others. No one is ever served by shutting down debate, yet this appeared what the Yes advocates were all about.

Following our successful Sydney debate in April, which has attracted more than 150,000 views, we decided to host more Voice events in Perth, Hobart, Adelaide and Brisbane. Invitations to debate the issues went to members of Indigenous community who favour the change, to politicians in the Liberal, Greens and Labor parties, including the Indigenous Affairs Minister, and to philanthropists, corporates, academics, lawyers and television personalities. But none of these estimable people accepted the invitation.

Could it be they simply never intended to debate the merits of their proposal? It was frankly odd that many leading proponents of the voice seemed so keen to avoid a debate about what Noel Pearson called the most important vote since Federation.

The lesson here is that progressive ambitions can’t be imposed on people by political diktat: they need to be won by persuasion. All that is good in our liberal society boils down to a belief in freedom, merit, tolerance, respect and equality before the law. In a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society like Australia’s, it is our shared values that ultimately binds us. But identity politics just divides people and poisons public discourse.

The referendum has had many negatives, and Australians, as Tony Abbott foreshadowed, were bound to be in “a lose-lose situation.” If the Voice won, it would have been, as the former prime minister warned, “very damaging in the long-term, and wrong in principle.” But now that it’s comprehensively failed, there are “a lot of very disappointed people and some people will feel perhaps embittered,” and as Abbott lamented, “that’s no good thing either.”

But the referendum has been a belated recognition that the top-down approach of Indigenous affairs in remote communities that has defined Canberra policy for half a century has not worked for thousands of Aboriginal people. The problems are difficult, but not intractable.

The Voice was not the way to achieve bottom-up solutions to these problems. As our annual John Bonython lecturer Jason Riley observed in the Wall Street Journal shortly after his Australian trip:

If a greater ‘voice’ for the Indigenous population simply translates into more government lucre for politically connected tribal elders and aboriginal elites in urban areas — which is the track record of racial preferences for minorities in countries all over the world — the result may well be wider social and economic disparities for everyday indigenous Australians.”

Many solutions rooted in ideas of liberalism have provided paths for people from across the globe to develop attitudes, habits and skills that facilitate upward mobility. We at CIS will continue to work hard at achieving those outcomes.

With the Australian public’s emphatic rejection of the voice, it’s a fair bet Australia will remain a tolerant, welcoming liberal democracy and civilised society where the rule of law applies equally to every citizen.

Imperfect as we certainly are, Australia is one of the world’s most successful nations. It requires a great deal of something – self-hatred, guilt, sense of inferiority or just fashionable foolishness – not to recognise that fact.

Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies.