One of the intriguing arguments in defence of the Indigenous voice to parliament is the claim that its rejection at the October 14 referendum would deal reputational damage to this country.
According to the Prime Minister, a No victory would “affect international perceptions of Australia”. For Aboriginal Labor senator Pat Dodson, it would “send a tsunami wave across the international spheres that we are still stuck in our colonial past”.
“International shareholders,” corporate leader Michael Chaney laments, “would throw their hands up if it were lost and wonder about Australia as a fair place.” “Make no mistake,” former diplomat John McCarthy warns, “our national reputation would indeed be bruised by a No vote.”
Is this true? Would the defeat of the voice ignite global condemnation? Or are Yes supporters willing global outrage so they can damn those who might vote No?
The first thing to say is that this sense of parochialism – that the world scrutinises our political affairs – seriously overstates Australia’s place in world affairs. Travel may not always broaden the mind but it can sharpen perspective. As foreign policy commentator Owen Harries once remarked: “In many parts of the world for long stretches of time, good peripheral vision is required to be aware of Australia at all.”
I listen to the BBC’s World Service virtually every day and I hardly hear any Australian political stories on its Newshour podcast: to the best of my knowledge, there has not even been a report on the upcoming referendum. When we do attract attention abroad, as often as not it is for some natural calamity (floods, bushfires, shark attacks); a sporting, cultural or entertainment achievement; or for our charms as a holiday destination.
The rest of the world, far from reacting to Canberra’s political theatrics, is preoccupied with its own far more serious problems (from coups, civil wars, invasions and genocide to rampant corruption, genuine xenophobia, toxic polarisation and political dysfunction). True, one can expect Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times to run news stories and editorials suggesting a No vote would somehow hurt Australia’s image. But the rank hypocrisy from one of the world’s worst human rights violators would make a mockery of Beijing’s criticism.
The idea that business leaders, foreign investors, people in government and other decision-makers abroad will fret about the outcome of a constitutional referendum in a sovereign democratic state is risible. A Guardian or New York Times opinion piece written by a disgruntled Australian leftist is hardly proof of global censure.
Bear also in mind some history. What John Howard called “cultural dietitians” are so ashamed of their nation when things don’t go their way that they seem intent on blackening the image of Australia.
The uproar that followed the newly elected Howard’s failure to demonise Pauline Hanson in 1996-97 is a case in point.
Phillip Adams indulged in the political left’s wonderful talent for overstatement when he warned Australia would “occupy the proud place vacated by pre-Mandela South Africa”. The ABC broadcaster was hardly alone. Labor speechwriter Bob Ellis complained: “Soon, too late, we will all be reviled and ashamed, an international pariah like South Africa, with no way back.” The electorate was hardly disturbed, and Howard won the next three elections and became something of an international statesman.
In the lead-up to the 1999 republic referendum, several former Australian ambassadors warned a No vote, as senior public servant and diplomat Richard Butler cautioned, would “damage Australia’s international reputation … and undermine the nation’s trade interests”. To retain the British link, Richard Woolcott warned, “would send all the wrong signals about Australia’s perception of its place in East Asia”.
Once the republic campaign failed spectacularly, the aggrieved warned about the imminent dark age into which we would inevitably sink. Yet within a few years the constitutional monarchy of Australia signed its biggest export deal – a $25bn agreement to supply liquefied natural gas to China – and enjoyed lucrative trade deals across the region.
Refugees and climate have become other battles over Australia’s moral standing and legitimacy. Following the Tampa asylum-seeker standoff in 2001, Sydney’s Sun-Herald editorialised: “Once again, we are being condemned at the court of world opinion as callous and inhumane.” When Tony Abbott restored sanity and order to Australia’s borders in 2013, a Sydney Morning Herald headline screamed: “Refugee policies give Australia’s global reputation a beating”.
Far from being a global embarrassment, our border protection stance became a global role model, especially in Europe, where political correctness and a lack of political will have made it virtually impossible to exercise firm control of borders. Australia has shown that tough measures not only control illegal immigration but boost public confidence in legal immigration. As a result, the policy benefits nobody more than the immigrants who arrive fairly and illegally.
With the Howard government’s failure to ratify the Kyoto climate protocol, academic historian Raymond Evans reflected the progressive orthodoxy when he charged that Australia was “set to become an international pariah”.
After the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow in 2021, The New Daily highlighted Australia’s “battered and bruised global reputation”.
“A rogue nation on the climate” was how one COP expert described Australia, urging other nations to “ostracise the coal exporter”, according to Guardian Australia. Never mind that our emissions had been falling faster than that of most nations, and that our high-quality coal, gas and iron ore remained overwhelmingly popular on the global market.
To the extent international media outlets are intrigued by our energy debate, they are genuinely astonished about bizarre government policy. Witness this Wall Street Journal headline: “Australia, a Top Natural-Gas Exporter, Considers Imports to Stop Blackouts”.
In 1953, after communists crushed a worker’s revolt in East Berlin, German communist playwright Bertolt Brecht accused the regime of wanting to “dissolve the people and elect another”. He meant it as irony. But all too often that quip has been the attitude of Australia’s intellectual and cultural class.
Indeed, those who appeal most readily to the supposed moral authority of “world opinion” – as representing a sort of global majority verdict – don’t understand the basic principle underlying constitutional representative government: legitimate sovereignty ultimately rests with the citizens. Why should a UN committee or some international non-government organisation possess greater wisdom and maturity than the Australian electorate?
Former foreign minister Julie Bishop warns a No victory would send a “very negative message about the openness, and the empathy, and the respect and responsibility that the Australian people have for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders”.
Yet reconciliation has been a long journey in Australia, and it will continue regardless of the referendum outcome. There have been, after all, various disputes – land rights, native title, an apology – and the growing angst about the voice has far more to do with constitutional concerns and whether a race-based political body can fix problems in remote communities than any lingering racist attitudes.
That, though, has not stopped critics from trotting out kneejerk accusations of racism. Barrister Geoffrey Robertson, for instance, says: “If No wins, the world will see us as racist and ignorant.” To vilify decent people as racist and ignorant, clouding the issue in the hope that the nation will vote according to emotion and not reason is not only desperate but also little short of disgraceful.
Moreover, so many Australians from migrant backgrounds are welcomed and embraced as part of the nation’s vibrancy and welfare. Obviously, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still will have equality of opportunity and representation in parliament. And both federal and state governments still will try to close the gap (school attendance, education levels, employment, health and wellbeing) between Indigenous Australians living in remote communities and those who live in urban and regional areas.
Remember, too, Indigenous people, like all races and ethnicities, reflect a diversity of opinion: as many as 11 Indigenous Australians represent different parties in parliament and the two leading opponents of the voice are themselves Aboriginal.
If the Australian public rejects 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. Again, as Harries once put it, 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 and a presenter at the ABC’s Radio National.