Media shouldn’t be asked to gaslight Voice opponents - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Media shouldn’t be asked to gaslight Voice opponents

In an interview with The Australian Financial Review, Voice campaigner Megan Davis warned that, in reporting on the Voice referendum, the media was elevating disinformation and racist attacks and was susceptible to ‘false balance’ or ‘bothsidesism’ — i.e., giving credence to arguments that lack credibility to seem fair and balanced.

Davis seems to suggest the merits of her views in the Voice debate are so obvious there shouldn’t be a debate at all; that her Yes campaign is on the side of truth and people who oppose the Voice are no better than flat-earthers whose arguments are so demonstrably flawed the media shouldn’t give them the time of day. People on one side of a political debate may regard opposing views as wrong. That doesn’t mean they get to be the arbiter of truth.

Like Anthony Albanese’s initial — but now reversed — decision to refuse to distribute Yes and No Voice to parliament referendum pamphlets to households, this is nothing more than political gaslighting. It’s an attempt to bully the media into denying a platform to the No case and silencing dissenting views.

Here’s an example of the supposed ‘disinformation’ the No case has been accused of. Last year, Advance Australia ran a series of campaign advertisements on social media saying the Voice confers “special rights” on one race of people. RMIT University “fact-checkers” declared this “false” and Facebook took down the ads.

RMIT’s ‘verdict’: “Legal and constitutional experts say the proposed Voice to parliament will not provide anyone with ‘special rights’, but rather provide an opportunity to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to make representations to parliament on matters that impact them”.

RMIT says the Voice isn’t a special right but then goes on to describe what sounds very much like a special right. Who else has a constitutional, enshrined opportunity to make representations to parliament and the executive government? And the ‘legal and constitutional experts’ RMIT relied on were limited to the Referendum Working Group’s own legal team (the Constitutional Expert Group comprising six law professors, one former High Court judge and lawyer, Noel Pearson), plus one other law professor.

Yet in a recent ABC interview, Pearson said that if the Voice was legislated before being put in the constitution, it would have to be legislated under the constitutional power to make laws on “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”. So, the Voice requires a special law for a particular race of people, and that law gives those people a right to make representations to government and parliament. Sounds like a special right to me.

Demonising their opponents’ arguments as racist and lacking credibility is a convenient way for Voice supporters to avoid answering the many legitimate questions and concerns that have been raised about embedding an Indigenous Voice in Australia’s constitution.

Here’s just a few.

We’ve had four national, elected Indigenous voices since 1973. There has been an Indigenous voice in operation for most of the past 50 years. Why will this Voice succeed when all others failed?

Prime Minister Albanese says the Voice is needed to close the gap. If he believes that, why not legislate for it now? And why wait until after the referendum to settle on the details to be put in place? If the government really believes the Voice will close the gap, why wait?

The only solution to poverty and disadvantage is economic participation — kids going to school and adults in jobs. How will the Voice increase Indigenous economic participation?

The Voice will advise on matters affecting Indigenous people. That’s everything. In the same interview, Pearson said there was almost nothing Indigenous people wouldn’t want to advise on, including tax, health and education. How will this work in practice? Will ministers be able to make a decision without consulting the Voice first? Will the Voice take over from the many Indigenous bodies who already work with and advise governments?

Indigenous people aren’t a hivemind like The Borg from Star Trek. We don’t agree on everything, even though the whole premise of the Voice assumes we do. Will the Voice always have to reach consensus, or will it decide by majority vote? Will dissenting members be able to provide alternative representations? What happens when the Voice contradicts the advice of other Indigenous groups — e.g., if local Indigenous organisations want alcohol bans or cashless welfare, but the Voice opposes them? Who will the government and parliament listen to in these scenarios?

There are some absolute truths in life. Constitutional interpretation isn’t one of them. It’s just not good enough for members of the legal profession who support the Voice to assert there’s nothing to worry about. I have no confidence legal challenges won’t be used as a tool to undermine government decision making, parliamentary process and decisions by traditional owners. If RMIT’s fact-checkers consulted former High Court judge Ian Callinan or constitutional law professor James Allan, they’d hear serious concerns.

Political debates don’t have a ‘true’ and ‘false’. It’s not the media’s job to silence opinions but to question, scrutinise and hold people to account, including asking Voice supporters to address legitimate and unanswered questions. The media should publish a plurality of views, not parrot one side of a political debate.

After continued pressure from Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, Prime Minister Albanese backflipped on his position and agreed to send an information pamphlet to voters with a Yes and No case. It remains to be seen who’ll write and approve the No case and if the official pamphlet will suffer from the same bias as RMIT and exclude legitimate information as ‘false balance’.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine is director of the Indigenous Forum at The Centre for Independent Studies.

Photo by Dids