Every so often, in the life of nations, there comes a moment when a new political force articulates a sense of frustration at the old orthodoxies, or a yearning for something new. Sometimes, such a force turns into a momentous presence that transforms the national landscape.
Australia has reached such a moment in the person of a 42-year-old Aboriginal mother of four. A conservative legislator for little more than a year, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the shadow chancellor for indigenous affairs, has challenged the old, failed narratives which argue that systemic racism is responsible for indigenous woes and that a policy of welfarism and separatism is the answer. As a result, she has changed the nature of our national debate surrounding our Aboriginal population.
On 14 October, Australians will vote in a referendum on whether to support a constitutional change that would compel the federal parliament to take advice from an unelected and unaccountable ‘Voice’ comprising a group of indigenous Australians. The advocates (‘Yes’), which include the centre-left Labor government and its media allies, bill the ‘Voice’ as a ‘modest’ proposal that would help heal the traumas of history and unite the nation. But opponents (‘No’) fear that the creation of a Voice will be a smokescreen for a treaty, reparations and more apologies for what are viewed, in hindsight, as British sins of the past, which will lead to more division across the country.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Voice has attracted overwhelming financial and rhetorical support from the corporates, celebrities, union bosses, private schools, universities, the richest philanthropists, the big sporting codes, and so on. The national airline Qantas, which has not been state-owned for three decades, has even plastered ‘YES’ on the tails of some of its planes. How this virtue-signalling appeals to those customers, staff and shareholders who don’t subscribe to the zeitgeist is not clear.
But one thing is: all the polls show that the Voice will suffer a humiliating landslide defeat in a fortnight. Many enthusiasts, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, indulged in hubris and vilified decent people as racists, clouding the issue in the hope that the nation would vote according to emotion and not reason. But the public pushed back.
Much of the credit for the cultural and political sea change belongs to Senator Price, who has led the charge against the Voice. Price, a former Alice Springs deputy mayor, first came to prominence in 2016 when she delivered an address to the Sydney-based classical liberal thinktank I head. Titled ‘Homeland Truths: the Unspoken Epidemic of Violence in Indigenous Communities,’ Price’s lecture was a powerful call to stop the violence against women and children inflicted predominantly by Aboriginal men. Soon after, I hired her to head our indigenous affairs programme. Our goal: to change the narrative about indigenous policy.
Price rejects meaningless symbolism – including campaigns to eliminate Australia Day on 26 January, which marks the First Fleet’s arrival on Sydney Cove in 1788. She instead supports a new political paradigm that stresses the importance of empowerment, a strong work ethic and a recognition of the limits of state power to correct social ills. That means rejecting not just the historical narrative of Aboriginal people as victims since the British ‘invasion’, but the indigenous political orthodoxies based on welfare and taxpayer handouts. Since the early 1970s, government policies and many billions of tax dollars have comprehensively failed to solve the problems that afflict remote communities where about 15 per cent of the 980,000 Aboriginal Australians live.
Price says that separatism, which involves special treatment, is the underlying problem, whereas integration works. Most Aboriginal people live in cities and regional centres, increasingly partner with non-indigenous people – Price herself is a Walpiri-Celtic woman married to a 50-year-old Scot – and their living standards are far higher than those in remote communities. Only by promoting equal rights and responsibilities, she argues, can the nation hope to find true reconciliation.
Price has become a symbol of national protest against the shaming of people into thinking – and voting – a certain way. She has brought the ‘Voice’ referendum to life. She has restored passion, genuine debate and meaning to politics. Voters sense her sincerity and honesty and respect it. ‘If we keep telling Aboriginal people that they are victims we are effectively removing their agency,’ she recently told the Canberra press gallery. ‘And then we’re giving them the expectation that someone else is responsible for their lives. That is the worst possible thing you can do to any human being.’
Price is moving us towards a new era, in which the most significant Aboriginal force is on the right side of politics. This achievement ought to be celebrated. Instead, strenuous attempts have been made to turn her into a figure of contempt. She has endured nasty press criticism for suggesting that British colonialism had a ‘positive impact’ on Aboriginal Australia. She’s been called a ‘coconut’ (black on the outside, white on the inside), an ignoramus, a racist and a ‘puppet’ of the thinktank I run. She has been attacked for wanting to ‘punch down on other blacks’. Besides the smears, she has endured intrusion into her personal life. Her private mobile phone number was recently publicised, which allowed her (anonymous) critics to bombard her with abusive messages. The disturbing thing about the invective is not just the vitriol but also the unwillingness even to consider a different way of thinking about indigenous affairs.
Price has carried on regardless. And there is every indication she will be vindicated on 14 October when the Voice fails.
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies.