Things to learn from the Voice to Parliament referendum - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Things to learn from the Voice to Parliament referendum

In the wake of the Indigenous Voice referendum failure, much has been written about why the No case prevailed, how the Yes camp lost and what lessons we should learn from the campaign and defeat.

While the media focus this week has been on the politics, there are some bigger and more important takeaways beyond that.

First, the referendum indicates a decisive rejection by the Australian people (especially those who live outside the wealthy or progressive areas in the major cities) of a settlement with Indigenous people based on creating separate Indigenous legal and political institutions.

The issue of sovereignty loomed very large in the referendum, even though the Yes campaign did its best not to emphasise it. This was understandable from a tactical perspective but ultimately a mistake.

It was one of the main reasons the Yes campaign struggled to get any traction on the rationale for the Voice, and why it needed to be in the Constitution. None of the answers that were commonly given held up.

It is true that decision-making is better when you hear from those who are impacted by government decisions, but that is true of every decision and every community. Indigenous disadvantage is real, but insisting the ‘speaking’ body goes in the Constitution implies the disadvantage will continue forever.

Past racism and failures to listen to Indigenous people also undeniably happened, but as the US Chief Justice once said “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Policies of affirmative action to make up for past discrimination remain deeply unpopular.

However the Uluru Statement, and especially the dialogues surrounding it, did not have any such confusion around the rationale. It envisaged this Voice as coming from an enduring Indigenous sovereignty that co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.

The Statement identifies this sovereignty as ‘spiritual’, but it clearly encompasses the traditional sense of sovereignty too. That implication is unavoidable: it purports to serve as a source of political rights and its manifestation is the creation of a new representative political institution within our Constitution.

It was this sovereignty that was the unspoken link between a referendum that was both ‘modest’ and ‘meaningful’. As an expression of sovereignty, the Voice was quite a modest request, however the incorporation of a separate sovereignty into the governing document of our nation was quite radical.

And, of course, it is this sovereignty that would have been solidified by treaty negotiations following a successful referendum.

Even should such a process bring reconciliation, as my former colleague Jacinta Nampijinpa Price rightly identified, the end result would be permanent separation. Some Australians would have different rights and representation to others — based on their membership of a particular ethno-cultural group.

This way of thinking is progressive orthodoxy, and has been an increasing feature of Indigenous policy in Australia, but it is an anathema to liberal ideals.

The alternative vision to group-based empowerment is a recognition that sovereignty is not held by the Crown, but by the people. The moral basis of our sovereignty comes from the just consent of each individual, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, voting together as equals.

This is the great lesson of the liberal revolution of the past 300 years. There are no conditions where some people deserve more voting rights while others deserve less. These ideas were once used to justify the exclusion of women, minorities and men without wealth and property from the franchise — and were ultimately all rightfully rejected.

The  referendum sought to upend this and argue that unequal rights are needed to make up for an unlevel playing field. Clearly the public rejects this too.

We should not accept Indigenous Australians having lesser political representation than anyone else but nor should we grant them more, regardless of the nature of those rights.

Yet, this rejection of progressive orthodoxy also risks being misunderstood by both sides of this debate.

First, Labor appears to have mistaken its recent electoral surge as evidence of a permanent progressive shift in Australian politics; hence its decision to push forward with this referendum on a partisan basis.

While comparisons were drawn to the same-sex marriage plebiscite this is fundamentally mistaken. Same sex marriage was a liberal reform for equality, while the Voice was a progressive reform for equity.

Educated, elite Australia has decisively shifted towards elements of progressivism but the remainder of the country has not. The bastions of Yes supporters were to be found in Teal and Green seats, not the marginal electorates where government is won and lost.

But suburban Labor electorates voted resoundingly for no. And it is this constituency that is crucial for Labor to hold office. They would be wise to start governing accordingly.

A good starting point would be not to allow themselves to get carried away with the condescending idea that misinformation was the cause of the referendum’s defeat.

As with any political campaign, both sides pushed their preferred narrative that at times bore only passing resemblance to the truth. Partisans on both sides pushed the truth even further. There was also some absolute nonsense in the dark corners of the internet.

But segments of the Yes campaign — as has become increasingly the norm for progressive politics — continued to act as if the average voter was a gullible moron; incapable of distinguishing truth from lies, infinitely susceptible to being misled, just needing to be told what to do by a celebrity or corporate endorsement.

While individuals are capable of being misled, as a whole the electorate is rather good at sniffing out weaknesses in the arguments presented, and the Yes campaign was undeniably weak. It lacked key details and refused to debate No campaigners or explain what would be done.

Its messaging was overly simplistic, and contradictory in places. It acted as if the people couldn’t be trusted with any complexity, and key campaigners responded with anger, suspicion and abuse when challenged.

It looked duplicitous, even where it wasn’t.

On the other side, it would be a grave mistake for the Coalition to assume all No voters will flow into their camp in 2025. This is a good example of Australian voters as ‘small c’ conservative, rather than ‘big C’ Conservative.

Comparisons are already being drawn to Brexit and Trump but such comparisons are superficially valid, at best. This was a rejection of the ‘big end of town’ but where Brexit and Trump were an act of rebellion — a vote to burn down the status-quo — this was exactly the opposite.

Yet again, ordinary Australians are far better guardians of their institutions than either their overseas counterparts or our political elites.

This suggests a path forward. The Uluru Statement represented an offer from Indigenous Australia to move forward into a different future. Perhaps the best response is to offer to learn from the past so we can have a better version of the present.

Simon Cowan is Research Director at the Centre for Independent Studies.

Photo by George Becker