Why do Yes campaigners fear public debate? - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Why do Yes campaigners fear public debate?

Allow me to do some self-promotion: the Sydney-based public-policy research organisation I head, the Centre for Independent Studies, will host a series of events about the voice to parliament in Perth (August 20), Hobart (August 30), Adelaide(August 31) and Brisbane in September.

Opponents of the proposal to change the Constitution include Indigenous Australians senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Nyunggai Warren Mundine, past and present CIS scholars respectively.

The events, following our successful debate in Sydney in April, promise to be lively affairs. However, there is a problem.

While opponents of this proposed change to the Australian manner of governance are more than willing to argue the merits – or demerits – of the change in public, their adversaries are not.

Invitations have gone out 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 has accepted the invitation. Could it be they simply don’t want to debate?

These people lead busy lives and CIS is hardly the centre of the universe. But it is odd that many leading proponents of the voice seem so keen to avoid a debate about what Noel Pearson has called the most important vote since Federation.

No matter what side of the issue one falls, no one is served by shutting down debate. Yet this appears what the Yes advocates are all about.

John Stuart Mill, in his seminal work, On Liberty, published in 1859, argued: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion …

“Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them … he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

This should demonstrate the extreme value to advocates of the voice of allowing a proper public debate. It was something the Romans valued too, and had a phrase for it, “audi alteram partem”; literally, “hear the other side”. Hearing the other side allows you to understand your opponents’ case, and to refute their points; and if you can’t refute them, then it might suggest to the undecided that your side is, in fact, rather weak intellectually.

History, and particularly recent history, tells us the hard left seeks to limit freedom of speech for anyone who disagrees with their views. It cynically calls for a “debate” on contentious issues before doing all it can to avoid it – in direct contravention of the Mill thesis. So it is with the “debate” before the forthcoming referendum on the Indigenous voice.

It also seems that advocates of the voice are happy to deploy any means to wriggle out of presenting their case in public, and having it forensically examined.

They don’t like the idea of appearing with Aboriginal conservatives such as Price and Mundine, both of whom have been subject to appalling personal abuse for their own principled stands on the question.

It is easy for pro-voice activists to smear white opponents as racists, colonialists or white supremacists. But when intelligent and experienced people from the Aboriginal community start to point out the flaws in their argument, matters become far more difficult.

They argue that it would “distinguish” people such as Price and Mundine to debate with them. But that just ignores the fact they have great distinction already. It also provides a convenient excuse not to expose the pro-voice’s own vulnerabilities.

Some activists have also sought to smear the CIS as “right wing” and “ideological extremists” in order to avoid its meetings on the question, despite it being obvious to anyone with any degree of political sophistication that the centre is a classical liberal think-tank of a sort to be found all over the world.

And the pro-voice activists allege that “an adversarial debate would not be productive”. But, of course, it would, at least in clarifying the issues and the credibility of the respective arguments. However, the voice’s proponents may fear the productive outcome of such a debate would not reflect as well on their case, and on them, as they would wish.

Those of us who witnessed the 1999 republican referendum have, to an extent, seen this before. A vocal minority, with easy access to the mainstream media and corporate coffers, is swift to put its own case, but far less swift to be questioned or examined on it by others.

In 1999 a significant majority of Australians wanted to preserve the constitutional monarchy precisely because it had done them and the country no harm. There were no compelling arguments for change and, therefore, there was no change.

If there are compelling arguments for the change that will be offered in the referendum on the voice, the proponents of the measure should not be so afraid to debate them in public. They know they have to get a majority in a majority of states; with each day that passes, and to the extent that the negative polling trends continue, the prospect of that becomes less and less.

We hope the CIS events across the nation help clarify public thinking about an issue so many Yes supporters seem keen to dodge.

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