Australia’s recent referendum was originally billed as a modest proposal to help unite and heal the country from its colonial legacy, but the recent rejection of the hugely controversial bill has exposed Australia’s racial fault lines and will likely affect its social and political future.
What is the referendum and why was it proposed?
The Indigenous population in Australia is made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, and accounts for 3.8% of the national population. These groups have inhabited Australia for over 65,000 years, however, since colonisation have been subject to ineffective and even deliberately harmful government policy. They remain some of the most disadvantaged people in the country with higher rates of suicide and domestic violence, a life expectancy eight years lower than the national average, and the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
The referendum, dubbed “The Voice to Parliament,” or “The Voice” was originally proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a 2017 document put together by indigenous leaders to set up a roadmap for indigenous reconciliation with wider Australia. The referendum was laid out about a year ago by the incumbent Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, the leader of the centre left Labour Party government.
It is the first part of a three-pronged plan in which Australia would change its constitution to recognise the original inhabitants of the land and set up an advisory body for indigenous Australians called The Voice, giving them a greater say on issues that affect their lives. The body would give advice to Parliament, government ministers, and the departments they oversee on issues affecting indigenous people such as health, education, jobs, and housing.
In order for the referendum to have passed, a majority nationally and in four of six states was needed. However, on October 14th, the No vote won out with 61% of the population and all six states voting against the referendum.
Why did the referendum not pass successfully?
Australia’s population is bitterly divided over the referendum, with many confused about the vagueness of the proposal and what it would mean for society. While the Yes campaign said that the Voice could help dismantle the entrenched inequality Indigenous communities still face, the No campaign saw it differently.
Some No campaigners were concerned that the idea would further divide Australian society by creating special “classes” of citizens and giving Indigenous people more privileges than others. Some of the supporters of this argument are Aboriginal themselves. For example, centre-right Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price believes that The Voice would further separate and marginalise the Aboriginal population instead of uniting the country, and further ingrain the hardship that many indigenous people face in Australian society. She and other Aboriginals worry that “it (is) another extension of the welfare model, and of separatism separating Indigenous Australians along the lines of race.”
Advance, the conservative group leading the “No” campaign, added in a statement,
“Australians who do not want their Constitution to divide us by race are not racists. In
fact, the opposite is true.”
Others had concerns about the referendum due to lack of clarity and details in the proposal with aggressive misinformation exacerbating fears. While lack of specific details is typical of a referendum, many No campaigners used this to attack the efficacy and demandingness of the proposal. They led an aggressive campaign characterised by misinformation, fear, and ignorance. The No campaign appealed to undecided voters with the slogan “if you don’t know - vote No” and a host of other statements designed to instil fear and convince voters that the proposal would divide Australia by race and be legally risky, despite expert advice to the contrary. The statement allowed the No campaign to position themselves as the “safe” and “default” option, making the modest, accommodating proposal out to be dangerous and permitting voters to not educate themselves.
This campaign led to vehement resistance from voters concerned about what they would lose and the degree to which The Voice would control Australian politics. Many voters had concerns that their land would be taken away or that The Voice would give advice on every government policy. Larissa Baldwin-Robets, an Aboriginal activist and chief executive of the progressive group GetUp commented on this misinformation saying,
“They don’t know us, they hear a lot about us, and they’re worried about giving us more rights and what that would take away from them.” She continues “these misconceptions were the result of racist dog whistling and scare tactics that have been used for decades to stall progress on Aboriginal issues by suggesting that addressing colonial injustices would require a sacrifice from the rest of the country.”
What does this mean for Australia?
The result means no constitutional change, but the referendum will have lasting consequences for the whole nation. The result raises concerns over the validity and success of future elections. Many worry that the recent referendum will normalise misinformation in Australian elections. Kurt Sengul, a lecturer at the University of Sydney, commented saying,
“We may look back at the Voice referendum as a turning point for when election lies and conspiracies went mainstream in Australia.” He added that the current debate was, “the first significant Trump style misinformation and disinformation campaign we’ve seen in recent political history.”
Although Australia is not at as immediate risk of election denial, the recent referendum does not bode well for Australian democracy.
The referendum also unleashed widespread devastation across indigenous populations with the rejection of the proposal being felt as a rejection of the Indigenous by white Australia. Indigenous populations have been made the recipients of a barrage of racism, mistruths, and disinformation. According to Baldwin-Roberts, “(indigenous populations have) been spoken over and spoken for in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of anger that’s growing within our community around that, and a lot of people are worried about the harm that it’s causing.”
Indigenous groups who supported The Voice campaign are expressing their shock and hurt at the result, with Nine newspapers being reported to have stated,
“The truth is that the majority of Australians have committed a shameful act whether
knowingly or not, and there is nothing positive to be interpreted from it. Only the
shameless could say there is no shame in this outcome.”
In the statement by Indigenous leaders, community members, and organisations, the result was said to be so mean-spirited that it would remain “unbelievable and appalling” for decades to come. It said that “in refusing our peoples’ right to be heard on matters that affect us, Australia chose to make itself less liberal and less democratic.” The referendum has been received as a rejection of reconciliation by Australia’s white majority and an acceptance of a status quo which has failed Indigenous Australians for two centuries. It has saddened and further distanced Indigenous Australians with many reportedly feeling lost and placeless in their own country. The results will likely further polarise the population.
The referendum may even have the potential to alter Australia’s international perception. Worries of how Australia will be perceived on an international level post referendum have emerged, with many concerned that the results could be seen as “Australia’s Brexit moment.”
Despite the disheartening results of the referendum, Indigenous populations will reportedly not give up on their fight for voice, treaty, and truth – the key aims of the Uluru Statement. Indigenous groups will not accept the result as the end of their movement for change and will continue to fight for progressing First Nationals rights and justice through alternative mechanisms for change.