The VOICE referendum which will be held on the 14th of October, is being unnecessarily politicized and wantonly turned into a divisive one. Originally, when the Australian Prime Minister made the proposition in July 2022, it was thought it would receive bipartisan support with overwhelming approval. By the time the referendum date was announced in August 2023, the political environment has become heavily polarised with many simplistic misrepresentations, false claims and imagined allegations being made.
The referendum is all about recognising the Indigenous Australians in the Constitution and empowering them to provide advice on issues affecting them to parliament and policymakers. Scrutinizing and debating that proposition is a good thing and it is essential for a healthy democracy. But this is not what is happening. The debate has been dominated by racially charged assertions based on unrelated matters. The attacks by the NO campaigners against the YES campaigners have increasingly become personal, and misunderstandings abounded. Any debate on such an important matter should be based on facts, not by making exaggerated claims or fearmongering. Otherwise, over 15 years of considered attempts for the journey towards reconciliation could become totally derailed.
The main issues raised against the YES campaign are:
1. The VOICE proposition causes division: It is increasingly apparent that, sadly, the NO campaigners are wilfully causing divisions. After patient and thoughtful discussions held over 15 years with hundreds of elders and leaders of the First Nations peoples, the YES campaigners have simply called for constitutional change and structural reform in order to address socioeconomic disparities – and make Australia stronger and more united. Constitutional law experts have pointed out that the proposed Constitution Alteration is not a racially based provision like the existing ‘races power’ – Section 51 (xxvi) – which the NO campaigners falsely claim to have been removed by the 1967 referendum. In fact, race is mentioned in two sections of the Constitution.
2. The VOICE proponents avoid providing details, and Australians have been asked to vote for something they “Don’t know” about: The referendum is about the principle of ‘Recognition through a Voice to Parliament’. The form and composition of this ‘advisory body’ will be legislated by the Parliament in consultation with the Indigenous communities and the broader public after the referendum. The process will be completely transparent. This is not buying a house without an inspection, or being asked to sign a blank cheque, as the NO campaigners claim. Rather, the Australians are making an informed choice to improve the lives of this country’s First Peoples by listening to their views first.
3. A leftwing conspiracy for power grab: This is completely wrong considering the history and evolution of the YES campaign. Scores of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have contributed to this process, and many Labour, Liberal, Green, Independent, and Left politicians have been actively involved in lively discussions leading to the campaign. Several Liberal Party Shadow Ministers have resigned over this issue.
4. A constitutionally embedded voice would open the door for legal challenges: These concerns have been rebutted by many constitutional experts, and clear advice has been given by the Solicitor-General.
5. It will allow the VOICE to make representations on matters not directly relevant to Indigenous peoples: The consulting person or body can always verify the relevance on any such matter and disregard the representation. The Voice is all about advice, and will not have the power to veto laws or decisions. The Parliament and Government have the final say.
6. The VOICE would be a Canberra based elitist body that will not represent the genuine interests of the First Nations communities: This dubious assumption is all about gaining populist appeal. The Voice is a product of the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ that has called for a representative body for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples “coming from all points of the southern sky”. It is proposed to use the already recognised 35 Local and Regional Voices as the Voice’s bottom tier. The National Voice will come out of this.
7. The VOICE will not properly address the issues of the Indigenous peoples and therefore it will be ineffective: Statistics show the existing representative bodies have not produced the desired outcomes for the Indigenous communities. Just 4 out of 19 ‘Closing the Gap’ targets are on track. By listening to the Voice of the people on the ground, well-coordinated and targeted services can be delivered more effectively and efficiently. The long-term solution, however, lies in a Treaty arrangement that accepts Black sovereignty.
8. Landowners will have to pay rent to Aboriginal Councils: This has nothing to do with the referendum in question. Even as some ‘progressive’ NO campaigners emphasize, the voice is an advisory body with no teeth to enforce such measures.
9. The possibility of vote rigging! This is the most ridiculous claim of all, like the Trump campaign did during the last US presidential elections. This assertion is totally rejected by the Australian Electoral Commission.
Despite all the false allegations, misrepresentations, and assumptions the NO campaigners are making, they have so far not made any plausible alternate proposal, except the Opposition Leader saying that he will have another referendum if the upcoming referendum fails. He appears to support recognition of the First Nations people, and no more. So, in essence, what the NO campaigners are saying is: No Voice, no consultation, no empowerment, and the lever of control has to remain permanently in the hands of ‘others’, not with the Indigenous peoples.
As we have experienced in Sri Lanka on numerous occasions, the NO campaign seems to be largely dependent on deception, confusion and distraction. As Australians from multicultural backgrounds, we have a duty and responsibility to vote for empowering the First Nations peoples to have a say on decisions that affect their future. It is a fundamental right and very much part and parcel of a participatory democracy.
This is not Labor’s Divisive Voice, as accused by some NO campaigners, but a call for the Australian people’s magnanimous response to improve the First Peoples’ lives. This is a concept advanced by ‘The Uluru Statement from the Heart’ so their “ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood”. The whole thing must be approached with love, understanding and tolerance.
When the Prime Minister announced the date for the referendum, he said, “When YES wins, all Australians will win. So, in a spirit of generosity and optimism, vote YES.”
Let us take this referendum as a historical opportunity and help deliver a fairer future for the First Nations people just as for all others.
Statement issued by Australian Advocacy for Good Governance in Sri Lanka (AAGGSL)