The Referendum

The Referendum

On 15 October 2023, the day after the referendum, we’ll awake to one of two possible Australias. One where – against the current polls – we’ve accepted the gracious invitation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and have taken an important step towards reconciliation. Another where, at a time of economic uncertainty and social media echo chambers, we find ourselves still the Lucky Country as Donald Horne meant it – isolated, complacent, and ever resistant to big ideas.

As a civil liberties and human rights organisation, some in the no campaign might well want us to champion the cause for yes; the idea that a Voice would improve the lives of First Nations peoples has been derided as some kind of vanity project from those inside the ‘Canberra bubble’.

The irony of this is that many leaders of the no campaign are career politicians working in the Nation’s capital. Many of these people seek to exploit negativity and division for short-term political gain, and in doing so would appeal to atomised self-interest; if a non-indigenous person doesn’t receive a direct benefit from the Voice, then why would they support it? This is the same kind of base political calculus, you might think, that would underpin a decision to walk out of the apology to the Stolen Generations. One that fails to recognise that we all benefit from being part of a community that moves towards reconciliation. 

And of course we’ve seen this referendum story before. A splinter in progressive voices exploited by a broad coalition of forces resistant to change. Scare campaigns and misinformation. Politicians urging us all to distrust political processes, and yet willing to speak out of both sides of their mouths; the Voice is radical and will do too much; the Voice is powerless and will do nothing. 

A significant number of these opponents to the Voice have prevaricated and obfuscated until they saw the polls heading in their current trajectory and then decided to back what they think will be a winner. The disingenuous suggestion of another referendum seeking only constitutional recognition is a transparent attempt to kick the can down the road, and pay platitudes to First Nations peoples without substance.

There should be nothing divisive about wanting First Nations peoples to have a Voice to Parliament. Most politicians in the no camp welcome a revolving door of lobbyists in other aspects of policy making, so why shouldn’t First Nations peoples have a peak national body to speak to Federal Parliament about things that affect them? There is nothing in the model that threatens parliamentary sovereignty or our system of government – the recommendations from the Voice will not be binding. We all know this, but the no campaign doesn’t care provided enough people are scared off. “If you don’t know vote no” is not a call for people to seek to understand the Voice, it’s a call for people to vote based on fear of the unknown. 

But those of us who care deeply about civil liberties and human rights have confidence that a Voice will make a real and positive impact to the lives of First Nations peoples. Read the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Listen to the many First Nations leaders who support the Voice. Consider the position of groups such as the Law Council of Australia, the Victorian Criminal Bar Association and the Law Institute of Victoria, representing members who have seen how our criminal justice system discriminates against First Nations peoples who remain one of the most incarcerated peoples on Earth. Today. In modern Australia. 

Over 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody, there have been at least 552 First Nations deaths in custody. We know that in many areas Government policy and policing have a disproportionate impact on First Nations peoples. There remains a life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people of almost a decade. There is significant disadvantage in health and education. This is a source of great national shame. Faced with that reality, you can choose to deny, look away, or seek do something about it. 

The latest argument from the no campaign, questioning what function a Voice would have once we’ve closed the gap, is farcical. First, wouldn’t that be a nice ‘problem’ to have? It ignores that any such reality is tragically too far away, and it fails to understand that a Voice isn’t just about remedying disadvantage, and nor is it just about stopping it from happening again. By sharing the wisdom of the oldest living civilisation through a constitutionally recognised seat at the table, this can lead to positive change for all of us. It’s not just about addressing past injustices, it’s about ensuring we all have a fairer future. 

So which Australia are we going to be?

Michael Stanton
President, Liberty Victoria