Andrew L. Urban
Come the referendum and the Voice will be dead or alive. But the shouting will continue. Post-referendum Australia will have been socially and politically poisoned by this debate, as illustrated by the vitriol and general nastiness of the divisions the proposal has created. No, not the notion of constitutional recognition alone, but the payload this Voice carries of a volatile mechanism set to sideline parliamentary superiority in law-making, and the transformational treaty agenda.
Expectations are being misleadingly orchestrated; damaging consequences are being ignored. Notable by its magic thinking implausibility was Minister Linda Burney’s claim that the Voice would have averted the youth violence in Alice Springs. Talk me through that, please.
The aftermath of the referendum will be brutal, either way. If it’s a ‘no’ from us, the airwaves and papers will be filled with the sound of anguish and hatred will be hurled at those whose public utterances can be vilified by the Prime Minister’s ‘yes’ team. That’s the team that includes the Aboriginal Minister for Indigenous Affairs who doesn’t know Aboriginal history, still mistakenly thinking she is from a race once until recently considered flora& fauna; an Aboriginal elder who belittles and insults Aboriginals not in tune with the Voice; and an entire political party that is attached to the idea of a racially divided country.
There will be no cohesion, no coming together that heals the schism created by this baggage cart rolled into the chambers of Australian democracy.
The wishful thinking exhortations will continue that the Voice would have solved the problems on the ground, closed ‘the gap’ and delivered to Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders the solutions to problems decades of generous and genuine efforts have failed to address. How could Australians assess the validity of those claims having been kept ignorant of what the Voice will do differently to succeed in achieving such claims.
There will be scant reflection on what those failures really signify: they were and still are, applying the wrong remedies. There is scant reflection now: when Peter Dutton wrote to the Prime Minister in January, warning that the failure to provide accessible, clear and complete information would damage reconciliation efforts and ensure a dangerous and divisive debate grounded in hearsay and misinformation, the PM responded with this tweet: “People are over cheap culture war stunts…” That will be the tone of a post-defeat narrative, blaming it on ‘cheap stunts’ – and Peter Dutton.
Recriminations will chafe and keep us divided. The clash will manifest as yet another chainsaw applied to society already torn by the appalling handling of the Covid pandemic, the foolish and evidence-free mass delusion of climate alarm and the absurd (also evidence-free) claims that Australia is a racist country.
There may be worse to come if the referendum passes. The optimistic expectations generated by promises of closing ‘the gap’ and solutions to the urgent and long-standing dysfunction and violence in remote communities will remain. Even after allowing time for the nationwide Voice bureaucracies to be established (a curse to start with) Australians will be waiting expectantly for signs of improvement in all those areas the Voice promises to attend. It is naïve and ignorant of history to think that the Voice will achieve any tangible outcomes – certainly not within the life of this parliament. Managing expectations is paramount; there is nothing more damaging than a promise not kept.
Resentment will build. Acrimonious debate will flare in print and on TV, not to mention Parliament. All the arguments against the Voice will be rehashed with added righteousness.
Australia is ill-served by this referendum, which is damaging race relations, fuelling aggression (PM Albanese, Lidia Thorpe and Noel Pearson leading the pack) and breaking down the goodwill that was evidenced in the 1967 referendum.
If reconciliation is the coming together of two previously divided parties, we are half way there already. It will be realised when the various apologies and many sorry sentiments made by official Australia receive a response from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, with an acknowledgment. That’s how reconciliation works.
In his book, The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray makes a thought-provoking point in the context of historic grievances: “As the insult and grievance fade from generation to generation those who hold on to this grievance are often regarded as displaying not sensitivity or honour but belligerence.”
It is a great shame that the opportunity for genuine reconciliation is being wasted by the band of today’s activists and national good will is switched to ill will and belligerence.
It is a cruel disappointment that the Voice will almost certainly not meet expectations if the referendum passes, and the referendum will feed social disharmony irrespective of the result.
Worse still, the failure of this referendum would not be the end of the quest for a treaty between black and white Australia. The ‘belligerati’, egged on by ‘Blak Sovereignty Movement’ champion Lidia Thorpe, will not take no for an answer.
### The proposed referendum is planned for later in 2023, seeking to incorporate a Voice to parliament in the Australian constitution; the Voice would provide advice to parliament relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Reconciliation Australia website states: “A Voice to Parliament will give Indigenous communities a route to help inform policy and legal decisions that impact their lives. Giving people a say will lead to more effective results.
Embedding a Voice in the Constitution would recognise the special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia’s history, but importantly would also mean that it can’t be shut down by successive Governments.” The Voice concept has divided Australians, including indigenous citizens. The government has not tasked the Australian Electoral Commission to conduct the usual bi-partisan information campaign with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ arguments provided to all registered voters.
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