On Monday morning, enthusiastic celebration couldn’t mask profound debate over the Voice referendum bill’s implications. Political discussion implies that preserving civility and respect in the months leading up to the vote is unlikely.
Senator Lidia Thorpe’s “welcome to Assimilation Day” speech wasn’t simply her usual rant against a “token” Indigenous voice advising a “racist colonial regime”.
Five more years. I need no votes. “I don’t need white guilt,” she said. “That’s the point. Giving the poor little black lads a powerless advisory committee assuages white guilt in this society.
“We’ll never cede sovereignty, and we’ll fight you to the end for a treaty to have real power in this country.”
It wasn’t only Senator Pauline Hanson’s similarly heated inquiry of where all the billions spent on indigenous Australians had gone and how a Voice to parliament could solve the fundamental concerns.
“How many of you in this chamber have been to these Aboriginal communities?” she challenged. I witnessed it. Nighttime street children exist. Abuse—alcohol, drug, and sexual—makes children scared to go home. Why is being white my fault? Why is it not the communities’ fault?… What about my relationship to this land?”
Because between those two extreme versions of the No vote is a lot of goodwill and confusion about the referendum.
Most majority support constitutional acknowledgment of Indigenous Australians, but the Voice advising government is losing favor. They don’t know how this body will work, who will represent it, or why. Post-vote details in October.
Passion needs convincing
Albanese has argued the two notions cannot be separated from his first statement after winning the election, stating again on Monday that the referendum will be a time of national unity.
I tell Australians that parliament passes laws but people make history. “This is your chance,” he said. “Australians care about the vulnerable. They’re generous enough to recognize that assisting others doesn’t make their lives tougher.
In a period of high inflation and rising interest rates, Albanese believes sentiment will hold. He optimistically believes the referendum’s balance is correct since some say it goes too far and others say it doesn’t go far enough.
“What’s wrong?” he inquired.
But Australians’ generally cautious approach and purposefully high obstacles to referenda reflect the difficulty of convincing a majority of people in a majority of states to support the Voice as the natural application of constitutional recognition.
Despite fervent support from Labor administrations, led by the prime minister, the Greens, the teals, and at least some Liberals, community support has declined.
Most Indigenous leaders’ calls for the country to adopt the Uluru Statement from the Heart, including the Voice, and their cautions that rejection would destroy reconciliation have gone unheeded.
Now communal, cultural, and religious groups, athletic codes, many large firms, and unions are relying on more open and impassioned Yes campaigning to reverse trend.
The hazards of the government’s unyielding policy against genuine reform or compromise are evident and growing. Soft yeses are becoming soft nos.
It’s why even famous Indigenous leader Noel Pearson has suddenly started emphasizing the necessity for the Yes campaign to focus more on constitutional recognition than the Voice. Albanese has remained quiet about his support for other parts of the Uluru Statement, notably the treaty notion, in recent months.
The prime minister won’t allow Coalition arguments that the Voice’s wording is open-ended and will lead to legal battles over a bureaucratic body’s scope and jurisdiction rather than practical improvements in Indigenous Australia’s poor health and education outcomes. The Coalition’s main concern is that the referendum’s plan would irrevocably divide Australians by race.
The 1967 referendum that authorized the federal government to enact “special laws” for persons of any race and count Indigenous Australians in the census had 90% voter support.
It’s a distinct country with clashing expectations. The 2023 referendum defeat would entrench that emotional, toxic strife. Symbolic achievement would not solve Indigenous disadvantage as many Voice supporters claim.
The Albanese administration can hope for a narrow triumph from a modest majority with NSW, Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania overcoming the serious likelihood of a no vote in Western Australia and Queensland.