A thank-you note for the Yes campaign for the Voice
In the spirit of reconciliation, I would like to offer a note of gratitude to the Yes campaign, whose cheerleaders and public figures have become — well, all right, accidentally — the most effective advocates for the No case. This talent for making the Voice seem as unpalatable as possible comes in a variety of forms, but I like best the Yes side’s internal disagreement over what this referendum is really about.
On the Voice to Parliament
by Charles Prouse. Hachette Australia. 2023. 87 pages
For example, I appreciate Anthony Albanese’s regular reminders that voting for the Voice is simply a demonstration of one’s good manners. To be charitable, he has slightly expanded his vocabulary on this theme, as he adds to such a risible argument that it would also be assenting to a “modest” and “gracious” request. Sceptical voters must have noticed the Prime Minister’s own unmannerly conduct when he’s politely asked to elaborate on this topic; his prickliness when queried about those pesky details has had — fingers crossed — a particularly dooming effect. Again, to be fair, he’s also admitted to having not bothered to read the Uluru Statement in its entirety, so perhaps he isn’t the ideal person to consult on his own proposal anyway.
Albanese’s Referendum Working Group, I’m happy to report, has principally worked on alienating potential voters from the cause. Professor Marcia Langton is my favourite in this regard, and not only for her customary difficulty in reaching the end of a sentence without calling someone a racist. Langton’s greatest contribution has been to validate the concerns and arguments of the No side. In fact, those who have called the Voice designers mere constitutional vandals, according to Langton, have understated their case. At the recent Lowitja Institute conference in Cairns, she informed her audience:
“People who are opposing the Voice are saying we are destroying the fabric of their sacred constitution. Yes, that’s right. That’s exactly what we are doing.”
Langton has been ably assisted in this project by fellow Working Group member and ubiquitous Yes campaigner Thomas Mayo. His preferred cliché is that the Voice is simply a gift from Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders to the rest of Australia, and that there is nothing mysterious or controversial about it at all. One person who disputes that characterisation of the Voice is Thomas Mayo himself, who adds a few immodest details to the proposal when he’s firing off posts on social media or firing up his comrades at rallies and speeches.
On these truth-telling occasions, Mayo becomes positively giddy as he imagines the unlimited scope and vast powers of the Voice, which he calls “a black political force to be reckoned with.” He also daydreams about punishing any politician who stands in his way, a goal that sits somewhat at odds with graciousness and gift-giving. In fact, Mayo has also let slip that non-Indigenous Australians — sometime after gratefully receiving the Voice — are expected to reciprocate with a gift of their own, though in the form of rental payments, reparations and land.
Mayo has spent the last six years making these varying cases for the Voice, and, I gather, auditioning for his own role on the body should the referendum be successful. Of course, if Mayo ends up disappointed, the No camp really ought to send him a thank-you note to cheer him up, as I’m not sure if anyone has dissuaded more voters from writing Yes. In a recent interview, Mayo said he hasn’t even contemplated failure, still seemingly unaware that he contributes to that failure with his every utterance. Not to worry, though: there’ll be plenty of opportunities for quiet contemplation after the vote, when Thomas Mayo, finally, is likely to have a bit more free time on his hands.
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The book I am reviewing, On the Voice to Parliament, by Charles Prouse, is the latest addition to the campaign literature — which side it serves, however, isn’t immediately obvious. Of course, it’s intended to be a moving and persuasive case for voting Yes, written by an author with real authority and expertise in Indigenous affairs. Instead, much like the efforts of Langton, Pearson et al, this short book neatly encapsulates just about everything that’s wrong with the Voice and why our constitution is just fine without it.
At first glance, Prouse departs from the modes of others by making his case in a relentlessly boring manner. Unlike most Voice advocates, who prefer militant threats and creative insults, Prouse offers a series of platitudes that anyone would nod along to; there is, though, the risk that the reader may just nod off. The Voice, Prouse declares, “is an issue of nationhood and the Prime Minister is asking us to have a conversation that is important for our future.” What’s more, it’ll be decided by all those “little conversations” Australians have with each other in the lead up to voting day.
He bangs on like this for a few more skimmable pages, as he wrings his hands about the many problems confronting us: “It’s a lot to contemplate. And maybe I’m not the person to talk about such things.” Again, there’s much to agree with here. He began to lose me, though, when he got down to the real business of the Voice, its alleged details, and how constitutional enshrinement will have a magically transformative effect on the lives of all Australians.
Fairly high up on the No camp’s bill of complaint has been the lack of openness about the details. To his credit, I suppose, rather than lie for the cause and say it’s all there if you look, Prouse embraces and spruiks a Voice that’s currently a bit short on clarity. What we’ve been kindly provided with, he writes, “is a proposed ‘model’, it gives a lot of information on what the Voice to Parliament might look like if we vote Yes, and it will need further work.”
Well, yeah. Although Prouse is too obtuse to realise it, he has just stumbled upon the reason why Australians have remained rightly sceptical of the proposal: we want definite answers now, not after we’ve voted for the most significant constitutional alteration in our nation’s history. For Prouse, anyone who dares to make this point is guilty of setting “a trap” for the voters, an accusation that gets flung around every few pages or so. I quite like all the projection contained in his word choice, though: if any side is trying to ensnare the public, it’s the one that promises to let you know what you’ve voted for only after you’ve written Yes.
Prouse is equally useless on the link between establishing the Voice and the supposed benefits it will bring. In some truly cringey paragraphs — which I just can’t bring myself to quote — he warms to the subject by asking readers to imagine how happy they’ll be after a successful referendum. This includes, for some reason, improved relations with neighbours and friends. And then, just as we’re about to be enlightened on the Voice’s transmogrifying effects on policy and closing the gap, he cuts himself off: “I won’t unpack it for you — get informed and have the conversations.”
As it happens, Prouse doesn’t even have any original empty arguments to offer; instead, he redirects readers to the empty arguments of others.
The best part of the book — at least for voters with a long memory — is a lament about the shuttering of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, where Prouse kicked off his career in the Aboriginal Industry. There’s a bit of requisite Howard-bashing and a good deal of unconvincing revisionism on how terrific ATSIC was. The problem, Prouse sniffs, is that the Commission’s funding was “paltry”, which is another way of wishing for more taxpayer lucre to rip through and mismanage.
“Something died again for me when ATSIC was taken from us,” he writes. The resurrection — handily enough — he finds in a new sacred document, the Uluru Statement from the Heart. For Prouse, the Voice would indeed be a constitutionally enshrined version of ATSIC, one that could live forever and never be abolished by government. Such a connection is more explicit than the No camp has even tried to make, which, I suppose, makes sense. This is yet another example of how often during this campaign Voice critics have been able to take the day off: it’s much easier and more effective to let the Yes side get on with discrediting itself.
Continuing with this theme, while Prouse exhorts the reader to become better informed, he shows little indication he has dipped into any of the homework himself. This is particularly embarrassing when it comes to what the Voice will actually speak about, as he misreports: “There will be standards that guide the Voice on what it will and won’t focus on.”
Those standards, I trust voters realise, are — let me just double-check — imaginary. Voice architects forgot to include any limiting principles on their remit, so they’ve been looking looking forward to getting up to whatever they fancy.
Immune to these facts, Prouse avers that “the questions of whether the Voice will be deciding our military capabilities … are born out of fear and laziness.” Sally Scales, a member of Albanese’s referendum advisory group, would like to rebut this claim. Her most notable contribution to the debate has been to suggest that the AUKUS submarine pact wouldn’t be foreign to the Voice’s policy. Again, this is an instance where it’s best to leave the Voice backers to squabble while the prospective No tally grows.
Prouse’s get-out-the-yes-vote strategy backfires in a few other amusing ways. In preparation for a guilt trip, he switches to second-person point of view and imputes responsibility for the crimes and failures of the past to his non-Indigenous readership: “We’ve been ignored, killed and broken because you think you know what’s better for us.” This technique, I’d argue, has diminishing appeal. Of course, a certain white progressive cohort — you know, the ones who refer to themselves as settlers on Naarm and acknowledge country every ten minutes — will lap it up, but I suspect that more Australians are getting weary of the endless demands to say sorry and atone for their inherited colonial sins.
Another person keen on reminding you of your guilt is Prouse’s mother, whom he recruits to the Yes camp. To make the word count, he pads out the book’s final section with a transcript of their wide-ranging yarn, which touches on everything from what’s wrong with “the white man” to what’s the worst that’ll happen if the Voice referendum fails. Well, things will escalate quickly, according to a loony prediction from Mrs Prouse: “And we’ll get that dictatorship. That dictatorship will continue, Charles.”
A stern editor at Hachette might have questioned the wisdom of including all this, but you won’t hear any complaints from me, honestly. It brings to a close, one might say, a conversation between reader and author that’s included a good deal of finger-wagging, misinformation, misplaced praise for ATSIC and a Voice model that we’re no closer to comprehending. On a final note — and this should clinch the matter — Prouse hints at, should the Voice get up, “better integration of our ancient culture for everyone.” This isn’t exactly spelled out, but what it means, I fear, is the introduction of longer and more frequent welcome to country ceremonies.
I’m happy to recommend On the Voice to Parliament to Mercator readers, because it will promote an outbreak of good sense. As a bonus, readers inclined to vote No will come to the end of the book with those intentions very much intact.
As the campaign intensifies, these kinds of anti-Voice sentiments are the main topics of those “little conversations” that will decide the referendum. Charles Prouse and other advocates may not like what they’re now hearing, but they’re the ones responsible for steering the conversations in this direction. That’s one of the reasons why, right from the outset, I’ve expressed my gratitude to the Yes side and encouraged my fellow No voters to do the same. After all, and as we’ve been reminded for just about the last time, this referendum is really about showing good manners.
Timothy Cootes has written for Quadrant, Quillette, and the Spectator Australia. He lives in Sydney. Follow him on X/Twitter @timothycootes.
Image credit: the Australian Federal Parliament in Canberra / Bigstock
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