Australia’s referendum fails and, sadly, that’s a good thing
The victors get to write the history – that’s not always true. Saturday’s winning side in Australia’s referendum on an indigenous voice to Parliament is being misrepresented in the world media.
At the beginning of the campaign in March and April polling was running at about 60 percent for Yes and 40 percent for No. The final result was almost the opposite – 39.7 percent for Yes and 60.3 percent for No. The No vote won in every single state. The only jurisdiction with a majority Yes vote was the Australian Capital Territory, where Canberra is located.
However, “Crushing Indigenous Hopes, Australia Rejects ‘Voice’ Referendum,” was the headline in the New York Times. “Why Did Australia Fail Its First Nations Citizens?” asked the Washington Post. “Australia rejects Indigenous referendum in setback for reconciliation” was Reuters’ interpretation. And Al-Jazeera said that “Indigenous Australians call for ‘week of silence’ after referendum failure”.
Two local experts, academics from La Trobe University, declared that “It may entrench views of Australia as a settler-colonial state unwilling to grapple with its past.”
But these interpretations misrepresent the referendum, the campaign, and the Australian people.
The referendum proposed “to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”. There would be nigh-universal approval amongst Australians for recognizing indigenous people as the first nations. They have lived here for possibly 60,000 years and have a unique connection to the land.
There is universal agreement that the situation of indigenous people, especially in remote areas, is appalling. Some are effectively living in a Fourth World country, not even a Third World country. Billions upon billions of dollars have been poured into government programs and the gaps in key areas like life expectancy, incarceration, suicide, and children in care persist.
“The Voice”, despite Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s soothing reassurances that it was modest, gracious and legally sound was simply … dumb. It proposed to hand a blank cheque to persons unknown. But this was a referendum on a significant change to the constitution, not a referendum on the PM’s good intentions.
The sticking point was the Voice. There was no detail about how the Voice would work, who would be part of it, how they would be chosen, and what powers it would have. Voters were told to trust the government.
The campaign was intense but not, as the BBC claimed, “fraught and often acrid”. The Yes campaign, which was supported by state and federal governments, many of Australia’s big corporations, churches, trade unions, sporting codes, universities, and everyone who wanted to be seen to be doing the virtuous thing, appeared to be a done deal when Albanese announced it in March.
It became “fraught” when the No campaign, to everyone’s surprise, surged ahead.
As for the “horrific racism” alleged by some journalists, this is hard to square with the fact that the leading figures in the No campaign were Aboriginal leaders Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who comes from one of the most disadvantaged Aboriginal centres in the country, and Nyunggai Warren Mundine, a businessman and political strategist. Senator Price’s brilliant campaigning has turned her into a major political figure.
Apart from a few minor incidents by lunatics on both sides of the debate, the thunder was all rhetorical.
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At a Sydney polling booth
The referendum – which cost A$450 million, according to the Australian Electoral Commission – was supported by woke professionals. A map of electorates with a majority Yes vote shows wealthy islands of blue bobbing in a vast sea of red.
A respected financial journalist, Robert Gottliebsen, was uncharacteristically scathing about the amount of money that famous brands donated to the Yes campaign. “The real reason too many large corporates jumped into the Yes campaign was that they are embracing woke and politically correct agendas like Uluru in their organisations, and those views swamped the long held traditional behavioural rules and the national interest.”
Perhaps the biggest own goal for the Yes campaign was a photograph of the Prime Minister with Alan Joyce, the outgoing CEO of Qantas, the flagship carrier, in front of a plane emblazoned with the Yes logo. A few weeks later Joyce, the apotheosis of woke virtue signalling, resigned early -- with a $24 million handshake -- after mounting anger over allegations that Qantas had cheated its customers and given them shocking service and illegally outsourced thousands of jobs during Covid. It made the Yes campaign look like an out-of-touch project of inner city elites.
To be sure, many Aboriginal people must be deeply disappointed with the outcome of the referendum. It will take a detailed analysis of the vote to determine how remote Aboriginal communities voted. By and large they back the case for the Voice, but they were not unanimous.
There is no doubt that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders do deserve much, much better from their government. Historically, their fellow Australians have failed them badly. But since the story of official help has been one of failure and underachievement, it’s clearly time for an entirely different approach. What is needed is a plan which prioritises family development, education in virtues, and dignified employment.
The failure of the referendum must be a springboard for radical change. The government has just wasted $450 million – surely it can find some small change to entertain fresh thinking on this vital issue.
Michael Cook is editor of Mercator
Image: a polling booth in Sydney
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