A referendum on giving Indigenous people’s rights some recognition in Australia’s constitution has led to both a right-wing backlash and some divisions on the left. Australian socialist Jordan Humphreys argues why a ‘Yes’ vote is important despite the reform’s limits. 

Maritime Union of Australia members at a ‘Vote Yes’ rally – photo from MUA Victoria branch via Facebook

This is an expanded version of an article first published in Red Flag.

On 14 October, Australians will be voting in a referendum to decide if an Indigenous Voice to parliament should be included in the constitution. The referendum has become a topic of heated debate in Australian politics. The Liberals and Nationals (the main conservative parties in Australia) and the far-right party One Nation are campaigning hard for a No vote and are using explicitly racist rhetoric against Indigenous people. Meanwhile, the federal Labor government, most Indigenous public figures, the Business Council of Australia, trade unions, and NGOs are campaigning for a Yes vote. The Yes campaign argues that the Voice, which would be a body of Indigenous representatives that advises the Australian government on Indigenous issues, will help Indigenous people overcome disadvantage and discrimination.

Support for the Voice has dramatically declined from around 70 per cent at the end of last year, to less than 50 per cent now. In order for the referendum to succeed, it must get not only a majority of votes but win in the majority of states as well.

The proposal for a Voice was developed by a layer of Indigenous academics and lawyers and was endorsed by hundreds of delegates at the First Nations National Constitutional Convention in 2017. The Convention argued that the Voice should be enshrined in the constitution through a referendum in order to make it more difficult for a hostile government to dissolve it, a fate that has befallen previous Indigenous advisory bodies. When the Labor party won the 2022 federal election, they quickly announced that a referendum on the Voice would be a big part of their new government’s agenda.

The Voice itself is a very modest proposal. It will be an advisory body only, with no actual power over government policy. Parliament will have to listen to its views – which it can then freely ignore. This is even more limited than equivalent systems in other countries with Indigenous minorities such as New Zealand and Canada.

A racist backlash

However, even such a powerless advisory body has attracted fierce opposition from the right wing of Australian society. The conservative right views a defeat for the Voice as a chance to strike a devastating blow against support for Indigenous rights among the Australian population, and undermine support for the Labor government. In the process, it is reviving every racist myth in the playbook: Indigenous people shouldn’t get ‘special treatment’; opposing anti-Aboriginal racism is actually ‘dividing the nation’; and the Voice would undermine democracy. Far-right Indigenous politician Jacinta Price, who has been promoted to the shadow cabinet, has shot to media stardom. In a widely publicised speech for the National Press Club, she ranted about ‘Black on Black crime’, celebrated the British Empire and argued that the colonisation of Australia had only a ‘positive impact’ on Indigenous people. Liberal leader Peter Dutton claims that the Voice will ‘re-racialise’ Australian society and give ‘special privileges’ to Indigenous people. Echoing Donald Trump’s attempts to undermine the US presidential election results, Dutton has also claimed that the Australian Electoral Commission could ‘rig the referendum’.

Sky News Australia has launched a 24-hour Voice-dedicated channel spreading the latest conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, the recent Australian Conservative Political Action Conference was dominated by racist tirades, epitomised by the thunderous applause ‘comedian’ Rodney Marks received when he told the crowd that he would ‘like to acknowledge the traditional owners—violent Black men’. Conservative political strategists argue that if the No vote wins this could be Australia’s Brexit moment and compare it to Trump’s 2016 election win.

The right has also used the bigoted atmosphere around the debate over the Voice to promote a series of racist attacks on Indigenous rights. In Western Australia, the adoption of a relatively mild Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act in July led to a right-wing backlash organised by the Pastoral and Graziers Association and backed by the Liberals and Nationals. The right connected the Act to the Voice, erroneously claiming that the Act would give Aboriginal people the right to enter any property and stop any construction site and that the Voice would make this a national policy—a revamping of the racist myth that Aboriginal people would use Native Title to claim people’s ‘backyards’. In response to the right-wing campaign, the WA Labor government overturned the Heritage Act.

There has also been a hysterical moral panic over Indigenous youth crime, which has been amplified by right-wing media outlets and politicians across the country. In response, the Queensland state government has changed the law to criminalise breach of bail conditions by young people and suspended the Human Rights Act to allow police to put detained youth into adult watchhouses. Queensland has the largest youth prison population in Australia, 63 per cent of which is Indigenous.

For left-wing people in Australia, this intensification of racism has come as quite a shock. For the last decade or so it seemed that support for Indigenous rights, while still inadequate, was at least moving in the right direction; that progress was being made. Tens of thousands came to Invasion Day rallies, the issues of police brutality and racism were at the centre of mainstream political discussion, and there has been a greater appreciation of the history of Indigenous oppression.

‘A bedrock of racist attitudes’

How then has the right so successfully undermined this? Why is every major poll reporting that support for the Voice has dropped below 50 per cent? Part of the explanation must be the existence of a bedrock of racist attitudes towards Indigenous people within a not insignificant section of the Australian population. A June Guardian Essential Poll found that among those opposed to the Voice, 34 per cent said that their main objection was that it would ‘divide Australia’. Another 33 per cent believe that it would ‘give Indigenous Australians rights and privileges that other Australians don’t have’. Only 26 per cent said that a Voice ‘won’t make a real difference for ordinary Indigenous people’—an ambiguous talking point that right-wingers also claim to agree with anyway.

These attitudes didn’t come from nowhere. For more than 150 years, the Australian establishment ridiculed Indigenous people as biologically inferior and subjected them to horrendous cruelties: the frontier massacres, economic exploitation, the removal of children and social segregation. This left a racist residue in Australian society, which has been tapped into by right-wing politicians from time to time.

While there have been important shifts in popular attitudes over recent decades, and old-school open hostility towards Indigenous people is relatively marginal, racist attitudes endure in various forms. Greater numbers of young people might support changing the date of Australia Day, be concerned about Black deaths in custody and think the Voice if anything is too modest a proposal—but it is a different story in other sections of the population.

A January Essential poll found that 45 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 34 back changing the date of Australia Day, a prominent demand of pro-Aboriginal rallies—but support fell to 25 per cent of 35 to 55-year-olds and to just 13 per cent of those over 55. Overall, only 26 per cent of people surveyed supported changing the date. Unsurprisingly, opposition to the Voice is strongest among men over the age of 55.

Why anti-racist campaigning matters

Not everyone supporting a No vote is a hardcore racist. There is also a significant section of the population that just doesn’t care very much about Indigenous people. While they might not be motivated to oppose acknowledgements of country or greater cultural recognition for Indigenous people, they also don’t have any defence against the more coded arguments presented by the No campaign: Isn’t this proposal really confusing? Aren’t there some Indigenous people opposing it? Won’t it cost a lot of money? The main slogan used by the No campaign is ‘If you don’t know, vote No.’

All of this points to the shallowness of the shift around Indigenous issues in the last decade or so, which occurred without any serious radicalisation in society or sustained mass activism that could have more significantly transformed popular attitudes on this question. While there has been the occasional large protest Australia has not seen anti-racist struggle on the mass scale of the Black Lives Matter rebellion in the US. Indigenous people are also much more marginalised than some other oppressed groups. They make up around 3 per cent of the population with many living in extremely poor remote communities or urban slums. Many Australians will have very little or even no interaction with Indigenous people throughout the course of their lives.

The conservative right has once again successfully mobilised the existing racist sentiment in their favour. At first, the Liberal Party was somewhat cautious about forthrightly campaigning against the Voice, unsure what the response would be. After all, when the referendum was first announced in the wake of the Labor Party’s victory in the 2022 federal election, it appeared that any opposition to the Voice would struggle to gain a hearing.

The Voice was strongly backed by corporate Australia, including most of the big mining companies. It emerged from more or less bipartisan discussions between conservative or moderate Indigenous figures such as Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton, leading constitutional experts and politicians from across the political spectrum including influential figures within the Liberal Party. When the Uluru Statement from the Heart was first unveiled in 2017, proposing the idea of a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to parliament, it even received the backing of the Murdoch media.

By the end of 2022, though, cracks had emerged within the campaign for a Voice, and support was falling from the initial high of around 65-70 per cent. The Liberals had started to question the Voice, but initially, open opposition was led more by the Nationals and the far-right party One Nation. The landslide defeat for the Liberals in Ashton in April this year, when, for the first time in a century, the federal government won a seat from the opposition in a by-election, raised hopes among some that Dutton would now move to the centre and not openly oppose the Voice.

Instead, he announced that the Liberals would campaign for a No vote, binding his cabinet to this position, which triggered the resignation of the Liberal shadow attorney-general and Voice supporter Julian Lesser. The party now threw itself into fighting the Voice. After April, Dutton was using parliamentary question time to claim that the Voice was an expression of the ‘madness of identity politics’. The gloves had come off, and the Murdoch media now came in strongly behind the No campaign. By July, almost all of the respected polling companies were recording majority support for a No vote.

The official campaign’s weaknesses

Racist attitudes and the dynamics of Australian conservatism, while important, are only part of the explanation. The decline in support for the Voice has also been facilitated by the weaknesses of the campaign to support it.

When the right has gone on the attack, the Yes campaign has ceded ground or waffled in response. For example, one of the arguments of the No side is that the Voice will open the floodgates for treaties. In response, the Yes campaign has argued that the referendum has nothing to do with a treaty, and when Albanese was asked if the Commonwealth government would negotiate a treaty if the Voice won, he told ABC radio: ‘No … because that’s occurring within the states’. Yet the Voice is supposed to be part one of the three-part plan of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which includes a national treaty process and has supposedly been adopted in full by the Albanese government.

When a group of left-wing activists protested outside of a No event in South Australia, both Albanese and Yes campaign director Dean Parkin condemned the protest for ‘nasty behaviour’ and undermining respectful debate. Marcia Langton, a very conservative Indigenous figure who supports the Voice, was viciously attacked in the media for saying that some of those voting No were racists. Rather than defending her comments, Labor politicians said that Langton had misspoken because she had been traumatised by racism.

This reveals one of the deeper problems for the Yes campaign. On the one hand, it wants to emphasise how the Voice is a modest idea which is just a nice thing to do for Indigenous people that doesn’t really cost anyone anything. On the other hand, it also claims that the Voice isn’t just symbolic but is a real, tangible step towards racial harmony and reconciliation. The conservative right then has a field day pointing out the contradiction between the two positions.

These aren’t just tactical missteps by the Yes campaign. It flows from the strategy of orienting towards the concerns of the shrinking middle ground of moderate conservative voters. The whole Voice campaign was predicated on the idea that there would be bi-partisan support for the proposal. Since that has evaporated, the Yes campaign has been floundering for an alternative strategy. The current strategy of moving further to the right to chase No voters isn’t winning greater support for the Voice and definitely isn’t doing anything to challenge racism.

A ‘progressive No?’

There is also a minority of Indigenous and non-indigenous people supporting a progressive No position on the referendum. Advocates of this position, including independent Indigenous senator Lidia Thorpe, argue that Indigenous people shouldn’t be included in a racist constitution and some believe that if the Voice is defeated this will open up more space for alternative paths for Indigenous people. The progressive No campaign though significantly downplays the fact that the vast majority of people supporting a No vote are doing so for right-wing reasons, not because they want something more than just a Voice. If the Voice is defeated it will be viewed as a rejection of any action for Indigenous people and so is likely to make it harder, rather than easier, to campaign for more left-wing solutions to Indigenous oppression.

The result of the whole debate around the Voice has been to shift the discussion about Indigenous issues to the right. Only a few years ago, the major parties were on the back foot over the lack of progress for Indigenous people, the continuing high incarceration rates, Black deaths in custody and some pressure over changing the date of Australia Day.

Now, political discussion is about whether Indigenous people are getting ‘unearned privileges’; whether ‘ordinary’ Indigenous people care at all about political issues such as racist policing or land rights; whether it is ‘reverse racism’ to draw attention to Indigenous oppression; and whether a powerless advisory body is too radical a proposal for Australia. Meanwhile, the reality of anti-Indigenous racism grinds on far from the concerns of politicians and media pundits.

Why ‘Yes’ needs to win

A win for the No vote in the referendum will embolden the racist right, which is already scoring victories against Indigenous rights. That’s why, despite our criticisms of the Voice and the Yes campaign, Socialist Alternative are arguing that the Left should vote Yes in the upcoming referendum. However, to challenge anti-Indigenous racism, we will need to keep fighting after 14 October for something a lot more substantive than the Voice.

From the post-war civil rights campaigns to the land rights and black power struggles of the 60s and 70s, there is a long history of resistance by Indigenous people, the workers movement and the socialist left in Australia that we can draw upon to build the struggles we need to push back against this new racist offensive.

Jordan Humphreys is a member of Socialist Alternative (Australia) and author of the recently published Indigenous Liberation & Socialism (available in Britain here)

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