Australia: Labor government’s indigenous ‘Voice’ referendum suffers heavy defeat

Voice ballot (Photo: CC)

Before polls had closed in Western Australia the result was in and the ‘Voice referendum’, held on 14 October, was defeated. It was voted down by all states and by a national majority. Nationally, only 39.6 per cent of the population voted Yes, while 60.4 per cent opposed. Only the Australian Capital Territory voted yes. The campaign predictably saw the culture warriors on the far-right dog whistle and stoke confected rage, while the confused message of the yes camp failed to provide a clear idea of what this reform was meant to achieve. Vote yes for transformative change, but also vote yes for a modest proposal with no power.

Racism has been deliberately cultivated by capitalism. In Australia, racist ideas served as justification for the brutality of the settler colonial state and the theft of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands. Later this was cultivated as a tool to divide and rule the growing working class, particularly as more diverse migrant communities emigrated to Australia.

Socialists celebrate the long history of struggle and resistance of Indigenous peoples in Australia. We recognise the ongoing structural racism in our class-based society. Socialists stand shoulder to shoulder with Indigenous people today in our joint fight against racism and capitalism.

Voters were asked to approve a change to Australia’s Constitution on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recognition. The new chapter would have said that there is a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, that the Voice may make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government on relevant matters, and that the Parliament has power to make laws with respect to the Voice.

The Voice proposal came out of the Uluru Statement from the Heart (a 2017 petition that calls for substantive constitutional change and structural reform).  However, its origins go back much further. Prior to its dissolution, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission’s (ATSIC) 1995 report, Recognition, Rights and Reform, called for constitutional recognition. In fact, the 1988 Barunga statement included a call for a nationally elected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation and on several occasions various forms of representation have been called for such as the Unaipon call for an Aboriginal State in the 1920’s or the petition from William Cooper for Indigenous representation in federal parliament in the 1930’s.

More directly the process that led to the Uluru Statement from the Heart started with a letter from Noel Pearson, an Aboriginal lawyer and prominent advocate for Indigenous Australians’s right to land, to then conservative Prime Minister John Howard, in which Pearson called on Howard to avoid electoral defeat through constitutional recognition. Howard accepted Pearson’s advice and the Rudd-led Labour party opposition mirrored the call. A string of committees reporting to the Rudd, Gillard, Rudd (again), Abbott, and Turnbull governments paved the way to the Referendum Council, which commissioned the regional dialogues culminating in the National First Nations Constitutional Convention at Uluru.

Malcom Turnbull rejected the Uluru Statement and the process lost momentum under the Morrison government. After winning the 2022 election, one of the first statements from incoming Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was a commitment to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart. At that time, polls indicated support for the Voice was well over 60%. In the final count, however, support nationally dropped to 40% with 60% voting no.

Pearson has worked over a number of years with the conservative side of politics on the basis of a misguided idea that the left (meaning the Labor party) is already won over to progressive ideas, so the task is to convince the Coalition. Despite the years of bipartisan support for constitutional recognition, that approach by Pearson fell to pieces when first the Nationals and then the Liberals decided to campaign against the Voice. The leader of the opposition Liberals, Peter Dutton, had a clear strategy: inflict a defeat on the Albanese government. Pearson felt betrayed after decades of following the ‘sage’ advice of watering down demands to make them palatable to those in power. In the event, even the most modest of reforms were unacceptable.

This lesson is clear to socialists. Change comes from mass movements forcing those in power to accept the change, and ultimately it comes from taking power and changing society.

Change comes from mass movements

Pearson talks about the Voice completing the Australian constitution by tying together the three threads of Australia: indigenous, settler, and migrant. Pearson shamefully supported the right-wing Howard government’s Northern Territory Intervention, a policy so racist that race discrimination laws had to be suspended. Pearson represents a layer of Aboriginal people that have benefited from capitalism. The issues facing indigenous workers are not down to the identity politics that Pearson espouses. They are the same issues of exploitation and poverty impacting all working-class Australians.

The strategy of the Albanese government was to keep a so-called ‘small target’ and leave the running of the yes case to others. This mirrors the small target campaign Labor ran in the 2022 federal election. Following a heavy defeat in the referendum, Albanese will look to move on quickly. ‘Talking points’ given by the Labor machine to government MPs instruct them to point to Labor’s so-called achievements in health, education, and employment when questioned on what comes now that the Voice is dead.

The opposition Liberals will likely not dwell on the result as they turn their attention to the next election and regaining seats from the ‘teals’ (independent MPs), where support for the Voice was much stronger. At least four of the six teal constituencies voted yes.

In an article in the September edition of The Monthly, political commentator George Megalogenis pointed to potential issues for Dutton and the Liberals in the event of either a no or a yes victory. Historically, governments have suffered referendum defeats and retained government at the following election. Megalogenis points out that no voters will soon move on to other issues while yes voters, particularly those in the teal seats, will remember the referendum campaign and outcome and will not return to the Liberals.

The Greens were initially divided over this issue, with most of the party wanting to support the Voice, while their Senator, Lidia Thorpe, opposed constitutional reform unless it guaranteed that Indigenous sovereignty would not be ceded. Thorpe later quit the Greens for the crossbench, which cleared the way for the Greens to fall in behind the yes campaign.

The tactic of the no campaign has been to sow disinformation and create division, then use the confusion and disunity as further basis to vote no. At one stage, Dutton came out in favour of a second referendum with a more limited symbolic recognition. Yet this question was asked in the 1999 referendum and was rejected. Moreover, proponents of the Voice reject the idea of symbolic recognition. The Voice proposal was seen by some sections of the population as a practical, material form of recognition.

Others campaigning for the no vote, such as conservative lobby group, Advance Australia, have a history of spreading disinformation based on regressive politics of division. This group has been found to put out false and misleading information and circulated false claims that the Voice would infer special rights on Indigenous peoples, which is patently false.

One of the common arguments played through the media included the question of the need for constitutional reform itself.

No campaigners argued that the Voice can be legislated without being embedded in the constitution, either on a trial basis or in perpetuity. What this argument ignores is the history of Indigenous advisory bodies and the history of the process that led to this referendum. There have at various times been several Indigenous organisations established by legislation and dissolved by governments that deemed them inconvenient. The most recent example being ATSIC, abolished by the Howard government in 2005.

The yes camp argued for the Voice to be embedded in the constitution to prevent future hostile governments from abolishing the body. In reality, a hostile government could simply legislate changes that render it unable to function.

This will likely be a point of debate in the yes camp; should the government have first legislated the Voice and only enshrined it in the constitution later.

Indigenous Australians have higher rates of infant mortality and shorter life expectancy, poorer outcomes in health, education, and employment, and are much more likely to be incarcerated. A socialist programme includes increased funding for health, education, housing, and secure well-paid jobs for indigenous Australians. This funding would be under the control of local communities so that money can be spent where it is required and for the benefit of working-class people.

For socialists, it is important not to sow illusions in capitalist institutions. It is likely that many talented and passionate people would have worked through the Voice to make a great number of worthy recommendations. But would these ideas be acted on? We have clear historical indications that the answer to that question is no.

Of the 339 recommendations from the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody very few have been implemented. A 2018 review by Deloitte claimed 78% had been implemented which is commonly used by governments as cover for their failure to act.

The Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research found, “Our research at the time of our initial response to the Deloitte review, in December 2018, suggested that very few of the RCIADIC recommendations have been implemented and in fact many of the recommendations have been directly contravened by government laws and policies.” There have been at least 555 deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission. Seventy of those were this year.

Both Labor and Coalition governments have been in power since that 1991 Royal Commission. If they cannot act on, and in fact can actively work against the recommendations of that body, we should not fool ourselves that the Voice would have received a better hearing. The problem is not that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices are not heard; the problem is that the major parties do not want to listen.

If Labor had any intention to really further Aboriginal rights, it would immediately bring forward legislation to enact every one of the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission. Likewise, the 1997 Bring Them Home Report on the stolen generation. They won’t. Albanese is all talk no action.

Lidia Thorpe’s opposition to the Voice can be traced back to the Referendum Council Uluru talks. Thorpe was one of a group of delegates that walked out of the talks that lead to the Urulu Statement from The Heart. While the views of those walking out are not uniform and much time has since passed, the key theme of Aboriginal activists against the Voice centre around the question of sovereignty.

British colonialism

When James Cook and Arthur Phillip claimed possession of Australia in the 1700s on behalf of the British Crown, they did so without regard to the First Nations peoples and also outside of the norms of international law at that time. In his book, Truth-Telling, Henry Reynolds makes the point that “The British had expropriated the land [Australia] without compensation. It was a land grab almost without precedent. And by its very nature revolutionary in the same way as was the Bolshevik’s abolition of private property in 1917.”

While the reality of colonial settlement in Australia may have settled the question of sovereignty in a practical legal sense under capitalism, the fact remains that Australia was founded on illegal settlement, on the bloodshed of an ancient culture, and that to this day contemporary Australia is yet to reckon with its black history. Many white Australians recoil from this, as though it is to take personal responsibility for the actions of generations past. Socialists understand that we must reckon with class-based history if we are to stand in solidarity with indigenous Australians to fight against racism and for socialism.

Thorpe and those who advocated the ‘progressive no’ vote in the referendum correctly pointed to the problems with the Voice, that it sows illusions and that under Liberal and Labor governments the Voice will not be listened to. They argued that the Voice undermines efforts at a ‘treaty’, and that a treaty with Indigenous Australia must come first. It is at this point that their argument unravels.

Thorpe and proponents of the ‘progressive no’ hold just as many illusions in capitalism as those who advocated a yes vote. A treaty with capitalism that leaves the current system in place will not result in more power for Indigenous Australians. Capitalism will not allow significant distribution of wealth, and any concessions won will be temporary in nature and taken away as soon as the movement ebbs. Only the socialist transformation of society can put an end to racism.

As noted by Thorpe, by holding this referendum the Albanese government stoked the flames of racism. Events in the US foreshadowed this outcome, when following the election of Donald Trump there was a measurable spike in hate crimes. Already in Australia, ‘treaty and truth telling’ processes underway in Queensland are now in doubt, with the Liberal National Party withdrawing support.

Capitalism uses racism to divide the working class. Socialism Today (CWI Australia) supports full rights for Indigenous Australians and all minorities that are oppressed and exploited under capitalism. A socialist society, based on the working class owning and democratically managing the main pillars of the economy, would guarantee full rights for Indigenous Australians. Under capitalism, the Voice will not address the issues facing indigenous Australia. We need a programme to address indigenous disadvantage. This means well paid jobs, quality housing, and access to healthcare. The Voice referendum, which in the hands of pro-capitalist politicians, on both sides of the debate, has led to a rise in racism

We understand that for many Indigenous Australians and workers and young people took the approach of ‘hold your nose and vote yes’, in the absence of a mass socialist alternative. For Socialism Today, the focus must be on building the organised workers’ movement and the enormous potential energy of the working class and youth in the fight for unity against the cost-of-living crisis and the big bosses and their political parties, and for a socialist Australia, which would see the ending of racist oppression and class inequalities.


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October 2023