Australia’s Indigenous Voice Referendum was doomed from the start

World | Gwynne Dyer

“On 14 October there is nothing for us to lose — and so much to gain. There is no downside,” said Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in August, announcing the date of the great referendum on enshrining an Indigenous ‘Voice’ in parliament. How wrong he was.

In terms of futile and deeply divisive political phenomena, the United Kingdom had Brexit and the United States still has Donald Trump, but now Australia has its own trophy in the self-harm Olympics. The referendum failed, and in failing it deepened the gulf between the white majority and those of Aboriginal descent.

I had already lived in the U.S. Deep South and I knew South Africa in the days of apartheid, but I was still shocked by the open, shameless racism towards Aborigines that I saw the first time I went to Australia, in the 1980s. Not all whites were racists, but nobody took issue with those who were.

It was hard to explain, because there was no heritage of slavery in Australia and Aboriginals are only three per cent of the population (no ‘Great Replacement’ narrative here). Public behaviour has improved considerably since then, particularly among the younger generation, but the contrast has just deepened.

There has been a big Asian immigration into Australia in the past three decades, mostly from China, India, the Philippines and Vietnam. These newcomers now account for 10 per cent of the population, and white Australians have behaved as well as Canadian or British whites did when similar influxes occurred. Yet the prejudice against Aborigines survives.

When you see Australians adapting to diversity, but still treating Aboriginal people the same old way, you realize that it’s a specific situation, not just the Australian version of a general one. If you require confirmation, just look at New Zealand, where Maori is actually one of the national languages.

The difference, I suspect, is that the Maori were farmers who lived in proto-states, just like their Austronesian ancestors who left Taiwan or the Philippines a hundred generations before. To the British settlers, they were recognizably similar people despite all the differences — and on occasion they fought the settlers to a standstill.

The Aborigines have been in Australia for at least 45,000 years, probably 65,000, but they had little or no contact with the rest of the world and they never developed agriculture themselves. This was not a failure — it may have been just a choice — but it rendered them hopelessly vulnerable when farmers from Europe did arrive.

From the start the settlers gave them no respect, because they couldn’t fight back. There were no treaties because the groups were too small. (At least 250 languages among less than a million Aborigines.) They were treated with contempt even when they were not abused and exploited, and that cultural contempt was evident again on October 14.

The Aborigines have done well in the circumstances. They suffered from the same cultural despair as other First Nations elsewhere, which is often expressed in drug, alcohol and child abuse, but they are coping with it.

The idea of some kind of grand reconciliation with the majority population was not inherently bad. The tactic and the strategy, however, were awful.

The reform advocates envisaged a three-stage process where there would be a treaty-making phase and a ‘truth-telling’ stage – but first of all there would be this advisory Aboriginal ‘Voice’ lodged in parliament itself, with unspecified membership and powers.

You couldn’t design a better way of panicking the doubtful part of the population if you tried. To make matters worse, this ‘Voice’ would be entrenched in the constitution, so no subsequent government could undo it without great difficulty. And doing that requires a referendum in which the proposal has to win nationally and in four of the six states.

Last year, when this referendum was first made public, all the polls gave it over 60 per cent support. Since last July, no poll has come in over 50 per cent, and heading into the vote most were around 40 per cent, which turned out to be the result. The failed referendum will hugely damage trust between the Aboriginal population and the majority.

The right sequence would have been to start with a treaty or treaties. Leave it to the lawyers, and they’ll come back with something undramatic but useful in a few years’ time. Then do the ‘truth and reconciliation’ show, which is not very hard for the majority population to go along with because the real villains are long dead.

Then finally, quite a while from now, if you were still feeling up for it, you could have tried for the ‘Voice’, although I would suggest not trying to entrench it in the constitution. That idea, I think, will now remain dead for a generation. ■