The Failed ‘Voice’ Referendum in Australia

Australia Voice Referendum
Source: author

On 14th of October 2023, Australia held a referendum on the introduction of a Voice for Indigenous people into its federal parliament. Voters were asked if they approve an alteration to the Australian Constitution that would recognise Indigenous Australians in the document through prescribing a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. The Voice was to give Aboriginal people a voice – no more no less. It was simply to be a consultative body.

The voice body, as it was announced, “may”(!) make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Yet, the referendum was defeated in both – all of Australia’s six states, and the nation as a whole.

Nationally, the “no” vote received 60.3% (8 million votes) while the “yes” vote received 39.7% (5 million votes). In the more conservative state of Queensland, the “no” vote received 68.5% while in the more progressive state of Victoria, it got 54.6%.

Meanwhile, in Australia’s very own Washington DC – imaginatively called the Australian Capital Territory or ACT – 61% voted “yes” and 39% voted “no”. While Inner-city Melbourne voted “yes” (78%) and so did inner-city Sydney (71%).

The result made it clear that the majority of Australians are against ending discrimination against the Aboriginal people – in short, racism will continue. The so-called “Australian dream” remains inextricably linked to racism.

The campaign of the opponents won the day. It was led by a conservative-racist coalition whose leader is none other than the conservative opposition leader, Peter Dutton – also known as potato head. The “no” campaign’s devastatingly negative propaganda finally took the breath away from the “yes” supporters.

Inciting hatred is so much easier than convincing with facts. There were reports that racist attacks on Indigenous people and supporters of the bill had increased significantly.

The propaganda strategy of the “no” side was implemented using “advisers” of the ultra-conservative right in the USA, who belonged to the right-wing camp of Donald Trump.

Its right-wing media strategy was as simple as it was effective. The media was flooded with half-truths, falsehoods, misinformation, disinformation, and even naked lies for months. It was done in the right-wing propaganda hope that something’s getting stuck. And it worked!

The “no” campaign’s propaganda was spiced up with slogans based on fears of racism – against whites! This reversed the victim-perpetrator dichotomy and is a classical trick of right-wing propaganda – the abuser becomes the victim.

Yet, the right-wing propaganda campaign also included warnings of a split in society. The “no” campaign’s Politics of Fear also conjured up a fear of land loss and higher taxes. There was a talk of racially conditioned special rights for Indigenous people.

Much of this was chewed over in Australia’s right-wing – and mostly by Murdoch-owned – mass media on a daily basis. It was simply a  textbook stuff and it worked.

In working hand in hand between the radical right and the right-wing press, the “no” campaign’s propaganda was all too often broadcasted without being questioned by journalists. Even absurd claims like that of the deprivation of rights and the attempted genocide of the Indigenous people since the British invasion in 1788 had no consequences for Aboriginal people today has hardly been criticized.

The opposite of what the “no” campaign presented is true: Indigenous people die on average eight years earlier than non-Indigenous people; they are less educated; they are more likely to die in police custody; and are the target of racism.

The conservative politician Jacinta Price, herself an Aboriginal and one of the few Indigenous but important voices of the “no” campaign, claimed that Indigenous people should be grateful as colonization gave them electricity and food.

The right-wing’s “no” campaign came on top of the fact that Australians are generally not interested in politics – particularly when it comes to Aboriginals who remain largely invisible, except when ornamentally paraded for tourists, and so-called national events, like the Olympics, etc. If voting were not compulsory in Australia, many would probably go to the rugby match on Saturday rather than to the ballot box.

But it would be wrong to attribute the success of the right-wing’s “no” campaign solely to disinterestedness, naivety, and gullibility. Otherwise, the right-wing’s “no” campaign would have not been needed.

While there was nothing to fear from “the voice”, millions of people consciously followed the right-wing’s “no” campaign’s simple but effective battle cry, if you don’t know, vote No! The propaganda continued with, if you don’t know anything (about the voice), you should vote no.

This level of stupidity, indifference, and ignorance allowed many Australians to release their monster that has been slumbering deep in the soul of non-Indigenous Australians for over 200 years: racism, and a rejection towards the first inhabitants of the continent.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been in Australia for more than 60,000 years. They are the oldest surviving cultures on Earth. Yet, Australians have made sure that they will not be included in Australia’s 122 year-old constitution.

Finally, at a no vote victory event, outspoken ‘no’ campaigner Warren Mundine announced that the ‘yes’ campaign lost because it was in bed with the elite, turned around and attended an event with Australia’s richest woman, Gina Rinehart, a multi-billionaire, arch-conservative, and no-campaigner.

Racism, discrimination, and disadvantages will continue. Saturday, 14th of October’s “no” vote created renewed hopelessness. It is yet another devastating blow to Aboriginal Australians.

Thomas Klikauer teaches at the Sydney Graduate School of Management at Western Sydney University, Australia. He has nearly 900 publications including a book on the AfD.

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