The struggle after the Voice referendum

August 16, 2023
Survival Day in Gadi/Sydney. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

The date for the constitutional referendum on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament has yet to be announced. When it is, we can expect a flood of media advertising from the official Yes and No campaigns, both of which have reportedly begun fundraising drives.

The official Yes campaign has raised millions of dollars from wealthy philanthropists and big corporations such as Wesfarmers, Rio Tinto and BHP. The official No campaign has the backing of conservative lobby groups linked to the Christian far right.

According to Josh Butler’s report in The Guardian on July 13, the most prominent organisation in the conservative No campaign is Fair Australia, an arm of a conservative lobby group, Advance. Former Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott is a member of Advance’s advisory board and Country Liberal Party Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price is Fair Australia’s spokesperson.

As I have argued in Green Left earlier, the official No case being distributed to all voters before the referendum is a blatant exercise in scare-mongering that plays to deep-seated racism in Australia.

The official No case deploys the dog-whistle tactics that became mainstream politics under Liberal prime minister John Howard. Its crudely racist tropes were deployed in an offensive full-page advertisement published in the Australian Financial Review (AFR) on July 6.

In the face of widespread condemnation, Nine (which publishes the AFR) apologised.

The advertisement was paid for by Advance. It revealed the nakedly racist case being made informally by the conservative No supporters in some corporate boardrooms and rich folks’ dinner parties. This was not an advertisement aimed at the poor “deplorables”, the section of the population commonly portrayed as the main audience for racist right politics: it was aimed squarely at the rich.

There is a division in the ruling class over the referendum.

With a section of the ruling class prepared to fund the conservative and racist No campaign, we have to expect that, whatever the referendum outcome, tens of millions of dollars will have been poured into whipping up racism.

This is one reason why many people who oppose racism, First Nations or otherwise, fear a defeat of the Voice referendum.

Two Yes campaign-commissioned polls of First Nations people, both with limited samples and conducted in January and March, found 80–83% would vote Yes.

This is not surprising. First Nations people have painful lived experience of this country’s deep-seated racism because of its colonial settler state history and its current position as one of the rich, mainly white, imperialist states in a much poorer and non-white part of the world.

They would also be worried by the polls showing support for the Voice has declined from a high of 64% in August last year to just below 50%, on average, despite bigger advertising spending by the Yes campaign.

The polls also show that the biggest support for Yes is in the most populated states — New South Wales and Victoria.

However, as a constitutional referendum requires not just a majority of all voters nationally, but also majorities in a majority of states, The Guardian’s tracking of the conservative No advertising campaign shows that its Google and YouTube ad spending is nearly all in the smaller, more socially conservative states of Tasmania, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia. The campaign is also targeting specific postcodes in those states.

There is reason for concern that a defeat of the referendum would be a political boost for the racist right. It is why many progressive people will choose to vote Yes, even if they share some of the concerns raised by the First Nations activists who have put forward a progressive No case.

Veteran First Nations activist and historian Gary Foley, who supports the progressive No campaign, said in an interview in January that a No victory in the referendum would “set us back another 50 years”. He said a Yes victory would only “make white people feel good”.

Foley and others in the progressive No camp are fielding an argument that many LGBTIQ activists put forward when the Malcolm Turnbull Coalition government proposed the plebiscite on marriage equality. They warned that it would unleash a hate campaign against LGBTIQ people and said the government should just legislate for marriage equality, without a vote.

First Nations activists supporting the progressive No case say something similar today.

If the Anthony Albanese Labor government were serious about First Nations justice, it could make any number of practical reforms without a referendum. For instance, it could implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that have yet to be implemented, 32 years on. It could implement the recommendations of the Bringing Them Home report, 26 years on.

Instead, Labor has opted for a referendum on the Voice which, like its approach to the climate emergency, is symbolic, largely performative and could cause a lot of harm.

If Yes wins the referendum, any advances in First Nations rights will still have to be fought for. To do this, progressive activists will have to continue to work with the militant First Nations activists who are largely leading the progressive No campaign. The same would apply if No wins. Arguably the struggle could then become even tougher in the face of a jubilant racist right.

[This is the third essay in a series by Peter Boyle on the Voice. Read the previous essays: Official Yes and No cases for Voice referendum reveal two conservative agendas and Who will the Voice ‘designed to appease conservative opinion’ speak for?]

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