What just happened? The world’s highest bakery lies in Lobuche, Nepal, elevation 16,210 feet (4,940 metres). It is a haven for Himalayan trekkers and, despite its remote location, has wi-fi. It was an odd place to check on Australia’s “Voice” referendum results last month. I had been active in the referendum campaign for the “No” side, but the trek to the mountains with my youngest son had been booked years before, so we found ourselves rather isolated as the results came out.
The last week of the campaign had been full of media accounts claiming the “Yes” campaign still had a chance because No voters were not going to turn out and vote. I was on a WhatsApp group for the No campaign’s teams who went to early voting booths to hand out “How to Vote” literature (Australian election law allows supporters of any party to campaign at entrances to polling stations) and was quite shocked at the reports of individuals who felt entitled to intimidate No campaigners, typically by calling them racists. Despite the hopeful predictions from the news media’s many Yes supporters, the polls had been turning in favour of the No side. Still, I had real concerns that the vote was going to be much closer than the polls suggested.
On the afternoon of voting day, having trekked into Lobuche that morning, I logged onto the bakery’s wi-fi and went to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website (the state-owned broadcaster, similar in nature and outlook to Canada’s CBC). The first early headline was definitive – the state of South Australia had voted No and the referendum was dead. Just like that. Relief and disbelief.
For the referendum question to clear its twin hurdles – gaining a nationwide majority of votes as well as majorities in four of Australia’s six states – Tasmania and South Australia had to vote Yes along with Victoria and New South Wales. Everyone agreed that Queensland and West Australia were all-but certain to vote No. That was the narrative being spun. As I dived deeper into the results, it just kept getting better. Victoria and New South Wales, the two big and often more left-leaning states which had been widely assumed to vote Yes, had voted No. Queensland and West Australia absolutely hammered it – massive No votes. It wasn’t even close anywhere. The sparsely settled Northern Territory also voted No. The sole jurisdiction to go Yes was the Australian Capital Territory, Canberra.
All the money, guilt-mongering and intimidation had been ignored and the Australian electorate had looked at the proposed constitutional amendment and said, in every single state, emphatically No. I quietly toasted the result and breathed an oxygen-deprived sigh of relief. Meanwhile, the Yes campaign’s many friends in the Australian media disgorged gushers of spite, accusing No voters of narrow-mindedness, misinformation, telling “Trump-like lies,” lack of vision, ill-will and racism. It was the same the world over; there was scarcely a balanced article to be found, much less one explaining in measured, rational terms why an Australian of goodwill and intelligence would choose to vote No.
The constitutional amendment fulfilled a promise by Labor Party Prime Minister Anthony Albanese; it would have given a permanent, possibly unelected Indigenous group – the Voice – the right to advise Parliament and the federal Cabinet on virtually any policy area, with no defined limits to its power. (Source of photo: Janie Barrett/The Sydney Morning Herald)
The 2023 Australian Indigenous Voice to Parliament Referendum of October 14 made good on a promise by the incoming Labor Party prime minister, Anthony Albanese, during his election victory speech in May of last year. The referendum proposed amending Australia’s written Constitution in order to implement the key idea put forward by Australia’s Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Uluru Statement from the Heart of 2017. The referendum asked the question whether the Constitution should be amended to include the recognition of Aboriginals as the first “peoples” of the country and then authorize creation of a permanent Indigenous group – the Voice – which would advise both Parliament and the executive of government.
When the proposed constitutional amendment and referendum text were announced in late March, polling put the Yes side ahead 60 percent to 40 percent. Australians harboured general goodwill for recognizing Aboriginal people in their Constitution. In 1967, the country voted eagerly and overwhelmingly to remove two explicitly race-based provisions from the Constitution that discriminated against Aborigines. But as the details of the Voice proposal emerged and questions were asked, the Yes support began to fall.
The Voice was to be a permanent body of selected (not necessarily elected) Aboriginals who would advise Parliament, Cabinet and all levels of the bureaucracy on all aspects of policy and lawmaking that affected Aboriginals. The natural questions posed included, what national policymaking bodies would the Voice have access to, and what defines a policy that affects Aboriginals? The wording of what the Voice was to be came directly from an Aboriginal working group charged with this task. Its wording was broad and, if implemented, would have resulted in the examination of virtually all policies and laws affecting or “relating to” Aboriginal people.
The referendum question was as follows: “A Proposed Law: To alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”
The proposed Constitutional amendment comprised the following insertion:
Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
- There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
- The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
- The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.
After announcing the referendum the Labor government formed an all-party parliamentary committee to discuss the Voice. The opposition Liberal/National Coalition’s key objection was the inclusion of the Executive Government as an area of influence for the Voice. It seemed that all policy areas, even including things like Australia’s Central Bank and questions of national defence, would fall within the Voice’s scope. This was beyond what the Opposition believed was reasonable. These concerns were rejected out of hand. Accordingly, the two Coalition partners decided to oppose the referendum. This meant the referendum would not have bi-partisan support, which had been key to every other successful referendum in Australia’s long history of such popular votes.
Personally, I questioned the necessity for a permanent body enshrined in the Constitution when the issues identified seemed difficult but not permanent. Aboriginal Australians have an average eight years’ shorter life expectancy than the total Australian population, higher incarceration rates, well over twice the suicide rate and other serious health and social problems. Many Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals could not understand how any of these would be improved by another layer of bureaucracy. The proposal also made me wonder how this body would be protected from becoming the pawn of other groups who could manipulate the Voice for their own aims.
Legitimate questions, I felt, required thoughtful answers. Clearly, many other No-leaning and uncommitted voters felt the same way. The government’s basic responses were to tell the people to “trust it” to define the body and its powers after the referendum, and to belittle legitimate and informed commentary as misinformation. The more questions that went unanswered, the lower the support fell, even before the campaign officially began.
The writ was issued on September 11. Liberal Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, an Aboriginal woman from Alice Springs, the famous Northern Territory town in the very geographical centre of Australia, was appointed the Opposition’s official spokesperson and became the most effective No campaigner. She, like many in our country, has a mixed-race background and objected to an official new political body that would divide the country by race.
Nampijinpa Price’s view was that we are all Australians and must be legally and constitutionally equal. A Voice in which only one race would be able to influence national policy forever would be counterproductive. “Whether you’ve been in this country for 60,000 years or became an Australian 60 seconds ago, you are equal in our Constitution,” she eloquently argued. “You have the same rights and opportunities – the same democratic voice – as every other Australian. Proponents of the voice want to change that.”
In addition, her lived experience was that more bureaucracy would not help anyone except for the bureaucrats and lawyers. She argued for an audit on the many billions of dollars spent annually on Aboriginal programs without any significant life improvement. Nampijinpa Price was also brave enough to do the almost unthinkable: speaking some hard truths about how life for Aboriginals had actually been improved after the arrival of Europeans. For speaking out in these ways, the Yes campaign labelled her the “Coloured Help” and accused her of being used as a “black fella to punch down other black fellas.”
Nampijinpa Price’s actual message was one of looking forward. At the well-attended No rally held in West Australia’s capital of Perth on October 2, she stated that, “For some time, we as a nation have come under attack from those who want to believe that we’re made up of two kinds of people, that we are either oppressed, or we are oppressors. We’re told we’re a terrible, racist country…these are absolute lies.”
As the campaign progressed and Yes support continued to fall, the Yes campaign resorted to insults and threats. Marcia Langton, a well-known Aboriginal academic based at the University of Melbourne, said that every one of the No arguments came down to “base racism…or just sheer stupidity.” When called out by the No side, however, Langton unctuously denied calling No voters themselves racist or stupid and threatened to sue her critics. Famous former ABC TV journalist and entertainer Ray Martin – a political insider who likes to call the Labor Prime Minister by his nickname, “Albo” – chimed in at a Yes rally held in early October with the rousing declaration: “If you’re a dinosaur or dickhead who can’t be bothered reading, then vote No!”
On a slightly more sophisticated but virtually surreal level, Labor Senator Pat Dodson asserted that voting No amounted to dehumanizing or negating Aboriginals altogether: “You can’t deny a people whose culture has been here for 60,000 years. If that’s what happens with a No vote, that’s what you’re doing, you’re saying ‘you people have no history here, you have no legitimacy here, you have no right to be here’. That’s an intolerable proposition.”
Yet with each insult or overheated claim, support for the No side rose and the Yes forces appeared more desperate. The Yes campaign kept rolling out celebrity and corporate endorsements as if the Constitution was some sort of reality TV program. Prime Minister Albanese, for example, posed with the CEO of Qantas airlines in front of freshly painted Yes jets (what might that stunt have cost?). The near-uniform and often blatantly expressed bias of the country’s corporate elite and other groups like major sports organizations was reminiscent both of the UK’s Brexit referendum in 2016 and, in Canada, the 1992 national referendum on the Charlottetown Accord aimed at inducing Quebec to at last sign Canada’s Constitution.
As voting day drew closer, the Yes campaign took to saying that only in the last week would Australians really turn their attention to the topic. The reality was that each time voters turned to the topic and asked questions, support for the Voice dropped. In contrast, the No campaign was getting far better traction by pointing out the obvious flaws in the proposal.
“Well-meaning leaders at the forefront of Indigenous affairs for the past 40 years haven’t managed to move the dial enough to significantly improve the lives of the most vulnerable Indigenous people,” wrote Janet Albrechtsen, a prominent columnist for The Australian newspaper and one of the few mainstream journalists sympathetic to the No side, on September 9 (article behind paywall). “A very large industry has a track record of very poor outcomes. Cementing a lobby group into the Constitution won’t alter that direction.”
From publicity stunts to calumny: Prime Minister Albanese (top, at left) posed with the CEO of Qantas in front of aircraft painted in “Yes” livery – reflecting corporate Australia’s near-uniform backing of the Voice; Labor Senator Pat Dodson (middle) said a No vote would tell Aboriginals “you have no right to be here”; Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton (bottom) said No arguments amounted to “base racism” or “sheer stupidity.” (Sources of photos: (top) Louie Douvis, retrieved from Financial Review; (middle) ABC News/Matt Roberts; (bottom) James Brickwood, retrieved from Financial Review)
As a No campaigner, I had taken up the cause because I could not believe we would insert race as a matter of privilege permanently into the Australian Constitution. It appeared that a woke form of identity politics was at real risk of being constitutionally enshrined forever. Giving access to power is not only a privilege – favouritism – but is itself a form of power. Those who get to tell policymakers and legislators how to make policies and laws have more power than others. Based solely on race. Permanently. It seemed just wrong.
Plus, the Voice’s potential reach was unlimited. Although proponents kept stressing that the new assembly would not wield a veto over national laws and policies, the Uluru declaration (upon which the whole referendum exercise was based) suggested otherwise. It asserts Aboriginal “ownership of the soil, or…sovereignty,” a right that “has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.” At minimum, then, the Voice was likely to become a parallel source of authority alongside Western-style democracy and law-making – and one that judges would need to consider in cases that affected Aboriginals.
As well as open-ended. Clause 3 of the proposed insertion to the Constitution explicitly left it to Parliament to make future laws concerning the Voice’s “functions, powers and procedures.” Any future government would thus have full authority to grant the Voice more and more authority over more and more areas. So, even if there was no Indigenous veto today, there might well be one in future. (More on the Voice’s “unlimited scope” can be read here.) This, too, was reminiscent of Canada’s Charlottetown Accord of 1992, which was billed as a permanent settlement of Quebec’s long-running constitutional demands but which, in fact, would have enshrined more than 50 major areas still to be negotiated in future. Like Charlottetown, Australia’s constitutional insertion was a formula for possibly never-ending political strife.
The more I chatted with my peers, the more it seemed to me that Australians truly want to bring about a better life for all Aboriginal people, but worried that this referendum proposed nothing but a “feel good vibe” with no concrete, positive outcomes. To add a full level of bureaucracy with a broad scope of powers yet without any idea how it was going to work seemed a step too far. I recall one social lunch where the topic came up and, to my real surprise, the entire table planned to vote No. The reasons varied but the essential rationale was that Australians are all equal and our legal and political systems – beginning with the Constitution – need to avoid differentiating on race.
As the polling booths opened, it became clear that the Yes campaign had grown desperate. The Australian Electoral Commission’s signs indicating polling locations were a distinct purple colour pattern. The Yes campaign’s signs placed at the polling locations were the same colour scheme. It was childish, but orchestrated moves like this were revelatory of the desperation. (The Electoral Commission told the Yes campaign to remove these signs.) On exiting, voters were offered “Yes” buttons to “show people how you voted.”
All of this made the results on referendum night – October 14 – all the more emphatic. With 17,676,347 Aussies or 97.7 percent of eligible voters enrolled, it was the largest such vote in Australia’s long history of over 40 national referendums. The official results (as of November 6, with a few thousand mail-in ballots still to be counted) would come in at 6,286,894 votes Yes and 9,452,792 votes No, or 39.94 percent yes, 60.06 percent no.
The No campaign was relieved but not celebratory. A deeply flawed constitutional amendment that could have wrought damage for decades to come had been avoided. Yet the nation did not really win anything. The popular mood seemed to be a level of frustration that such a poorly thought-out and divisive issue had been taken so far.
The Yes campaign took a week of silence to mourn the loss, then issued an unsigned letter expressing its disappointment. “The truth is that the majority of Australians have committed a shameful act whether knowingly or not, and there is nothing positive to be interpreted from it,” the letter reads.
In my opinion, however, there is something highly positive in Australians’ No vote. The country’s voting population had faced a deluge of politicians, academics, Aboriginal activists, media mouthpieces, celebrities and corporate leaders telling them to do something based on a combination of vague platitudes, guilt, insults and threats. The population questioned, listened and decided that all these people were wrong. That is something to celebrate.
Eric Hughes is a dual Australian-Canadian citizen living on the East Coast of New South Wales.
Source of main image: ABC News/James Carmody.