The Voice – things I am worried about and a few other thoughts along the way

22 Feb 2023

In the lead up to the referendum, we’re hearing a lot of strong voices coming from the yes and no camps. Luke thought he’d write a piece from the “I don’t know” camp. So here’s Luke not knowing.

I have always said we should have a representative decision making body, but I’m not yet convinced this proposed Voice to Parliament will give us the sort of body we need or deserve. Especially given the apparent ability for governments to change the structure of the Voice at their whim. However I also appreciate the arguments that claim there’s no way a referendum would pass if it included the details of what such a body should look like or if it offered Indigenous people any sort of veto powers. 

However, this isn’t the first time this country has pushed to recognise Indigenous peoples in the Constitution, and it didn’t go so well last time.

A few years back, well before ‘The Voice’, the push for Constitutional change was known as ‘Recognise’. This meant a whole bunch of giant capital Rs appeared on socials, posters, football fields and QANTAS planes. Despite this, I imagine there’s more people who didn’t know what that was about than those who did. In fairness though, even those of us who knew what it was about didn’t really know what it was about. 

Basically, the Recognise campaign tried to build public support for a Yes vote for a referendum even though there was no question to answer yes to. It was the campaign equivalent of asking us to write our names on a blank piece of paper and then leave it to the Liberal party to fill in the rest later.

Recognise happened mostly while Tony Abbott was PM, and it is safe to say he didn’t support the idea of any substantive changes to the Constitution. He still doesn’t. Instead, he wanted a symbolic preamble that said and did as close to nothing as possible. Tony often talked about something along the lines of a preamble to the Constitution that acknowledged Australia has “an Aboriginal heritage, a British foundation and a multicultural character”.

In terms of impact it was right up there with Scott Morrison changing the lyrics of the national anthem to say ‘one and free’ instead of ‘young and free’. 

“Modest” changes such as these seem to be what the current Liberal government would be most comfortable with as well.


What our research has said in the past

IndigenousX put out a survey (in 2015) to challenge a survey from Recognise that said ‘87% of Indigenous people would vote yes’ in a referendum. 

The IndigenousX survey asked questions like: 

  • Do you support the recognise campaign?
  • Would you vote yes in a referendum if all of the expert panel’s recommendations were accepted? 
  • Would you vote yes if the non-discrimination clause was added? 

In all of these questions, No was consistently the top answer. 

The only reason I mention a now 8 year old survey is that we also asked: “Do you support the idea of an Indigenous Parliamentary body being included in the Constitutional referendum?” It was the only such question in our survey that received a majority Yes answer (54%).

We added this question as an afterthought, but doing so meant it was picked up and championed by a few key supporters of constitutional change who also rejected symbolic change; people like Noel Pearson and then Senator Nova Peris. It helped them, in some small way, to challenge the narrative that Recognise enjoyed near universal Indigenous support and that only racists and rednecks were opposed to the campaign. It was a validation of what many had been saying about wanting more than merely symbolic change. Although our survey’s methodology was criticised by some for being self-selective, it was still an independent and objective survey that provided a basis to pierce the PR machine that was Recognise.

This validation, in turn, helped to create the leverage necessary to get funding for the 2017 dialogues that would lead to what became known as, ‘The Uluru Statement from the Heart’.

Around this same time my personal life underwent some dramatic changes. I became a husband and father. I stopped working fulltime on IndigenousX and took a job first at NITV and then later at the ABC. My work and personal life focuses changed and I struggled to keep as active online as I had been or to read as much as I had enjoyed in my younger years. 

Soon after COVID hit, due to ever increasing family and work pressures, I became quite detached from many things I felt were important, including issues of national politics like the Voice campaign.

When the Voice was first introduced, I remained sceptical, as is my nature, but I also remained open minded for the same reason that I eventually became closed minded about Recognise; I want to see change, but I want to know what it is I am being asked to support, and I want to know what other motivations are at play.  

However, I have also had little to no energy to put into examining these details, which is why I, like most people, still haven’t read the latest several hundred page report that we are meant to read about the proposed design of this Voice. And, also like most people, I probably won’t end up reading it at all.

I had, and still have, close friends who sit on the furthest imaginable ends of both the Yes and the No campaigns. I also know plenty of people who are somewhere closer to the middle, maybe leaning slightly towards scepticism or optimism on any given day depending on what is being said and by whom. 

So where do I sit in the yes – no debate?

As I find myself reawakening from the past few years and looking around at the lay of the land with fresh eyes, I see certain merits of both the Yes and the No arguments. I see many mob, on both sides, who I respect still fighting hard to have their views heard and to win popular support for their arguments. I also see the increased confidence amongst non-Indigenous people, especially those who would label themselves ‘allies’, becoming bolder and bolder about chastising mob who aren’t on their side. 

I am not an active supporter of either the Yes or No campaigns at the moment, just as I also have no allegiance to any political party. But I listen to all opinions and perspectives carefully and with humility as best I am able. I see the bad faith arguments and ad hominem attacks and I try to look past them for those with sincerely held beliefs, valid questions and concerns, and interesting insights.

In my previous life as a teacher,  I always liked the idea that before you can say someone is wrong you need to understand why they think they are right. It can be very easy to dismiss the views of those we disagree with as ignorant, malicious, ill-informed and, of course, there is no shortage of those out there at the moment. Usually though, I find most mob have a reason for believing what they believe, and I want to be respectful of those reasons while I try to understand and work out for myself whether or not I agree with them. 

I have concerns about how the Yes campaign is being run, but most of these are consistent with how all comparable campaigns are run – oversimplified responses, reliance on key talking points, complete dismissal of counterviews, and all of the other stock standard campaign approaches. 

Any pollster or spin doctor worth their salt will tell you any good campaign has to be run this way (and maybe they are right) but it still doesn’t sit well with me. 

But, I am also not going to vote yes or no on something that could have generational impacts just because there’s a few pollsters on the payroll pulling strings. 

Certain reporting on the No push seems to be inferring that there are only conservative-led No campaigns (being headed by Warren Mundine and Jacinta Price respectively). This is a false narrative that wilfully conflates those conservative voices who are saying no because they think a voice goes too far with those who think it doesn’t go far enough. 

Linda Burney has said a Voice will help the government make better policy. I don’t agree with this because, as I see it, nothing has ever stopped past governments from engaging or consulting with mob to make better policies in Indigenous affairs. It is political will that has been lacking in that department, not access to Indigenous voices. If evidence and common decency doesn’t shift them then I don’t see why a Voice would.

Lidia Thorpe has expressed concern that being put in the constitution would risk our Sovereignty. I don’t think this would happen because Australia already fails to acknowledge our Sovereignty. I also do not believe there is anything the government can do, by referendum or otherwise, that could take away our rights to Sovereignty. That said, I’m no constitutional lawyer so I appreciate the technicalities of this are way over my head.

Warren Mundine’s calls for the Voice to be a symbolic preamble, is something I also do not agree with. Just like I do not support it when John Howard and Tony Abbott argue the exact same thing. Symbolic only change is just as it says on the box – symbolising with no impact, no outcome, no change. It’s a hell of a lot of effort for something designed to do nothing. 

Jacinta Price was saying the Uluru delegation was only 250 people who weren’t democratically elected and this was grounds to ignore the Statement from the Heart, which made the call for a Voice. It brings back that circular logic of how do we get agreement on a voice without a voice? Do we need to create a system where we can have 250 democratically elected Indigenous representatives to negotiate on our behalf? I’d probably be keen on that but somehow I don’t think that was what she was arguing for. 

I don’t agree with those above points, but that doesn’t make me right about any of them either. I’m not a politician or a constitutional lawyer, but I try to be humble enough to be convinced otherwise about them and about whatever else comes up before this shit show has run its course. 

I also have a lot of respect for at least two of the four people that I mentioned above, so just because I don’t agree on these specific points doesn’t mean I don’t agree with many other things being said. 

I am worried that a successful referendum will provide yet another opportunity for Australia to throw itself a ‘racism is over’ party while failing to achieve real change, much like Paul Keating’s Redfern speech, John Howard’s ‘Harmony Day’, the 2000 bridge walk for ‘Reconciliation’, or Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations. I also understand Australia is going to keep looking for ways to throw such parties for itself whether it deserves them or not regardless. However, each time Australia convinces a large number of white people that racism has been fixed we invariably end up with more racists denying racism exists which just creates a shit tonne more work for those of us trying to get people to acknowledge and dismantle the racism that is all around us.

Speaking of, I’m also worried about the steady rise in racism (including a stark resurgence of overt white supremacism) we have seen over the past decade or so becoming much worse before this whole thing is said and done. But I also understand it was only ever just boiling under the surface anyways and has been doing just fine resurging without the voice as an amplifier.

(On that note, I really don’t like how so many Indigenous people on every side of the debate are increasingly being described by various non-Indigenous people on the other side as a ‘dupe who has been tricked into betraying their own people!’ – mob have agency and aren’t, by virtue of being Indigenous and not on your side of an Indigenous issue, gullible saps being sold magic beans by much cleverer white snake oil salesmen).

In the lead up to the Voice referendum

I will keep listening to both sides, and will continue to make my own decision for myself regardless of what criticisms or accusations are made against Yes or No (or I don’t know) supporters by any people I don’t care about.

I will keep calling out non-Indigenous people who feel entitled to mock, ridicule or troll mob on the other side of the debate as them. 

I will keep rejecting the assertion that everyone who says Yes is a ‘sell out’ or that everyone who says No is ‘on the same side as Andrew Bolt’. Indigenous politics and perspectives cannot be so simply reduced into ‘left’ and ‘right’ dichotomies. 

IndigenousX will continue to publish articles from Yes, No and I Don’t Know voices, if and when we choose to publish on it at all.  

I doubt I’ll read whatever the next big report is before making a decision and I don’t agree this is a prerequisite to having an opinion or grounds to call for people to abstain. 

I’ll continue to support the idea of a representative decision making body that can strive to build consensus among mob and can represent our views in relevant forums. Just as I’ll remain sceptical about whether or not the Voice will be able to fulfil that role until convinced otherwise.

I’ll continue to support the push for treaties, but I’ll also remain concerned about who will negotiate them until I see it in action. I’ll continue to remain sceptical about the idea of governments entering such processes with good faith or honouring them after they are agreed to.


Other questions and concerns:

– just how many corporates, including mining companies, have thrown their weight behind the Voice? (I’m also just generally concerned anytime white people get too excited about anything to do with us – it rarely bodes well). 

– If the Voice is successful, will it just become another bureaucratic circle jerk or a handpicked smokescreen? However I understand that’s the status quo already so one more bureaucratic circle jerk in the mix probably won’t make much difference. 

– If the Voice referendum fails, will the government use it as an excuse to say that if we aren’t ready for a voice then we aren’t ready for a treaty. But they’ve happily dodged the question of a treaty for a couple hundred years anyways, so what’s one more excuse?

– Also, I don’t buy that 80% yes, 10% no, 10% undecided poll of 300 Indigenous people anymore than I did when Recognise said it was 87% yes. I won’t run a counter survey this time around though. I believe the level of non-Indigenous people who would jump on the survey pretending to be Indigenous would be much greater than it was a decade ago, making the exercise pointless. 

I am a worrier. I worry. I simply don’t understand anyone from either camp who would look at this issue and not have worries. 

I reserve my right to change my mind, to rethink when confronted with new information, to vote Yes or No based on my own morals, ethics, and informed by the views of those I respect. However I will ignore propaganda machines and trolls alike. I don’t feel I am anywhere close to locking in my answer yet though, and I don’t feel any pressure to do so anytime soon.

If I have anything worth sharing on the subject I will if and when I choose, and  will strive to do so in a way that is respectful of those mob who have sincerely held beliefs on either side.

I encourage everyone else to do likewise but I also appreciate that people are gonna do what they do regardless of what I say, as they should. 

Ultimately, we all have to make our own decisions on these issues. 

There’s a lot to process on this one and it’s hard to think with all the white noise in the background, so all I’ll say for now is: 

Listen to those you respect, think for yourself, and vote with your conscience when and if the time comes.

And as always, stay safe out there you mob and do your best to look after yourselves and each other… I reckon this debate is only going to get worse before (if) it gets better.

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