Originally published in The Australian
Probably for the first time anywhere an issue of identity politics has been put to the people and, here in Australia, resoundingly rejected.
Given that the classic notion of the absolute equality of every human being – regardless of race, religion, gender and culture – is now under sustained assault, this should be the vote that rang round the world. Indeed it needs to, given the susceptibility of governments almost everywhere to bad policy based on muddled thinking about group rights and a misguided apology mania in what are the world’s least racist societies.
The constitutional entrenchment of an Indigenous voice to the parliament and to the executive government would have given some Australians a greater say over how all Australians are governed, based on their declared identity as Aboriginal.
To its proponents, it was an atonement for the British settlement of the Australian landmass from 1788, and a way to overcome the intergenerational trauma colonialism had allegedly engendered. It says something about the robust common sense of most Australians that 60 per cent-plus voted no; and something about the dispossession-angst of many that nearly 40 per cent voted yes, including quite a few, such as Father Frank Brennan, who felt obligated that way despite all the flaws in what was proposed.
The remarkable feature of the pre-referendum debate was the deference of normally independent-minded institutions to the pronouncements of the Aboriginal establishment in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, that asserted the persistence of Aboriginal sovereignty, and demanded treaties between the Australian government and so-called First Nations, plus the rewriting of our history as a story of shame, in addition to a constitutionally entrenched voice. Even though there’s already a substantial industry of Aboriginal consultation, including the National Indigenous Advancement Agency administering a budget of nearly $5bn a year; and there’s little evidence that establishing another Canberra-based body would improve the dire living conditions in the remote settlements that are the source of Aboriginal people’s statistical disadvantage.
And the remarkable aspect of the ultimate result was the extent of voter resistance to the moralising and virtue-signalling from big employers, major sporting bodies, law societies and assorted worthies, such that those invested in First World problems largely voted yes while those invested in real-world problems largely voted no.
A watershed moment in the campaign was Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price’s insistence at the National Press Club that colonisation had actually been good for Aboriginal people because it had brought the rule of law and technological advance. And her further response to an obviously taken-aback, overwhelmingly politically correct audience that her convict ancestors had suffered scarcely less than her Indigenous ones.
What’s clearly happening now, though, is an attempt to de-legitimise the result by claiming that it was due to “misinformation” and what’s clearly evident is the government’s inclination to carry on as if the vote had never happened. The reaction of some businesses to the vote was to offer their staff stress leave and to insist they’d been right actively to support the Yes campaign even though it was way beyond their normal remit and must have been at odds with the position of many of their employees and customers.
This week, Anthony Albanese refused to rule out proceeding with the rest of the Uluru trifecta – treaty and truth – despite the overwhelming rejection of the voice.
There was no indication the Albanese government was seriously rethinking its existing commitments to a Makarrata (or treaty and truth-telling) commission or rescinding its funding. Or that the state Labor governments – with the exception of Queensland – were re-reconsidering their own commitments to treaties and reparations. Even though it was the full Uluru “voice, treaty, truth” separatist agenda voters rejected and even though to any serious democrat No must mean No.
As with Brexit, the indications are that the left-establishment will do its best to subvert and sabotage a vote it regards as morally deficient and try to nullify its effect. On a whole range of issues, such as climate, gender and immigration, there’s a disconnect between an empowered minority, with a tendency to regard dissent as not just wrong but immoral, and all those citizens who are much more pragmatic but whose only say is their vote. In an era when Labor and Liberal MPs seem to have more in common with each other than with the people who vote for them, the challenge for democracy is to ensure voting still makes a difference.
Because the voice offended both the liberal principle of constitutional equality and the conservative instinct not to embark on speculative change, the support for the voice of numerous Coalition MPs shows the intellectual diffidence still gripping the centre-right. But Peter Dutton’s brave decision to oppose it, despite the polls at the time, shows courage and conviction can be politically vindicated. His challenge now will be to insist on a full policy reset, when the government next changes.
Meanwhile, if the people’s vote is to be respected, it should mean abandoning, or at least scaling back, recent concessions to separatism: such as flying the Aboriginal flag co-equally with the national one (as if Australia is a country of two nations) and the routine acknowledgement of country by all speakers at official events (as if those whose ancestry here stretches beyond 1788 are more Australian than everyone else).
There’ll be an understandable tendency not to further upset those dismayed by the result; but it’s actually people’s polite acquiescence in what’s known to be wrong and fear of giving offence to previously discriminated-against minorities that’s allowed identity politics to become so entrenched, such that what was self-evident a generation ago now attracts trigger warnings or worse. If the separatist practices that most voters were reacting against persist, regardless of the voice’s thumping rejection, disillusionment with mainstream politics can only deepen. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, the international reaction was of one pained surprise that Australians had somehow rejected rights for Aboriginal people, rather than just special ones. This simply shows the global pervasiveness of identity thinking – due to the left’s long march through the institutions – and reveals how seismic our vote could be; provided we appreciate the magnitude of what we’ve just done and have the self-confidence to build upon it.