This was originally given as a paper to the Danube Institute in Budapest



Just over six months on, it’s clear that the Voice vote in Australia was both encouraging and discouraging. Encouraging, in that it was the first time anywhere in the world that an issue of identity politics was put to the people and resoundingly defeated. But discouraging, in that the political class and the elite establishment seem determined to push on with indigenous separatism, as if the vote had never happened or didn’t really mean anything.

Last October, the Australian people voted against a change to the constitution that would have created a constitutionally-entrenched ancestry-based Voice, able to make representations to the parliament, and to the executive government, on matters relating to indigenous people, who are currently just under 4 per cent of the population of Australia.

In defeating this, Australians voted in keeping with Martin Luther King’s immortal plea that his children “not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”; which in turn reflected St Paul’s noble declaration that there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for all are one in Christ Jesus”.

Should this change have succeeded, anything government planned, that potentially impacted on indigenous people, from tax to social security, to infrastructure, to the placement of defence bases, could have enabled a representation from the Voice, plus a response to it from government before it could go ahead. And given the lack of specificity in the proposed change, what constituted adequate consideration of any representation and what constituted an adequate response to it, would have been decided in the courts; in another example of the growing global democratic deficit.

Originally dubbed a “third chamber of the parliament”, and subsequently a “fourth arm of government”, in addition to the executive, legislative and judicial arms, the Voice was a very substantial change to the way government would work. It would have created two classes of citizen based on ancestry, made the processes of government even more gummed up, and reinforced the separatism that’s at the heart of indigenous disadvantage. Professor Megan Davis, a Voice architect, described it as a “change to the structure of Australia’s public institutions” that “would redistribute public power”; creating, she said, “an institutional relationship between government and First Nations that will compel the state to listen to (them) in policy and decision-making”.

Naturally, that wasn’t how its proponents presented it to voters. The cartoonist Johannes Leak satirised the Prime Minister’s case for the Voice with a pastiche of his own words: “It’s an outstretched hand, an invitation to walk together, it’s an olive branch, a gracious offer, it’s a wave of hope, a brighter dawn, a better tomorrow, it’s modest, it’s transformative, it’s a movement, it’s a vibe, it’s having a crack”.

But deep down the Voice proponents were guilting Australians about what they called invasion and dispossession, rather than largely peaceful settlement. In the same way that cultural Marxists guilt America over slavery and Britain over the empire.

And it’s true that indigenous people, overall, have considerably worse educational, employment, incarceration, health and housing outcomes than other Australians, as indigenous people do in other countries too, but the really severe disadvantage is in outback Australia – not in the cities and towns where about three quarters of Aboriginal people live and are reasonably well integrated into the general community. It’s where indigenous people still live in what are usually former mission stations, often hundreds of kilometres from any major town, once subsistence but now welfare-dependent settlements, where kids often don’t go to school, adults mostly don’t go to work, and the ordinary law of the land is sometimes only sporadically and often selectively policed, where life is all-too-often nasty, poor, brutal and short.

Naturally, most Australians are worried and somewhat embarrassed about this. But Voice proponents could never explain how another bureaucracy, on top of all the existing ones, would improve things. They said that nothing else had worked. But the Voice seemed more like doubling down on failure than a fresh start, especially as its proponents were the same people who’d been advising governments for years.

Given that society only changes person-by-person, and institutional change really only works if it fosters this, improving lives in remote Australia is more-the-work of generations, than a constitutional quick fix, in which youngsters henceforth get a good primary education “on country”, a good secondary education in a normal boarding school at a major centre; to return to their communities as tradies or professionals, or on holiday or in retirement, having individually been empowered to make real choices about the lives they lead and the places they live. Which is easy to conceptualise, but hard to deliver, given the practical difficulties of getting de-motivated families to send their kids to school, getting good teachers to stay in remote places, and getting flighty teenagers to persevere in challenging tasks in unfamiliar towns, especially with an activist class pushing a message of grievance, victimhood, and entitlement.

It was this activist class that crafted the 2017 Uluru Statement calling for Voice, Treaty, Truth: a constitutionally entrenched Voice; treaties between different levels of government and specific indigenous tribes or clans; and so-called truth-telling with Australia’s history presented largely as a story of dispossession and frontier violence. The one page version cloaked what was a demand for power and reparations in uplifting language. But the full 26 page version was pretty clear that this was an indigenous bid to gain the privileged place, akin to a local House of Lords, that the activists thought the descendants of the original inhabitants should always have had.

The Uluru Statement was the culmination of a process that was originally meant to lead to no more than the simple recognition of First Australians in the constitution. That, in turn, had begun back in 2007 when-then Prime Minister John Howard had committed the Liberal National Coalition to constitutional recognition, instead of supporting an apology for the past mistreatment of Aboriginal people. Howard’s reasoning was sound, because an apology from people who have done no wrong themselves, to people who have not been wronged themselves, is just empty virtue signalling.

But what Howard had intended as a straight-forward acknowledgement that Aboriginal people were here first and had an ongoing honoured place in our country; and what I had envisaged (when PM) might be a statement in the preamble that modern Australia had “an indigenous heritage, a British foundation, and an immigrant character” became a Trojan Horse for radical constitutional change

Anthony Albanese’s first words as prime minister, after winning the 2022 election, were to commit to implementing the Uluru Statement “in full”. When he launched the specific Voice proposal at the subsequent Garma Festival, there was about 70 per cent opinion poll support, for what the PM pitched as little more than an act of courtesy to Aboriginal people. Even though it was soon apparent that some very significant indigenous leaders, such as Senator Jacinta Price, who’d formerly been the deputy mayor of Alice Springs; and Warren Mundine, a business leader who’d formerly been the national president of the Labor Party before switching party, thought that the Voice would divide the country by race without ending Aboriginal disadvantage or reflecting traditional indigenous governance by local elders. Price and Mundine’s role in the campaign was crucial because having Aboriginal people against the Voice gave everyone permission to be against it without fearing that they might be closet racists.

In late 2022, Price succeeded in persuading the National Party to take a formal position opposing the Voice. Meanwhile, the PM was demanding that the Liberal Party offer bi-partisan support, but without offering to change his proposal, or even to confine it to a Voice to parliament only, as suggested by his attorney-general; and refusing to answer opposition leader Peter Dutton’s request to provide more detail. In April last year, after previously being open to some from of local and regional Voices, Dutton made the big call to oppose the national Voice, despite poll support still being 50 per cent plus, and over the objections of the relevant shadow minister who subsequently resigned. 

Yet when the vote was finally taken, on October 14 last year, it was resoundingly defeated, 61 per cent to 39 per cent; with all states and territories opposed, except the government-dominated Australian Capital Territory; and with three quarters of Labor-held electorates recording a majority against it, even though there had been no obvious dissension from senior Labor figures. Like the 2022 defeat of constitutional change in Chile to enshrine indigenous rights and environmental alarmism, and the even more recent defeat of constitutional change in Ireland to remove allegedly archaic references to women and motherhood, the Australian people, who’d earlier voted 60:40 for “marriage equality”, voted 60:40 against racial inequality; and in favour of the equal citizenship of all. It showed how a relatively unpopular opposition leader, who was prepared to take a stand and argue his case, could help to make mission impossible out of something that was previously almost inevitable, and turn himself into a credible alternative prime minister in the process.

Remarkably, the Voice went down despite overwhelming backing from big business, big tech, big sport, and big philanthropy. The Ramsay Foundation’s $7 million donation to the “yes” campaign was the biggest single arm’s length political gift in Australian history. More than half a dozen major corporates gave over a million dollars each. Subsequently released electoral commission figures showed that the $60 million spent by the “yes” campaign was four times the spending of Voice opponents. It was a David and Goliath struggle that showed a strong majority of individual Australians were largely impervious to celebrity appeals and being pushed around by the morally superior. It was a seismic instance of quiet Australians’ revolt against their elites.

Yet other than a glum acknowledgment that the result had to be accepted, there’s been almost no change in government policy or elite positions. The federal government hasn’t rescinded the $6 million earlier committed to advancing the “truth-telling” element in the Uluru statement. It still supports state government moves towards treaty negotiations. In both Victoria and Queensland, there are ongoing moves to create formal instruments giving local indigenous groups substantial control over the management of national parks and crown lands and even special access to royalties. Iconic landmarks like Uluru itself, Mount Warning in NSW and part of the Grampians in Victoria remain off limits to non-indigenous climbers. Most domestic flights still land to an acknowledgment of country. Nearly all civic gatherings still begin with paying respects to local indigenous elders past and present; as if the country only belongs to some of us, not all of us, despite Marcia Langton declaring that these “welcomes” would cease if the referendum failed. The flag of some of us still flies co-equally with the flag of all of us, including on Sydney Harbour Bridge, thanks to a Liberal premier who’d earlier said that this was just “Labor’s latest social justice warrior cause”. Notwithstanding Labor’s greatest PM, Bob Hawke’s immortal declaration on our bicentenary day, that Australia had “no hierarchy of descent” and “no privilege of origin”.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that most people in authority, whether in government, business, or institutions, on this issue at least, regard the majority of the public as “a basket of deplorables” to be circumvented if possible and otherwise ignored. It’s just the latest example of an administrative state or expert-ocracy getting on with its objectives regardless of the people, an antipodean version of the “swamp’s” refusal to accept the legitimacy of Trump’s 2016 win, and the “remoaner” British establishment’s ongoing sabotage of Brexit.

In response to sustained hostile questioning about the impact of colonialism, the heroic Jacinta Price, who describes herself as a “proud Warlpiri-Celtic Australian woman”, told the National Press Club: “I guess that would mean those of us whose ancestors were dispossessed of their own country and brought as convicts in chains are (also) suffering from inter-generational trauma. So I should be doubly suffering from intergenerational trauma”. This was a magnificent riposte to those who want the alleged sins of some of their ancestors, committed against others of their ancestors, to found compensation claims many decades or even centuries later. Why indeed, should people who have themselves done no wrong be required to feel guilty about the circumstances of people who’ve had no wrong done to them, simply because some are identified as “white” and others “black”? It’s another example of the Marxist division of the world into “oppressors” and “oppressed” regardless of the circumstances of people’s real lives.

Still, the fact that little has changed post-referendum shows the pervasiveness of this thinking and how acquiescent-in-it officialdom at every level has become. Dealing with this is going to be much harder than dealing with the referendum itself. It will mean revisiting the “self-determination” policy that’s been in place since Gough Whitlam’s time, that’s never really been subject to widespread public debate, let alone a vote, giving Aboriginal people structures of their own, beyond and often outside those of other Australians: Aboriginal health services, Aboriginal legal services, and Aboriginal corporations often operating like parallel local government bodies. People should be treated, says Price, on an individual and not on a racial basis. She’s right, of course, but no one should underestimate the challenge inherent in rolling back the creeping separatism of five decades.

The lessons are that ordinary voters are less gullible than the academics, who think that you can end racism via even more racism, only well-intentioned this time; that even an unpopular leader can win a vote with a superior argument and a better principle; that major change needs more than the vibe in its favour to succeed; and that starting miles behind doesn’t mean success is impossible. Still, indigenous separatism is one of the products of the left’s half-century long march through the institutions that will take a long counter-march to rectify. Yet a strong start has been made. There’s one more thing too. Curbing identity politics will require elected and accountable politicians with strong convictions and rare courage. These days, the elected ministers, who form the temporary government, tend to be all-too-subservient to the unelected senior officials, who form the permanent government. Ministers are only in charge of their portfolios in fact as well as in theory if they have the self-confidence to give directions to their officials and the follow-up to make them effective. It’s the comparative contemporary absence of this level of leadership that makes voters despair that, whomever they elect, they continue to get the same mediocre and leftist government. The backbone and the thoughtfulness that Dutton and Price demonstrated during the Voice campaign is some grounds for optimism that the next Coalition government will turn out to be better than the last one.