Racism and the referendum

6 September 2023
Jordan Humphreys

Right-wingers are using the Voice referendum to push their vile racism towards Indigenous people, and the media are giving ample space to every racist and their dog.

Former Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott used an opinion piece published in Nine Entertainment newspapers to promote the age-old assimilationist lie that “separatism” is the cause of Indigenous oppression, complain that the Voice will “entrench race into the Constitution” and mock the idea that “the settlement of Australia was a grievous injustice”.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton claims that the Voice will “re-racialise” Australian society, undermine democracy and give “special privileges” to Indigenous people. Echoing Donald Trump’s attempts to undermine the US presidential election results, Dutton has also claimed that the Australian Electoral Commission could “rig the referendum”.

Sky News has launched a 24-hour Voice-dedicated channel spreading the latest conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, the recent Australian Conservative Political Action Conference was dominated by racist tirades, epitomised by the thunderous applause “comedian” Rodney Marks received when he told the crowd that he would “like to acknowledge the traditional owners—violent Black men”.

Racism isn’t confined to the debate over the referendum. The right has used the bigoted atmosphere around it to promote a series of racist attacks on Indigenous rights. In Western Australia, the adoption of a relatively mild Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act in July led to a right-wing backlash organised by the Pastoral and Graziers Association and backed by the Liberals and Nationals. The right connected the Act to the Voice, erroneously claiming that the Act would give Aboriginal people the right to enter any property and stop any construction site—a revamping of the racist myth that Aboriginal people would use Native Title to claim people’s “backyards”.

Then there has been the hysterical moral panic over Indigenous youth crime, which has been amplified by right-wing media outlets and politicians across the country. In response, the Queensland state government has changed the law to criminalise breach of bail conditions by young people and suspended the Human Rights Act to allow police to put detained youth into adult watchhouses. Queensland has the largest youth prison population in the country, 63 percent of which is Indigenous.

For those of us who aren’t racist scum, this can all come as quite a shock. For the last decade or so it seemed that support for Indigenous rights, while still inadequate, was at least moving in the right direction; that progress was being made. Tens of thousands came to Invasion Day rallies, the issues of police brutality and racism were at the centre of mainstream political discussion, and there has been a greater appreciation of the history of Indigenous oppression.

How then has the right so successfully undermined this? Why is every major poll reporting that support for the Voice has dropped below 50 percent? Part of the explanation must be the existence of a bedrock of racist attitudes towards Indigenous people within a section of the Australian population. A June Guardian Essential Poll found that among those opposed to the Voice, 34 percent said that their main objection was that it would “divide Australia”. Another 33 percent believe that it would “give Indigenous Australians rights and privileges that other Australians don’t have”. Only 26 percent said that a Voice “won’t make a real difference for ordinary Indigenous people”—an ambiguous talking point that right-wingers have taken up at any rate.

These attitudes didn’t come from nowhere. For more than 150 years, the Australian establishment ridiculed Indigenous people as biologically inferior and subjected them to horrendous cruelties: the frontier massacres, economic exploitation, the removal of children and social segregation. This left a racist residue in Australian society, which has been tapped into by right-wing politicians from time to time.

While there have been important shifts in popular attitudes over recent decades, and old-school open hostility towards Indigenous people is relatively marginal, racist attitudes endure in various forms. Greater numbers of young people might support changing the date of Australia Day, be concerned about Black deaths in custody and think the Voice if anything is too modest a proposal—but it is a different story in other sections of the population.

A January Essential poll found that 45 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 34 back changing the date of Australia Day—but support fell to 25 percent of 35 to 55-year-olds and to just 13 percent of those over 55. Overall, only 26 per cent of people surveyed supported changing the date. Unsurprisingly, opposition to the Voice is strongest among men over the age of 55.

Not everyone supporting a No vote is a hardcore racist. There is also a significant section of the population that just doesn’t care very much about Indigenous people. While they might not be motivated to oppose acknowledgements of country or greater cultural recognition for Indigenous people, they also don’t have any defence against the more coded arguments presented by the No campaign: Isn’t this proposal really confusing? Aren’t there some Indigenous people opposing it? Won’t it cost a lot of money? “If you don’t know, vote No” and so on.

All of this points to the shallowness of the shift around Indigenous issues in the last decade or so, which occurred without any serious radicalisation in society or sustained mass activism that could have more significantly transformed popular attitudes on this question.

The conservative right has once again successfully mobilised the racist sentiment. At first, the Liberal Party was somewhat cautious about forthrightly campaigning against the Voice, unsure what the response would be. After all, when the referendum was first announced in the wake of Albanese’s victory in the May 2022 federal election, it appeared that any opposition to the Voice would struggle to gain a hearing.

The Voice was strongly backed by corporate Australia, including the Business Council and most of the big mining companies. It emerged from more or less bipartisan discussions between conservative or moderate Indigenous figures such as Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton, leading constitutional experts and politicians from across the political spectrum including influential figures within the Liberal Party. When the Uluru Statement from the Heart was first unveiled in 2017, proposing the idea of a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to parliament, it even received the backing of the Murdoch media.

By the end of 2022, though, cracks had emerged within the campaign for a Voice, and support was falling from the initial high of around 65-70 percent. The Liberals had started to question the Voice, but initially, open opposition was led more by the Nationals and One Nation. The landslide defeat for the Liberals in Ashton in April this year, when, for the first time in a century, the federal government won a seat from the opposition in a by-election, raised hopes among some that Dutton would now move to the centre and not openly oppose the Voice.

Instead, he announced that the Liberals would campaign for a No vote, binding his cabinet to this position, which triggered the resignation of the Liberal shadow attorney-general and Voice supporter Julian Lesser. The party threw itself into fighting the Voice. After April, Dutton was using parliamentary question time to claim that the Voice was an expression of the “madness of identity politics”. The gloves had come off, and the Murdoch media now came in strongly behind the No campaign. By July, almost all of the respected polling companies were recording majority support for a No vote.

Racist attitudes and the dynamics of Australian conservatism, while important, are only part of the explanation. The decline in support for the Voice has also been facilitated by the weaknesses of the campaign to support the Voice.

When the right has gone on the attack, the Yes campaign has ceded ground or waffled in response. For example, one of the arguments of the No side is that the Voice will open the floodgates for treaties. In response, the Yes campaign has argued that the referendum has nothing to do with a treaty, and when Albanese was asked if the Commonwealth government would negotiate a treaty if the Voice won, he told ABC radio: “No ... because that’s occurring within the states”. Yet the Voice is supposed to be part one of the three-part plan of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which includes a national treaty process and has supposedly been adopted in full by the Albanese government.

This reveals one of the deeper problems for the Yes campaign. On the one hand, it wants to emphasise how the Voice is a modest idea which is just a nice thing to do for Indigenous people that doesn’t really cost anyone anything. On the other hand, it also claims that the Voice isn’t just symbolic but is a real, tangible step towards racial harmony and reconciliation. The conservative right then has a field day pointing out the contradiction between the two positions.

This isn’t just a tactical misstep by the Yes campaign. It flows from the strategy of orientating towards the concerns of the shrinking middle ground of moderate conservative voters. The whole Voice campaign was predicated on the idea that there would be bi-partisan support for the proposal. When that evaporated, the Yes campaign has been floundering for an alternative strategy. The current strategy of moving further to the right to chase No voters isn’t winning greater support for the Voice, and definitely isn’t doing anything to challenge racism.

The result of all this has been to shift the discussion about Indigenous issues to the right. Only a few years ago, the major parties were on the back foot over the lack of progress for Indigenous people, the continuing high incarceration rates, Black deaths in custody and some pressure over changing the date of Australia Day.

Now, political discussion is about whether Indigenous people are getting “unearned privileges”; whether “ordinary” Indigenous people care at all about political issues such as racist policing or land rights; whether it is “reverse racism” to draw attention to Indigenous oppression; and whether a powerless advisory body is too radical a proposal for Australia. Meanwhile, the reality of anti-Indigenous racism grinds on far from the concerns of politicians and media pundits.

A win for the No vote in the referendum will embolden the racist right, which is already scoring victories against Indigenous rights. That’s why every progressive person should vote Yes in the upcoming referendum. However, to challenge anti-Indigenous racism, we will need to keep fighting after 14 October for something a lot more substantive than the Voice.

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