Federal opposition leader Peter Dutton announced earlier this month that the Liberals will join the Nationals and One Nation in formally opposing the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament, binding his frontbench to the No case in the upcoming referendum. The decision has led to the resignation from the Liberal Party of Ken Wyatt, former minister for Indigenous Australians in the Morrison government, and the frontbench resignation of shadow attorney-general Julian Lesser.
Justifying the decision, Dutton laid out a hard-right argument filled with racist dog-whistling. He claimed that the Voice was the “the most significant change to the constitution proposed since federation”, that it seeks to “disrupt our government” and that it “divides our country”. Loaded with coded language, these ideas echo longstanding right-wing arguments against so-called special treatment for Indigenous people, as well as more contemporary right-wing hostility to anti-racist sentiment.
Former Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott was more explicit, denouncing the Voice as “Indigenous separatism” in an interview with the Australian newspaper. “This assumption that Indigenous people are ‘different’ and need to be treated differently—this separatist mindset—is at the heart of the problem”, he said.
Underpinning the right-wing No campaign, then, is an outlook not that different from the old racist assimilationism of decades past: that there should be no recognition of the fact that Indigenous people are oppressed, and that they should instead be considered socially and economically disadvantaged by their illogical desire to continue cultural connections. In other words, according to the right-wing argument, they just have to be like other Australians—things like the Voice slow down this assimilation into the rest of society.
The racist nature of this campaign was also on full display at a recent public meeting opposing the Voice, which took place in Tamworth and featured One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, former right-wing shock jock Alan Jones and former Labor minister Gary Johns. Johns argued that the Voice would create an apartheid regime. Hanson stated that “a lot of people jump on the bandwagon and claim the benefits because they claim to be Aboriginal”. Afterwards, people walking out were quoted in the Guardian as saying “The whites will win” and “Dingoes have been here longer than you” to an Aboriginal protester.
Socialists, of course, reject the racism and right-wing rhetoric of Peter Dutton, Pauline Hanson and their ilk, and call it out for what it is—particularly when the vile nature of such arguments is being downplayed in much of the media.
However, we also recognise that there are very real problems with the proposal for an Indigenous voice to parliament, even if those problems aren’t the ones motivating opposition from the right of politics.
Contrary to Dutton’s claim that the Voice is a super radical attack on the constitution, it is actually the opposite. While advocates of the Voice claim that it is the first step in a process that will deal with the structural dimensions of Indigenous oppression, it will actually do nothing to combat Indigenous oppression—or even begin a process of ending it. The proposed Voice will be an advisory body only, with no power over government policy. Parliament will have to listen to its views—but can freely ignore them and continue overseeing the system that discriminates against Indigenous people day in and day out.
We can already see what this looks like on a state and territory level. The Queensland state government recently initiated a treaty process, but has also announced new draconian law-and-order legislation that will override Queensland’s Human Rights Act to make breaching bail conditions a criminal offence for children—a move that will overwhelmingly affect Indigenous kids. It is also building two new youth prisons and expanding a trial electronic monitoring system for people as young as 15.
The Northern Territory Labor government has similarly claimed that it listened to Indigenous voices after the disclosure of abuse at the Don Dale detention centre in 2015. Yet Don Dale is still open, and new abuses of Aboriginal kids have been reported since.
In Victoria, there is a well-established Voice in the form of the First Peoples’ Assembly, but that hasn’t stopped Premier Daniel Andrews from dramatically increasing spending on the police, or from granting greater powers to police and protective services officers to punish individuals for being in the vicinity of police stations for reasons other than assisting police.
The problem is that the Voice doesn’t even begin to strike at the real structural roots of Indigenous oppression in our society.
The fact that the Voice is being backed by the Business Council of Australia and the leaders of the mining industry should also be a clear sign that it has little to do with genuine justice for Indigenous people. After all, these are the companies that made billions from exploiting Indigenous lands and campaigned stridently against Indigenous land rights.
The Voice also has to be placed within the broader framework of the Albanese government. Even though the Voice was not created by the ALP, it has been enthusiastically taken up because it fits into the Albanese government’s broader strategy of cementing itself through an alliance with big business, the mainstream media and socially progressive but wealthy Australians.
The ALP hopes to isolate the Liberals and the Nationals by presenting them as incompetent dinosaurs out of touch with urban middle-class voters and corporate Australia, both of whom have shifted over the last couple of decades to embrace cultural recognition for Indigenous people. This approach is not unique to Indigenous issues: hollow progressive symbolism dominates everything from climate change to union rights, foreign policy and LGBTI issues.
The ALP and the establishment supporters of the Voice also hope that the Voice might play a role in channelling the legitimate anger about entrenched racism and the mistreatment of Indigenous people into a tame cat body unlikely to alter the status quo. In the process, they hope to strengthen a layer of coopted middle-class Indigenous bureaucrats who will gain the most from the Voice.
The Voice, then, is a symbolic and weak proposal that will do little more than whitewash the racist institutions of Australian society while giving a small minority of elite Indigenous people some social capital.
Movements or campaigns for symbolic changes can have a positive impact in some situations. They can help give the oppressed, or the left more broadly, the confidence to challenge the conservative status quo. Symbolic acts can at times be a catalyst for further struggle by raising people’s expectations and making them feel they have a right to demand more. We shouldn’t be insensitive to that reality.
In regard to the Voice, however, there is no sign that it is galvanising a grassroots campaign that is going to lay the basis for greater struggles in the future. This is not really surprising. The idea itself was largely cooked up by a small number of constitutional lawyers and Indigenous academics and has failed to become a mass organic issue that people seriously rally around. This is precisely why it is struggling to gain greater support in the polls.
A number of progressive Indigenous figures have come out criticising the Voice, such as federal Senator Lidia Thorpe. Unfortunately, however, the most prominent critics of the Voice in the mainstream discussion are right-wingers and racists.
Despite all these criticisms, we must think seriously about what would happen if the right-wing No campaign were successful in the coming referendum. Just imagine what it would be like the day afterwards: the media would be filled with articles arguing either that the mass of the population is nothing but racist trash or, more likely, that they rightfully rejected the stupid social justice politics of the “inner-city cultural elite” and that Peter Dutton is the true representative of “mainstream” values. Such an outcome could definitely open space for the hard right in politics to regain lost momentum.
Considering this, and the fact that the left-wing criticisms of the Voice are very much marginal to the overall debate, progressive people should support a critical Yes vote in the referendum to cut against the right-wing No campaign while also remaining clear about the limitations of the Voice itself.
However, if we are to turn around the dire situation that many Indigenous people face—poverty, police harassment and institutionalised racism among other things—then we need a radically different approach than the Voice. It should be one that strives to mobilise Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to fight the undemocratic power of capitalist corporations and government bureaucracies, rather than seeking greater collaboration with them, that puts forward a bold vision of Indigenous liberation that will not be confined within the limits of what is acceptable to the utterly conservative Australian establishment.
Rather than meekly accepting the agenda of the Albanese government and the aspirations of a narrow Indigenous middle class, the left should advocate a strategy based on mass movements to disrupt the status quo by building united action from below. Throughout the twentieth century, it was precisely movements of this kind that led to the greatest advances for the largest numbers of Indigenous people—including the land rights and Black Power struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, and the post-war campaigns to end racial segregation that involved both Indigenous and non-Indigenous left-wing trade unionists.
The tens of thousands who rallied around the country on Invasion Day this year demanding justice show that this alternative isn’t a utopian dream. Neither a win for the right-wing No campaign nor the establishment of an Indigenous voice to parliament, though, will bring us any closer to making Indigenous liberation a reality.