As the referendum approaches, the key dynamic in the debate is clear. The conservative right views a defeat for the Voice as a chance to strike a devastating blow against support for Indigenous rights among the Australian population. In the process, it is reviving every racist myth in the play book: Indigenous people shouldn’t get “special privileges”; opposing anti-Aboriginal racism is actually “dividing the nation”; and the colonisation of Australia had only a “positive impact”, in the words of Jacinta Price.
The Voice proposal itself is shallow symbolism, and the campaign to support it by the Labor government, NGOs, prominent Indigenous figures and corporate Australia is undoubtedly moderate and conservative. However, if the No vote wins, it will almost certainly be a step backwards for Indigenous people. The message it will send is that even entirely symbolic gestures to Indigenous rights must be abandoned as too radical. This will likely be a worse situation in which to continue the fight for Indigenous rights than if the Yes vote were to win.
For the Left, then, the choice, while far from ideal, should be clear. Whatever criticisms of the Voice we have, we need to support a Yes vote. It appears that most left-wing people agree with this proposition, including 77 percent of Greens voters and 57 percent of Labor supporters, according to a September Redbridge poll. A YouGov poll found that 83 percent of Indigenous people support a Yes vote.
Yet a minority of left-wing people are supporting the “progressive” No campaign. This approach to the referendum will only help the racist right score a victory against Indigenous people.
Often, the approach is justified on the basis that a big No vote would be a blow to the moderate centrist approach to Indigenous issues advocated by the Labor Party and open the space for more radical perspectives. For example, Ben Abbatangelo, a Gunaikurnai and Wotjobaluk writer and journalist, told the ABC that he thinks the No vote could be a positive moment. “You know, like a bushfire will come through and it’ll ravage the entire scene”, he argued. “But you come back to that site six months later ... and you see that green bursting through.” Similarly, the Black Peoples Union argues: “Not every No is racist, but every Yes is regressive”.
That is fantasy land stuff. A No victory in the referendum would most likely make it harder, not easier, to fight for Indigenous rights. It would embolden every racist in the country and undermine the confidence of those who support Indigenous people.
Only a tiny number of people will be voting against the Voice on a progressive basis. A Guardian Essential poll in June revealed 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”. Twenty-six percent said that a Voice “won’t make a real difference for ordinary Indigenous people”—however, this is a talking point that right-wingers have also taken up, arguing that Indigenous people don’t care about “woke” issues.
The “progressive” No campaign dangerously downplays the reality of the racist backlash being whipped up by the official No forces. In a statement on its website, the Black Peoples Union argues: “Yes campaigners are out of touch with reality if they think a No vote is going to embolden racism”.
This flies in the face of the reality of not only what the referendum results are likely to mean, but also of the impact that the right-wing No campaign is already having. Right-wingers have used the racist atmosphere produced by their campaign to push for all sorts of attacks on Indigenous rights.
In Western Australia, a coalition of right-wing parties backed by the Pastoral and Graziers Association launched a successful racist crusade against the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, which was quickly repealed by the state Labor government. Meetings of volunteers for the Yes campaign in Casey and Boroondara in Victoria have been disrupted by far-right thugs shouting racist abuse and displaying Nazi symbols. Mainstream discourse is now centred on whether Indigenous people have too many “privileges”, whether the NSW Aboriginal Land Council is secretly plotting to take control over half of Mosman and whether it is unfair and bullying to call right-wingers who hate Indigenous people racist.
This atmosphere impacts Indigenous people in their everyday lives. Marjorie Anderson, the national manager at 13Yarn, a crisis support line for First Nations Australians, told the BBC that there has been a 106 percent increase in abuse calls in the last four months. Megan Krakouer, a Menang woman who helps run the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project, also reports a spike in racist abuse.
And this has taken place with no push back at all. There have been no protests against the racism of the No campaign, no serious discussion about it on the left, no sense of outrage and determination not to let the racists wind back the clock on Indigenous issues. This is partially due to the politics of the Yes campaign, which abhors confrontation and controversy. It is focusing its efforts on winning over more moderate conservative voters and doesn’t want to polarise the issue by seriously combating the racism of the No campaign.
However, the lack of push back against the right is also because the arguments for a “progressive” No have disoriented a section of left-wing people, particularly those involved in activist circles used to going to or organising protests. By failing to understand that the racism of the No campaign is the major dynamic in the referendum, the “progressive” No campaign has seriously misread what is going on.
It is also far from the case that the “progressive” No campaign has consistently and clearly differentiated itself from the much larger right-wing No campaign. When Peter Dutton started making outlandish claims that the Australian Electoral Commission was plotting to rig the referendum, prominent “progressive” No social media pages, including Treaty before Voice and Aboriginal Tent Embassy, shared posts supporting this far-right conspiracy theory.
When Senator Lidia Thorpe was trying to get onto the committee to draft the official No case in the referendum pamphlet, rather than denouncing the racist scum involved, she told the ABC: “I’m looking forward to it. We’re going to have to sit in a room with people that we don’t normally get along with, so looking forward to that journey”.
Conservative lobby group Advance has set up a Facebook page called Not Enough, which promotes paid ads using images and quotes from “progressive” No spokespeople. These paid ads are targeted at young progressive voters in New South Wales and Victoria. While some “progressive” No figures have distanced themselves from these pages, others haven’t. This just aids the right and the far right.
Thorpe has argued that she is campaigning for a No vote because she doesn’t want Indigenous people to be included in a racist constitution. However, oppressed people have fought to win progressive reforms in constitutions across the world. Was it a mistake for African Americans to abolish slavery through the 13th Amendment to the undoubtedly colonial US constitution? Was the 1967 referendum in Australia a regressive move for Indigenous people because it involved changing the constitution?
The problem with the Voice is that it doesn’t give Indigenous people greater rights within the constitution, not that it’s some step backwards to be included in it. Thorpe puts forward a treaty as an alternative to the Voice, but a treaty would also involve negotiations with the Australian state, and any deal signed would mean acknowledging the legitimacy of the constitution. The only way to change this situation fundamentally would be through a revolution that overthrows the racist institutions of Australian capitalism.
In reply, supporters of a “progressive” No argue that it is misleading to present the referendum as a vote between a racist No and an anti-racist Yes, and that there are right-wingers with a history of racism supporting the Yes vote, including Liberal politicians and mining bosses.
It is true that the Yes campaign is hardly some principled anti-racist coalition and includes within its leadership some heinous people. It’s also true that Labor governments, both federal and state, are locking up Indigenous kids and undermining land rights to push through fossil fuel projects.
But the “progressive” No uses these criticisms of the Voice to argue for a totally passive approach to the racist assaults by the right, one which also doesn’t do anything to challenge the racism of the Labor governments. Lining up with the right to call for a No vote in the referendum doesn’t put Labor under any pressure, it doesn’t expose how it is doing nothing to alleviate the terrible conditions Indigenous people live under, it doesn’t help encourage left-wing Indigenous and non-indigenous people to think they can fight for a better world.
To justify their position, supporters of a “progressive” No have to argue that the Yes vote is as racist, if not more racist, than the No campaign. All this does is cover up the extremely racist nature of the campaigns of the Liberal Party and One Nation. There is no consideration here that, if there is no resistance, the conservative right can push politics in a more racist direction, that the broader political context can aid or hinder the development of anti-racist struggles, that we can build the kinds of movements and organisations we need to fight not just the right and the Labor Party, but also the roots of Indigenous oppression in economic inequality and structural racism.
If we are going to build the kind of fightback we need against the pervasive anti-Indigenous racism in our society, then the left is going to need radically different politics to that embodied in the “progressive” No campaign.