Heading for the rocks
Hand-picked advisors and no power. The Voice referendum offers no solution when it comes to Aboriginal rights, argues Martin Greenfield
On October 14 Australians will vote in a referendum on whether to alter the country’s monarchist constitution to “recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”.
‘The Voice’ will be a body established by parliament to “advise on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”. If successful, its composition and details will be wholly decided by parliament.
On the face of it, who could be opposed to something so benign? Yet the ‘yes’ campaign - led by the Labor government with lukewarm backing from the Greens - looks to be heading for defeat. The conservative Liberal and National opposition parties are campaigning against, appealing to ignorance with the inspiring slogan: ‘If you don’t know, vote no’.
Given the conservative nature of the Australian constitution, no referendum in Australia’s short history has won without support from both the government and opposition. The ‘republic’ referendum in 1999 to transfer royal prerogative from the crown to a parliament-appointed president was contested and defeated. Polls have the ‘yes to Voice’ vote at an even lower ebb. As well as winning a majority of the electorate, for a referendum to be successful it must win a majority of the six colonial-era states - an inbuilt handbrake on change.
Prime minister Anthony Albanese’s Labor government and conservative Aboriginals, such as Noel Pearson, have been bending over backwards to assure the electorate that the Voice will have no powers: it will not lead to reparations for stolen lands and will only have an advisory role (one that can be ignored).
An example of this appeal to backwardness run by some government MPs reads: “Schools have student councils, where each class picks a student to represent them. They don’t run the school. They offer advice. They offer ideas. That’s what the Voice will be.” Leaving aside the orientalist insult that compares the colonised to children, it is an indicator as to why the ‘yes’ campaign is headed for defeat.
So the tenor of its campaign is to tell ‘doubters’ that the Voice will have no power and is not to be feared. Yet, on the other hand, it appeals to liberal ‘progressives’, claiming that ‘history is calling’. Which is it? ‘Yes’ campaign advertising feels more like an Oxfam or Unicef appeal to give young black kids ‘a chance’. There is no real attempt to win the mass of the population to the idea that this will be of mutual benefit through shared justice - because in reality, no justice can be delivered through the Voice.
Most - but not all - capitalist corporations are on board with the official ‘yes’ campaign. Much of mainstream society placates itself with reconciliation action plans and starts meetings with ‘acknowledgements of country’: performative gestures that are more about making middle class white people and their institutions feel good about themselves rather than building a movement for justice.
The ‘Voice with no power’ on offer has meant that, while a clear majority of ‘First Nations’ people (who make up just under four percent of the population) will vote ‘yes’, some radical voices in the Aboriginal movement are calling for a ‘no’ vote. Some, like veteran activist Gary Foley, will boycott the referendum. They argue that the Voice will not only be a sham, but without a treaty the Voice concedes Aboriginal sovereignty to the colonisers.
For its proponents, the ‘Indigenous Voice to parliament’ will right an historic fiction - that Australia was ‘empty’ when the British colonised it in 1788. Unlike in New Zealand, where the crown was forced to sign a treaty with the Maori, Australia was deemed terra nullius, so no reckoning with Aboriginal peoples was needed. It was not until the 1960s that indigenous Australians were even counted as citizens.
The successful 1967 referendum (initiated by a conservative Liberal government with bipartisan support) was for a “an act to alter the constitution so as to omit certain words relating to the people of the Aboriginal race in any state and so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the population”. Ninety percent of Australians voted ‘yes’. In 1992, a high court decision effectively quashed terra nullius, recognising that a group of Torres Strait Islanders, led by Eddie Mabo, had held continuous ownership of Murray Island (Mer).
At its heart, the referendum is an attempt by ‘liberal’ mainstream society to solve this constitutional contradiction. The ruling class is split on this question, with a large and powerful minority beholden to the mining industry and large agricultural estates opposed to any concessions to First Nations people. Most of mainstream bourgeois society, with its ‘official anti-racism’, seeks a rapprochement with the First Nations - albeit on the basis of incorporation into capitalist society.
The likely failure of this referendum lies squarely at the feet of the Albanese government. Pumped with hubris at the start of the year, when polls were nearly 70% in favour of the referendum, Labor pushed the legislation forward before securing the support of opposition leader Peter Dutton. A former Queensland cop, with all that entails, Dutton had laid a trap for the prime minister, which Albanese walked into. Just ahead of the referendum, polls are now showing a lead of over 15% for ‘no’.
The Voice originates from a national meeting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in 2017: a National First Nations Constitutional Convention, convened by the unelected Referendum Council, which was formed under the previous Liberal government.1 The convention was by invitation, but is seen as broadly representative of First Nations people. It issued the ‘Uluru statement from the heart’, which calls for “Voice, treaty and truth”.2 Its endorsement was not unanimous. A minority of Aboriginal voices then - as now - believe the process concedes First Nations’ sovereignty that cannot be reconciled without a treaty.
The origins for this “most gracious request” by indigenous people, as the prime minister refers to it, comes from a generation of Aboriginal leaders, radicalised during the land rights movement in the 1960s and 70s, who have experienced defeat after defeat - often at the hands of the Labor Party.
When Bob Hawke led Labor to victory in 1983, he did so promising a National Land Rights Act - a process to return stolen lands to Aboriginal traditional owners. Labor also promised to ban uranium mining, much of which is on traditional Aboriginal lands. Hawke reneged on both, stabbing the Aboriginal movement in the back at the behest of the mining industry.
In 1991, a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody delivered a report to the then Labor government with 339 recommendations, including that all jurisdictions (state and federal) introduce land rights legislation and that the Commonwealth deliver funding autonomy for Aboriginal communities on a triennial basis. These and many other recommendations remain undelivered.
Arch conservative, John Howard, as PM, abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 2005 - a statutory authority created by the Labor government, that also included elections by First Nations people to choose their representatives. While flawed, its democratic content was worth defending.
The history of the past 50 years has mostly been one of bitter defeats and disappointments for the Aboriginal peoples. Many Aboriginal leaders from the activist generation of the 1960s-70s hoped that a modest request for a ‘Voice to parliament’ would win bipartisan support and their efforts of a lifetime would deliver some sort of result. The entire strategy was focused on winning bipartisanship, but Albanese fumbled at the try line, pushing ahead with the referendum before securing backing from the opposition.
Up until the middle of this year, Dutton played along with the idea that the referendum might be bipartisan. A trap. An overconfident Albanese was lured into setting in motion the vote machinery and, when it was effectively too late, Dutton pulled the rug.
In one sense, Dutton’s decision to oppose the Voice makes it a choice between an Australia that opposes racism and a country that is comfortable in its racism. That is the basis upon which many will vote - and will clearly be how the international narrative will run. But it is not that simple. Many in the ‘yes’ camp are running along similar lines to the Hillary Clinton campaign against Donald Trump in 2016 or the ‘remain’ campaign against the Brexiteers in Britain. A celebrity-led campaign is moralising against and dismissing anyone considering a ‘no’ vote as ignorant racists, much as Clinton bemoaned the “basket of deplorables”, or ‘remoaners’ criticised the “gammon” working class who voted for Brexit.
But it is simply untrue that working class people in multicultural Australia are hopelessly racist. With opinion polls showing almost 70% in favour of the referendum on the Voice a few months ago, if it now turns out there is a ‘no’ majority on October 14, does that mean that a third of the population has suddenly become racist?
While lacking any clear politics, many of these voters are wondering why the Albanese government is prioritising a referendum during a cost-of-living and housing crisis, where real wages are continuing to fall and rents are skyrocketing. There is no campaign that unites working class economic concerns with a political programme for democracy and justice.
What is missing, of course, is an independent working class voice, a push to recognise Aboriginal sovereignty through treaty and land rights, combined with a militant campaign for a democratic republic and economic class rule. Workers have nothing to fear from a treaty that grants real land rights and allows for a process to pay reparations to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for lost land.
Most of what remains of the revolutionary left is mired in an economistic tailing of the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie. They simply do not take constitutional or high politics seriously. So, given the absence of an organised working class movement with its own programme on this matter, it is not surprising that most anti-racist, trade union and class-conscious workers will vote ‘yes’. Given the opposition’s position, it can be argued that this is an ‘anti-racist’ vote. It is a rational decision for most ‘progressive’ people to take.
And this is where much of the organised left has landed: the ‘soft Stalinist’ Communist Party of Australia, the ex-Mandelite/Castroite Socialist Alliance (formerly the Democratic Socialist Party) - even the Cliffite Socialist Alternative. They all say a ‘no’ vote will embolden the racists and those opposed to Aboriginal justice (and they are not wrong on that point).
Meanwhile, the smaller Cliffite group, Solidarity, is not advising any vote. It has pointed out quite clearly all the flaws in the Voice, but, without the courage of its convictions, tells those interested sotto voce that its members will individually vote ‘yes’.3 It dismisses the call for a treaty and instead calls for an abstract and empty “mass protest movement uniting black and non-indigenous workers to fight for justice”.
Only the Healyite Socialist Equality Party is calling for an active boycott4 - albeit one based on economistic illusions, saying that effectively black and white workers have the same interests. Such an approach ignores the democratic questions around the history of colonialism - and cedes them to the capitalist class to try to solve. The SEP says ‘socialism’ will solve this problem. It rejects a call for a treaty in Australia and points to the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand, which has led to “Maori business empires”. But this misses the main point at the heart of Marxism and Leninism. Democratic questions must be championed by the working class and its organisations for workers to become the ruling class.
In abstraction, if there was a mass workers’ party with links to militant Aboriginal activists (as the Communist Party of old did represent in some form), then an active boycott of this referendum would be the best course of action. But without such a party most of the left and most Aboriginal people will understandably vote ‘yes’ - some enthusiastically, some grudgingly.
No matter what the outcome of the referendum is this weekend, Aboriginal people will be left to deal with a mainstream society that has promised much and delivered very little. With or without the Voice, the contradiction at the heart of the constitution will remain, with the ‘liberal’ ruling class unable to solve it. The working class must be organised to sweep it aside and fight for a democratic republic that delivers a just treaty, with land rights and reparations for First Nations people.