The Voice referendum as Australia’s ‘Brexit moment’

26 July 2023

By: John Roskam

Australians should have their voice heard

A poll released in The Sydney Morning Herald on the weekend showed 52% of respondents Australia-wide would vote No at the Voice referendum and 48% would vote Yes.  The referendum will be defeated if a majority of voters in three states vote No. According to the poll there are currently majorities for No in New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, and South Australia.

That poll and others showing the same trend have prompted Voice advocates such as Liberal senator Andrew Bragg to suggest the referendum should be delayed.

In February this year I wrote the referendum should be cancelled. I said in my column in The Australian Financial Review:

 A loss or a narrow victory for the Voice will not be good for anyone and it won’t be good for the country.  A loss or narrow victory will set back reconciliation – that’s a truth that advocates of both the Yes and No side must surely be able to see.

The closest parallel in Australian history to something like the voice referendum are the conscription plebiscites for the First World War.  The trauma of both the process and their results left scars lasting a generation.

It would be a dignified and gracious act of the prime minister to withdraw the referendum and acknowledge it cannot proceed in the current circumstances.

I’ve since changed my mind.  Maybe the six months ago the referendum could have been cancelled – it can’t now. It’s gone so far that it’s now time for the Australian public to be listened to.  My fear is not that the referendum will go ahead, but that it won’t, and Australians will denied the opportunity to have their say on an issue fundamental to the future of our country.

Given the strength of the forces arrayed against it, success for the No campaign could be Australia’s ‘Brexit moment’ (or even a ‘Trump in 2016 moment’). Victory for the No case would be more consequential than a win for Yes. The Voice being established would be a continuation of already existing trends. But it’s defeat at the hands of a popular vote would be a sharp reversal of the country’s political and social direction. Victory for the No side could be the beginning of a realignment of the public debate in Australia and would represent a stunning repudiation of the country’s ruling class and of the cultural agenda it has pursued for the last decade.

Their decision on the Voice is one of the most important choices Australians have ever faced. For the government to delay or cancel it would be cynical and manipulative.  And Australians have been manipulated enough.

A government that regarded the Voice as something more than just an exercise in political-scoring would already have announced the date of the vote, would have provided equal public funding for the Yes and No case (as has been done in the past), and would have guaranteed donations for both the Yes and No case would be tax deductible (as the government resisted for months).

According to the ‘Edelman Trust Barometer’ an international survey of public opinion, the Australian public’s trust in its government is close to all-time low, and we’re losing trust in our institutions, including the government at a faster rate than all the other 27 countries surveyed, except South Korea.  The reasons for this are not hard to find. When basically every corporate, civic, cultural, educational, and media institution supports the Voice, when a majority of the public do not, it’s entirely reasonable for those institutions not to be trusted.

As significant as federal elections are, the truth is that usually the differences between the parties are relatively minor.  If Bill Shorten had been elected prime minister in 2019 Australia wouldn’t be much different from as it is now.  Tony Abbott’s election in 2013 was significant but once he was removed less than 24 months after becoming PM, the policies of the Coalition and Labor coalesced to be almost indistinguishable.  The referendum vote is completely different from the regular ‘contest’ between Labor and Liberal.  The Voice asks an existential question and the Yes and No cases offer diametrically opposed visions for the country.  Success for the Yes case overturns the principle that all Australians are equal.  Success for the No case will reveal Australians (at least for a little while longer) believe in the ideal of equality of citizenship, a basic ideal of liberal democracy.

In saying all of this I’m aware that these aren’t the terms in which the Liberal Party’s opposition to the Voice is expressed.  The Liberals have been careful to make their criticisms of the Voice at the margins, by for example questioning its ‘practicality’ and cost and asking whether ‘local’ Voices might be a better alternative.  These are all legitimate concerns but they don’t engage with the fundamental point of principle.  Liberals have been told by pollsters that arguing Australians shouldn’t be divided by race will alienate ‘moderate’ and ‘undecided’ voters and a ‘Yes, but…’ approach is preferable.  That’s a point impossible to prove either way, but you only need to look at the consequences of the Liberals’ ‘Yes, but…’ policies on climate change. The Liberals’ tactics shouldn’t disguise what’s at stake in the referendum.

In February when I said the referendum should be cancelled Yes was polling 58% and No was 42%.  Notwithstanding those numbers I believed then, as I do now that the referendum will fail. I had no special polling or exclusive access to data from the respective.  My view was based on two things: the merits of the argument and my faith (admittedly tested during COVID) in the good sense of the Australian people.  While many of the principles upon which liberal democracy rests, such as freedom of speech no longer have the unwavering support of the public or of elites, ‘equality’ remains a powerful concept.

The referendum is certainly about equality, but it’s more than that. The Voice is a manifestation of the effort to impose on the public an ideology quite alien to the Australian way of life.  It’s an ideology some have called ‘woke’ or ‘left wing progressive’ but those terms don’t quite do it justice.  It’s an ideology difficult to name, but its elements are easy to identify. They include:

  • replacing the concepts of character and merit with assumed attributes according to a person’s race, gender or some other characteristic
  • imposing contested political values into areas that were previously personal and non-political
  • denigrating the heritage of Western Civilisation and Australia’s history as the world’s most successful liberal democracy.

No aspect of this radical program has ever been put to a vote.

The Voice is also only the first part of the Uluru Statement, which calls for a Voice, a Treaty (or Treaties), and ‘truth-telling about our history’.  The prime minister on election night on 21 May 2022 at the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL Club said ‘On behalf of the Australian Labor Party, I commit to the Uluru Statement from the heart in full.’

One of the explanations why the Yes campaign is faring so badly is because Voice advocates have little experience arguing their case and trying to convince the public of the merit of their claims.  That’s why some advocates have resorted to personal abuse – they have no weapons of persuasion in their arsenal.  The imposition onto the Austalian public of the worldview of so many Voice supporters isn’t the outcome of a public debate, it’s the result of administrative and corporate decree.  Qantas customers have never been asked their opinion about the announcement made every time their plane lands.  Nor have spectators at sports events ever given their approval to being subjected to the ideological advertising they’re forced to sit through.

Because advocates for the Voice have seldom had to engage in serious debate they’re surprised when what they say is taken seriously.  That’s what happened to legal academic Professor Greg Craven last week.  He was a member of the prime minister’s ‘Constitutional Expert Group’ on the Voice.  Its eight members naturally all agreed with each other on the merits of the Voice.

You might have seen Craven was reported in the media as ‘beside myself with rage’ when the No pamphlet accurately reproduced his remarks about the Voice.  ‘I think it’s fatally flawed because what it does is retain the full range of review of executive action.  This means the voice can comment on everything from submarines to parking tickets…  We will have regular judicial interventions.’

As Janet Albrechtsen wrote:

Craven claims he was taken out of context because he is a Yes voter.  Being a Yes voter doesn’t alter the substance of what he said.  He was right to point to the fatal flaw.  Craven should be grateful the No pamphlet didn’t quote some of his other equally accurate and incisive comments.  For example, writing in The Australian on March 24, Craven described ‘Anthony Albanese’s much-hyped revelation of his constitutional words for the voice’ as ‘a ruthless con job’.  Why should we doubt him?

Another member of the government’s Constitutional Expert Group on the referendum is Professor George Williams of the University of New South Wales.  He’s argued ‘the Voice will complete the unfinished business of 1967 referendum’ – but he couldn’t be more wrong. More than fifty years ago 91% of Australians voted to remove discriminatory sections from the Constitution.  The explicit aim of the 1967 referendum was to further the equality of Australians.  The Sydney rock band, The Pogs wrote a jingle for the referendum played on radio stations around the country (which you can find on the internet).

‘Vote Yes for Aborigines, they want to be Australians too.  Vote Yes and give them rights and freedoms just like me and you.  Vote Yes for Aborigines, all parties say they think you should.  Vote Yes and show the world the true Australian brotherhood.’  [A voiceover added – ‘Make Aborigines Australians in every sense of the word.  Write Yes on the bottom square on your ballot paper.’]

The case for Yes in 2023 is the opposite of what it was in 1967.

Last month, The Australian’s Paul Kelly delivered the Robin Speed Memorial Lecture on the Voice at the Rule of Law Education Centre in Sydney. It’s an organisation I’ve been involved with for a number of years.  He made an some important points that have been lost so far in discussion about the Voice.  Kelly remarked that from the time the Voice was first proposed many people realised it wouldn’t be supported by the Australian people.

In his biography ‘A Bigger Picture’ Malcolm Turnbull recalls a meeting he hosted in November 2016 as prime minister with Aboriginal leaders including the four then Indigenous members of parliament.  Noel Pearson said that he was expecting the Uluru Conference to recommend there be a change to the Constitution to establish a Voice which would be a national assembly composed of elected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In his memoirs, Turnbull says: ‘A general discussion followed and there wasn’t a lot of support for the Voice around the room.  Shorten and I both expressed the same view.  We weren’t comfortable with the Constitution establishing a national assembly open only to members of one race, and moreover we both said we thought it would no prospect of success in a referendum.  ‘A snowball’s hope in hell’ as Bill had previously said to me.’

Kelly concluded his lecture with this:

The Voice contradicts the principle of equality of citizenship that enshrines and binds together our nation.  The Voice is based on the principle that we have different constitutional rights depending on our ancestry.  We need to think about that as a country.  And whether or not we really want that to happen.

This is not like passing a law on taxing or industrial relations which another government can change.  This is not voting at a general election to put Labor or the Coalition in government for three years.  This is a change in the Constitution that, being realistic, would be forever.  What will that mean for the unity of our country?

The referendum should go ahead and Australians should be able to decide whether their constitutional rights are a product of their ancestry.  We deserve to know whether what Bob Hawke said on Australia Day in the year of the country’s Bicentenary still holds true.

In Australia there is no hierarchy of descent: there must be no privilege of origin.  The commitment is all.  The commitment to Australia is the one thing needful to be a true Australian.