Will a Bitterly Divided Australia Elevate the Aboriginal Voice?

by Pelican Press
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It was billed as a modest proposal that would help heal the traumas of history and unite the country. Australia would change its Constitution to recognize the original inhabitants of the land and enshrine an advisory body in Parliament for Aboriginal people, giving them a greater say on issues that affect their lives.

But over the past year, the proposal has exposed racial fault lines and become ensnared in a bitter culture war, in a country that has long struggled to reckon with its colonial legacy.

One former prime minister said it would “entrench victimhood,” and another called British colonization the “luckiest thing that happened to this country.” One opponent said Aboriginal people wanting “a voice” should “learn English” and suggested that those who receive welfare payments should prove their heritage with blood tests.

And now, public polling suggests, a referendum on the matter — which will be held on Oct. 14 — is likely to fail. That result, according to Thomas Mayo, an Indigenous leader, would mean “Australia officially dismissing our very existence.”

The vote is an inflection point for Australia’s relationship with the hundreds of Indigenous tribes that first occupied the continent and today are a small minority in the country. Since colonization, they have been subject to ineffective or deliberately harmful government policy, activists said. Prior to a 1967 constitutional referendum, Indigenous people were not counted as part of Australia’s population. They remain stuck at the bottom of society, with an average life expectancy eight years lower than the national average and the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

The Voice to Parliament is the cumulation of a fight by Indigenous activists to be recognized in the 120-year-old Constitution and for equality. It was developed by over 250 Indigenous leaders who gathered at Uluru, a sacred site once known as Ayers Rock, in 2017. They sought to address what they called “the torment of our powerlessness.”

The plan for a referendum was laid out about a year ago by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, the leader of the center-left Labor Party, who announced the referendum date on Wednesday.

The body would give advice to Parliament, government ministers and the departments they oversee on issues affecting Indigenous people. If the vote succeeds, the body’s design and precise details will be determined by Parliament, but its architects say members will be chosen by Indigenous communities, who represent less than 4 percent of Australia’s population. The government has said its priorities are health, education, jobs and housing.

“There’s a broad sense that things can and absolutely should be better for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this country,” said Dean Parkin, the director of Yes23, the group leading the campaign in support of the Voice.

But proponents must convince the public that changing the Constitution will have a practical benefit, said Larissa Baldwin-Roberts, an Aboriginal activist and chief executive of the progressive group GetUp. That is a particularly difficult task, she said, in a country where most people do not interact with Aboriginal people, and many still believe Indigenous people are responsible for their own disadvantages.

“They don’t know us, they hear a lot about us, and they’re worried about giving us more rights and what that would take away from them,” said Ms. Baldwin-Roberts.

Opponents of the Voice have also cast doubt on its efficacy, using the lack of details about the proposal — which is normal for a referendum — to suggest that it could give advice on every government policy. Some Aboriginal leaders have called the measure toothless because the government is not mandated to heed its advice. Others call it divisive.

“Right now, there’s a lot of confusion in the Australian community about what is a pretty modest form of recognition,” said Megan Davis, one of the leaders of the Uluru process, who is campaigning for the Voice with the group the Uluru Dialogue.

Opponents argue that the Voice would make Australia less equal by giving Indigenous people special rights.

“I want to see Australia move forward as one, not two, divided,” Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, an opposition lawmaker who is Indigenous, said in a parliamentary speech. “This is a dangerous and costly proposal; it is legally risky and full of unknowns.”

In a statement, Advance, the conservative group leading the “No” campaign, added: “Australians who do not want their Constitution to divide us by race are not racists. In fact, the opposite is true.”

But, observers said, colonial tropes remain at play.

“Some people are of the view that Indigenous people have already had enough advantages and government payments, and going any further is just some sort of exercise in making us feel guilty for the success of this country,” said Mark Kenny, a political commentator and professor at the Australian National University. “This is a very potent message that seems to resonate with a number of people.”

Another obstacle, Mr. Kenny said, is a population that is generally averse to constitutional change. Only eight of 44 constitutional referendums in Australian history have succeeded. The most recent one, on whether to end the symbolic rule of the British monarchy, was soundly defeated in 1999.

On a recent day, as Jim Durkin, 63, handed out leaflets in support of the Voice in suburban Melbourne, he worried about the effects of misinformation on the campaign. “If people are in two minds, the easier option is ‘no,’” he said.

The “Yes” campaign has been criticized for being slow to mobilize and respond to opponents’ attacks, running an uninspiring campaign, and courting the support of celebrities — including, bizarrely, Shaquille O’Neal. But it hopes to galvanize support in the next few weeks with its 28,000 volunteers knocking on doors.

In Albury, a rural town roughly halfway between Sydney and Melbourne, the volunteers found both hope and discouragement.

At one house, Jane Richardson, 43, said she wholeheartedly supported the Voice. She said understood the “historic culture of exclusion” to which Aboriginal people had been subjected and, as a Chinese Australian woman, strongly believed in racial justice. But she said that it had taken some time to persuade her husband, who had never really interrogated the stereotype of Indigenous people, to follow suit.

Vehement resistance came from residents worried about what they would lose, said Liz Quinn, a volunteer. Several were under the impression that their land would be taken away if the vote succeeded, she said.

These misconceptions were the result of racist dog whistling and scare tactics that have been used for decades to stall progress on Aboriginal issues by suggesting that addressing colonial injustices would require a sacrifice from the rest of the country, said Ms. Baldwin-Roberts, the Aboriginal activist, who is pushing for a “Yes” vote but is not affiliated with the official campaign.

“This debate has thrown a bomb at race relations in this country, and that’s going to reverberate for years to come,” she said.

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