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The Catch-22 of the Australian VOICE Referendum: A Plea for a Deep-Rooted Change

6 min read

S A Hamed Hosseini

Australia is preparing for an upcoming referendum (14 October 2023) that could mark a turning point in the nation’s relationship with its indigenous communities, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The referendum seeks to establish an advisory body known as “The Voice,” which aims to give these communities a formal platform to influence Parliament and the Executive Government on matters affecting them. Voters will have the choice to either endorse or reject the proposal for this advisory body.

The proposal has ignited contentious debates around racial identity, historical acknowledgment, and democratic representation. Yet, much like Brexit in the UK, the stakes go beyond the immediate question to probe deeper into Australia’s national character and the quality of its democracy. Amid a climate of heated debates and impassioned advocacy, the “Yes” and “No” campaigns have energized their respective bases, elevating the referendum to a national flashpoint. The “Yes” and “No” campaigns represent a wide range of social and political perspectives and are both well-organized.

Misinformation abounds, particularly against the ‘voice,’ employing tactics reminiscent of the divisive rhetoric that characterized the Brexit campaign. These tactics have raised concerns about the vulnerability of democratic processes to manipulation, especially in the era of post-truth and social media.

The ongoing discourse surrounding the ‘Voice’ initiative presents an increasingly perplexing scenario. As the referendum draws near, debates and divisions within the nation have intensified, revealing not a nationwide hesitancy but rather a split in public sentiment. If passed, this voice group would be formed with its details being decided by a parliament already influenced predominantly by the majority. What is noteworthy is that these internal divisions occur in a country that intentionally prides itself on a heritage of egalitarianism, an apparently functioning democracy, and often presents itself as part of a collation of guardians of human rights globally. Yet, when it comes to institutionalizing these values within its own borders, the path is fraught with resistance and controversy. The referendum serves more as a revealing lens that exposes (rather than makes) the existing divisions.

While public discourse in Australia, as in other Western societies, increasingly embrace narratives that demonise the Other as threats to the so-called core values of Western civilisation – such as democracy, fair treatment, and freedom – significant portions of the population are paradoxically hesitant about institutionalizing representation for marginalized groups. And this is not a representation through parliamentary quota (some guaranteed seats); it is a ‘voice’ that would be shaped by a parliament whose leanings already favour the majority.

Now, when we turn our attention to those who vehemently oppose this representation, patterns begin to emerge. Unveiling the sources of resistance is like peeling an onion; there are multiple layers, and each is imbued with its own set of motivations and ideological inclinations. At the core, however, we will often find a stronghold of privilege, including populist voices who, consciously or not, are invested in maintaining the status quo. But it does not end there. Surprisingly, some of the most vocal opponents come from within the very minority communities that stand to benefit from such representation. This internal opposition highlights the complexities that go way beyond simple explanations like “identity politics,” unveiling a tangled web of factors deeply rooted in the ‘social class structures’ and the political economy of capitalism; influential individuals and groups within marginalized communities may adopt a pragmatism informed by their social class and associated party politics, leading them to align with the status quo. Conservative politicians, who have long engaged in tokenistic approaches to recognition, are now ironically employing a false flag strategy. They point to the problem of the ‘Voice’ initiative as a smokescreen, mimicking the rhetoric of radical Indigenous groups who have historically opposed such tokenism.

For those committed to progressive change, the dilemma posed by the referendum is particularly acute. There is a palpable tension between the immediate allure of voting ‘Yes’ to advance some form of representation and the deeper, structural critiques offered by First Nations activists demanding deeper changes than the voice initiative (the so-called “Not Enough“). These activists point out that a ‘Yes’ victory, while symbolically empowering, might primarily serve to placate the guilt or affirm the self-perceived benevolence of middle-class, educated, urban-dwelling communities from majority ethnic backgrounds, thereby deflecting attention from more substantive reforms.

However, the weight of a ‘No’ outcome also carries its own set of dire consequences, acknowledged even by those progressives who raise doubts about its impact. A rejection of the referendum could very well stall momentum and set back the cause of First Nations’ rights for decades, providing ammunition to reactionary elements that are always on the lookout for opportunities to delegitimize movements for social justice. It is indeed an unenviable Catch-22: on one hand, the risk of tokenistic appeasement and, on the other, the potential emboldening of a racist right-wing agenda.

In navigating this complex landscape, progressive radicals find themselves on a razor’s edge, carefully weighing the lesser of two evils while cognizant of the limitations and compromises each choice entails. And irrespective of the referendum’s outcome, the real work – the struggle for deep-rooted, systemic change – must and will persist. The referendum is not an end but a marker in the ongoing journey toward justice and equality for First Nations people.

As polls currently  (last week of Sept 2023) suggest, “a slim majority of Australians intend to vote no.” This is indicative of a dilemma that amplifies divisions rather than fostering unity. Yet, this precarious situation should serve as a call to action for looking beyond the immediate referendum. Irrespective of the vote’s outcome, the campaign for the sovereignty of First Nations communities is far from over. Indeed, this pivotal juncture presents an opportune moment for activists committed to progressive ideals to unite, bridging the schism between the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ contingents. Should this “trans-ideological form of solidarity” (transversalism) and “critical open-mindedness” manifest, the long-term repercussions promise to be far more impactful than the immediate outcome of the referendum itself.

Despite disagreements among progressives about the referendum’s potential impact, the shared objective of pushing for more profound change can be a rallying point. A key imperative, now more than ever, is the formation of a robust coalition to operate on multiple fronts, advocating not just for representation but for deep-seated structural reforms that challenge the very foundations of systemic injustice. This means establishing and reinforcing grassroots organizations, amplifying marginalized voices, and crafting new discourses that escape the trappings of the status quo.

In this ongoing struggle, progressives should extend their focus beyond referendums to a multifaceted strategy. This should include educating communities against disinformation, legal advocacy, and shaping public opinion through means including civil disobedience. In a country that prides itself on the ethos of a “fair go,” it is incumbent upon the state and federal governments to safeguard that principle across all societal domains, including the media landscape. The disproportionate influence wielded by corporate media giants (the so-called weapons of mass deception and distraction) poses a significant threat to balanced information dissemination.

Both the overt and covert forms of the racist right have been stirred – the latter masquerading behind purported concerns for the repercussions of the Voice initiative on First Nations communities. Their heightened fervour should serve as a stark reminder that complacency is not an option for those (of us) committed to a truly just and genuinely sustainable future. Anything less than a coordinated, sustained grassroots effort could result in ceding crucial ground before the real battle has even begun.

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