Introduction by Croakey: Australians are being encouraged to be fully informed about the proposal for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, with the 14 October referendum now just over three weeks away.
While many in the health sector support the Voice to Parliament, it’s important to recognise diverse perspectives, and be mindful that discussions surrounding the referendum can be overwhelming and distressing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Below, Professor Bronwyn Carlson, Professor of Indigenous Studies and Director of The Centre for Global Indigenous Futures at Macquarie University, urges Australians not to be swayed by misinformation fuelled by racism.
Her article was first published in The Conversation with the headline, ‘There are two sides to the ‘no’ campaign on the Voice. Who are they and why are they opposed to it?’.
Bronwyn Carlson writes:
On October 14, the voting public will be asked to vote “yes” or “no” on a proposed First Nations Voice to Parliament.
While the “yes” campaign has largely coalesced behind a single message, the “no” campaign is not a singular cohort. There are two sides to the “no” camp and they are very different.
Here’s what they are arguing and the different approaches they’ve taken when it comes to style and tone.
The conservative ‘no’ campaign
One side of the “no” campaign comes from the right of politics, including prominent members of the Coalition. With the catch phrase, “If you don’t know, vote no”, this camp hopes to impel voters who are unsure about what it all means to just vote no, instead of finding the information required.
Also in this camp are a number of Australians who believe Indigenous people are beneficiaries of special privileges. Some claim the referendum is about introducing “racial privilege” by establishing a system of government that gives Indigenous people influence over decisions made by the government.
“No” proponents have cited former Prime Minster Bob Hawke to make their case that we should all just be considered Australian and Indigenous people should not have a moral or legal right of recognition or special land rights. Hawke said in 1988:
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.”
One of the drivers behind this “no” campaign is Fair Australia, an arm of the lobbying group Advance Australia. Advance counts former Prime Minister Tony Abbott as an advisory member and is backed by wealthy donors.
Senior Indigenous politician Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price is the Liberal party’s spokesperson against the Voice and the main Indigenous voice in the conservative “no” camp. Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton recently appointed Price as the new shadow minister for Indigenous Australians.
The Blak Sovereign ‘no’ campaign
The other side of the “no” campaign is completely different in that it professes to have the best interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at its core.
This camp is often framed as the progressive side of the “no” campaign, with independent Senator Lidia Thorpe its most prominent voice. Thorpe has referred to the Voice as a “powerless advisory body” that will do little to change the life circumstances of most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Instead, Thorpe supports other measures such as truth-telling and treaty.
Thorpe has said the Voice is just an easy way to fake any real progress for Indigenous people without any actual change.
She also points to the harm and divisiveness the Voice debate has caused, referring to it as a “destructive distraction”. The Voice debates have resulted in a significant rise of racism and hate speech targeting Indigenous people online.
While both sides are supporting a “no” vote, they are distinct in that one’s aim is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have more rights of self-determination, while one advocates for the status quo.
Where does this leave Indigenous people?
Voice proponents believe it will bring the promise of a new and enlightened Australia. But in reality, the government will be able to disregard the advice it brings to the parliament.
Arrernte writer Celeste Liddle captures how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are feeling about the referendum:
I feel stuck with a choice between systems I do not trust and the fear of giving in to rabid racists.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are tired of dealing with the misinformation, lies, hatred and racism the referendum debate is fuelling in society. I was asked by a non-Indigenous person if it is true Aboriginal people will get double Centrelink payments and be “given” land for free.
These falsehoods are repeatedly being spread because they hit at the heart of the racism we see in Australia – that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will be entitled to something other Australians are not, and we are undeserving.
Many have questioned Australia’s ability to engage in a debate over the Voice without descending into racist stereotypes and contempt for Indigenous people.
Australians need to be fully informed and not swayed by misinformation fuelled by racism. We are told there is much at stake, but we do not yet know if the Voice will bring any substantial change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
This campaign will, however, tell us who we are as a people, and what we value.
About the author
Professor Bronwyn Carlson is an Aboriginal woman who was born on and lives on D’harawal Country in NSW Australia. Bronwyn was awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Indigenous grant in 2013 for research on Aboriginal identity and community online, and a second ARC in 2016 for research on Indigenous help-seeking on social media. In 2019 she was awarded a third consecutive ARC grant, specifically focusing on Indigenous experiences of online violence.
Carlson is the author of The Politics of Identity: Who Counts as Aboriginal Today? (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2016), which includes a chapter on identity and community on social media. She is widely published on the topic of Indigenous cultural, social, intimate and political engagements on social media including co-editing and contributing to two special issues; the Australasian Journal of Information Systems (2017) on “Indigenous Activism on Social Media’ and Media International Australia (2018) on “Indigenous Innovation on Social Media” and an edited volume with Rutgers University Press (2020) “Indigenous People Rise Up: The Global Ascendancy of Social Media Activism”.
Carlson is also the founding and managing editor of the Journal of Global Indigeneity and the convenor of The Forum for Indigenous Research Excellence (FIRE).
How do the yes and no cases stack up – constitutional law experts take a look, The Conversation 30 August 2023
How to have informed and respectful conversations about Indigenous issues like the Voice, The Conversation 3 July 2023
See Croakey’s Voice to Parliament portal for statements, resources and recommended readings.