Reframing the Referendum: The Failure to Move Beyond the Political

It has been a little over a month since Australia’s Voice referendum was defeated, with 60 per cent of voters crossing the ‘no’ box nationwide. Australian citizens were asked to vote in regards to a constitutional alteration that would “recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.” This referendum would also create a parliamentary branch composed of Indigenous Australians in which members could voice their opinions in legislative and executive decisions regarding Indigenous matters.

On October 14, 2023, the polls demonstrated Prime Minister Albanese’s failure to garner enough popular support for his referendum. The results of this referendum are surprising yet expected. Although Indigenous Australians do have the same rights as white Australians, since British colonisation, Indigenous peoples in Australia are still plagued by systemic inequalities and rampant racism. This can be understood primarily through the fact that though being counted in the national census, Indigenous Australians, as in both Australian Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, are not recognised in the Australian Constitution.
Both the government and civil society have made contributions to address these inequalities. The referendum was not an isolated political choice by the current prime minister. Rather, it stemmed from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a widely supported agreement that articulated the “ancestral tie between Australia and its first inhabitants” and called for the establishment of an Indigenous voice in Australian parliament. This reveals an interesting dynamic in Australian politics and society regarding legislating and committing to change. Though the Uluru statement received widespread support, the implementation of it into Australian legislation remains a success beyond Australia’s reach.

So where did the referendum go wrong?

This referendum situates itself within larger fights for the equality of the rightful custodians of Australia. However, just like the bottomless pool of previous attempts to secure progress, concrete change cannot be made until the Indigenous question loses its political dimension and is articulated as a human rights issue.

Australia was one of the four countries in 2007 to vote against the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), though this position was reconsidered in 2009 when the declaration was endorsed. Over 20 years later, the goals of the declaration have yet to be ratified in Australian law.

The success of the referendum would have provided evidence of a significant leap in Australia’s commitment to the declaration but most importantly to Australia’s assertion of the self-determination of Indigenous peoples. The failure of the referendum lay in the inability of the ‘Yes’ campaign to properly capitalise on the human rights dimension of this debate. Arguments teetered but never acknowledged the significance of the referendum in advancing the human rights of Indigenous Australians; concerns regarding their self-determination, their right to government, and the importance of Indigenous voices in Australian policymaking were mentioned but with no explicit reference to Indigenous peoples’ human rights.

An unabashed ability of the government to call out past failures and responsibilities to both its citizens and international commitments cannot be said to have changed the outcome of the referendum, but would no doubt have held instrumental discursive power well capable of influencing voters towards the ‘Yes’ campaign. The failure of the referendum threatens Australia’s credibility and legitimacy in the face of international institutions. Australia, as a signatory of the UNDRIP, should be working towards assuring the self-development of its Indigenous peoples. Voting yes meant more than recognising Indigenous culture or protecting First Nations people from politics and bureaucrats; rather, it meant granting Indigenous peoples human rights, a right to determination, a right to self-governance, and the right to exist on their land.

The referendum met its match with the ironclad ‘No’ campaign’s slogan: “If you don’t know, vote no.” Mobilising against the unknown is significantly easier than challenging the foundations of a settler colonial state. The ‘No’ campaign won because of its breadth of applicability, whereas the ‘Yes’ campaign was too focused on trying to combat misinformation and unifying the divisions within the campaign. The idea of change was core in the advertisement of the ‘Yes’ campaign, however change can easily be manipulated into a fear of the unknown. A scare campaign was initiated by the ‘No’ side that sparked fears in the Australian populace that the implementation of the advisory body would involve concessions and compensations such as abolishing Australia day.1 These fears, despite the Labor party (Australia’s left-leaning party) actively aiming to deny them, were deeply instilled and contributed to the referendum’s defeat.

To reiterate my point, an articulation of Indigenous rights as human rights could have dampened the effects of the scare campaign. By understanding this referendum as a human rights issue over enforcement of ‘leftist agenda,’ the ability for scare campaigns to gain the prominence they did would not have worked.

Overall, the referendum was not framed with the lens of guaranteeing human rights to Australia’s Indigenous population and Australia as a nation suffers from it today. The implementation of an Indigenous-led advisory body could have represented a significant evolution in Australian policy and its role in working against settler colonialism that plagues the country. The attempt of the current government to close the gap between Indigenous and white Australians has only aggravated it, with an increase of government distrust and racism towards Australian Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. Albanese has commented that this failure would not be the end of his attempts, and he signals towards actively committing to the creation of a more equal Australia. Subsequent attempts should capitalise on Australia’s duty to international and national conventions and more importantly, duty to the rightful custodians.

  1. Australia Day is celebrated on January 24, the same day British colonisers arrived in Australia and begun their violence against Indigenous Australians in 1788 (hence by some referred to as ‘Invasion Day’). Some believe that the day should be changed because it represents the beginning of genocide and moved to May 8 (phonetically pronounced as ‘mate’) or entirely abolished.

Featured image: “Aus Flag” by Lachlan Fearnley is licensed under CC BY 2.0 DEED

By Rebecca Larsson Zinger

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