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Brexit and The Voice: Two Ill-Conceived Referenda

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made a grave error of judgement. If he had paid more attention to the polarisation created by Brexit, he might have done things differently.

· 12 min read
Brexit and The Voice: Two Ill-Conceived Referenda

On 14 October, Australians voted “No” in the referendum on “A Proposed Law: To alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.”

I think this was the right outcome—though, sadly, the referendum itself is likely to have divided Australians. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made a grave error of judgement in putting forward an undeveloped plan and thus forcing people to vote “Yes” or “No” on the basis of grand overarching themes—Indigenous rights versus universal equality under the Constitution—rather than detailed information. If he had paid more attention to the polarisation created by the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum, he might have done things differently. 

When we Brits voted on whether the UK should remain in the European Union, we had no choice but to decide on the basis of general feelings about grand themes. But the problem in that case was not a lack but a surplus of information. There is so much detail available about the functioning of the EU that no single layperson could possibly be expected to understand it all. Even the consolidated version of The Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union runs to 344 pages and I had to supplement it with more accessible overviews of the regulations regarding law, economics, travel, immigration, trade agreements, etc. I finally almost lost the will to live when I tried to grasp what Brexit would mean for fishing rights—a matter of primary concern for many of the lower-income inhabitants of Aldeburgh, an East Coast town where I spend a lot of time. In the end, as time was running out, I turned to overviews, including the Cameron government’s case for voting “Remain,” Daniel Hannan’s case for voting "Leave,” and David Torrance’s non-partisan EU Referendum 2016: A Guide For Voters. 

I voted “Remain,” believing that this would be the best way to keep the UK stable and essential items affordable, but my father, who gained his wealth by predicting the movements of financial markets, voted “Leave” because he believed it would be better for the UK economy. My mother decided that this was one of the very rare occasions on which she would be guided by him. My husband listened to and watched as many breakdowns of the pros and cons as he could around his long working hours and voted “Leave,” believing this would make the country stronger. One of my closest friends agreed with him, while two others agreed with me. 

Many Brits, then, were simply trying to make an informed decision based on an understanding of the function of the EU, the ramifications of being in or out of it, and our own political and philosophical principles. But even as we did so, some reductionist and polarising narratives were taking shape. One side held that a vote for “Leave” was a vote for democracy and demonstrated one’s loyalty to Great Britain, while the other side claimed that to vote “Remain” was to take a stand against racism and xenophobia. But this is a false dichotomy because people can support democracy, be loyal to their country, and oppose racism and xenophobia all at the same time—and all those things are perfectly compatible with deciding to vote either “Leave” or “Remain.” 

Breaking Down Brexit: How the UK Voted
At 72%, turnout was extraordinarily high by the standards of recent general elections, but especially in the pro-Leave areas.

One acquaintance told me, “I can sum up my reasons for voting ‘Leave’ in one word: ‘democracy.’” If I had responded with, “I can sum up my reasons for voting ‘Remain’ in three. ‘I’m not racist,’” she would surely have indignantly informed me that she wasn’t a racist either—but this didn’t occur to me because I don’t think Leavers were motivated by racism. Instead, I fumbled through an attempt to convince her that it is better not to characterise everybody who disagrees with you as simply an “opponent of X good thing” (democracy) or “proponent of Y bad thing” (racism). Sadly, the only thing I achieved was to offend her so much that she never spoke to me again.

People who voted “Leave” now often find themselves personae non gratae in mainstream institutions, where they are seen as “gammon-faced racist xenophobes,” while “remoaners,” are unwelcome in many heterodox spaces, in which they are decried as “woke.” 

It is ridiculously stupid and counterproductive to factionalise people in this way. “Remain” and “Leave” voters can’t even be neatly divided into left- and right-wing camps, since 42% of Conservatives voted “Remain” and 37% of Labour voters chose “Leave.” We certainly can’t divide them into “people who hate their country” and “people who hate foreigners.” The percentage of people who were motivated by either of those extreme views was almost certainly minuscule—though the rhetoric probably did persuade some people to vote a certain way just to indicate that they weren’t disloyal, or conversely that they weren’t racist. 

Activists and politicians often present people with false dichotomies in order to pressure them into taking certain positions. We can find examples on in all political camps. If you don’t support automatically affirming trans-identifying youth, you want them to kill themselves. If you don’t sign this petition to ban Pride flags, you want children to be groomed for sexual abuse. If you don’t want to defund the police, you support the lynching of black men. If you think the police sometimes use excessive force, you want a lawless society where violent criminals can go around killing people.

A Voice from the Heart
Legal equality and the politics of disappointment.

We saw this dynamic at work during the Voice campaign. As one of my Australian friends, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote,

According to our prime minister  we should vote “Yes,” because “kindness costs nothing.” Australian media icon Ray Martin publicly stated that if you weren’t voting “Yes,” you were probably a “dinosaur or a dickhead.” Even beloved Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa weighed in with his support. If it wasn’t potential social suicide to utter anything but support for the “Yes” campaign,” one might whisper to a very trusted friend... “What exactly is it that I am voting for or against?” In place of information, we have emotive narratives and moralistic grandstanding, reducing the issue to a false dichotomy in which one either cares about the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and wishes them to have a voice because one is a decent human being, or one does not care about them or wish them to have any input because one is a dumb bigot. 

Even the most thoughtful and well-informed Australians seem to have been unable to set out clearly what the proposed constitutional change would entail because that information simply didn’t exist. The detail was to be worked out later. What did it mean to say that Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders should have the Voice? For some “Yes” voters, this was about recognising the Indigenous as the First Peoples of Australia; for others, it was about wanting them to feel respected and valued and to have a better future, which they believed the Voice could facilitate. Some thought it would promote unity and reconciliation between white and black Australians. Some—like leading “Yes” campaigner Thomas Mayo—even hoped the Voice would lead to a black political movement that would persuade the government to tear down some of Australia’s old institutions, pay reparations, and possibly even institute communism. Others believed that the Voice would be mostly symbolic, a small token of recognition of the value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

People who voted “Yes” could have been agreeing to any of the following statements:

●      Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders should have a voice.
●      Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders should be recognised as the First Peoples of Australia.
●      I want a better future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
●      I want Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to feel respected and valued.
●      I value unity and reconciliation between all Australians.
●      I am confident that The Voice will be an advisory committee that requires the government to listen to democratically elected representatives of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders and be thoroughly informed of their housing, healthcare, employment, education, and criminal justice needs.
●      This is the first step towards much needed radical economic and institutional reform and reparations for Indigenous people.
●      This is only a small token of recognition for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—it’s the least we can do. 
●      I want to be a good person and do the right thing. Voting “No” would be racist.

The “No” voters had an equally wide spectrum of motivations. Some regarded the Voice as a manifestation of divisive identity politics and victimhood culture, others did not want to enshrine separate legal status based on race in the constitution, and some were sceptical that the Voice would represent the genuine interests of indigenous Australians. 

People who voted “No” could have been making any of the following statements: 

●      Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders do not need any more of a voice. They receive enough special considerations already. 
●      I don’t want to keep focusing on who got here first. It’s divisive.
●      I’m in favour of recognising First Peoples and ensuring they have a voice, but I don’t know how this proposal would function in practice and I need to know the limits of its hard and soft power if it is to be enshrined in the constitution. 
●      It doesn’t make sense to establish a single Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice. Indigenous Australians are individuals. They may disagree with each other. If we establish a single voice, we risk allowing wealthy or politically dominant elites to speak for everyone. 
●      I don’t know how the representatives of the Voice would be elected. They’d probably disagree with each other if elected by different communities. What would the government do if it received opposing advice from different constituencies? 
●      I do not want to enshrine the interests of any specific group in the constitution forever. Instead, we should aim to work towards having joint interests and being unified as a country. Elevating one group over another seems undemocratic. 
●      I am not convinced that The Voice would reflect the views and values of most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, rather than simply a subset of political activists.
●      This is the first step towards potentially catastrophic radical racialised economic and institutional change.
●      The Voice will add another layer of bureaucracy to a country already overburdened by government regulation.  

Many “No” voters explicitly stated that they did not feel they had enough information to endorse the proposal. The “No” campaign highlighted this problem with the slogan, “If you don’t know, vote ‘No.’” The scope of The Voice was particularly unclear. As one friend complained, “We were being told it was both ‘only an advisory committee,’ while also being told that it was powerful enough to solve 200 years of oppression and disadvantage.”

A “No” vote did not necessarily signal a lack of concern for Indigenous Australians. A friend who voted “No” told me, after the referendum results were in, “I’m not feeling celebratory about it. There are still a lot of serious issues than need solving.” However, in the absence of a clear model for solving them, he could not support changing the constitution. Another friend is afraid that this could send a message of indifference to Australia’s First People when “we can still see the ramifications of colonial impact on these communities every day.”

The Aboriginal Voice to Parliament: Wrong in Principle, Disastrous in Practice
We should not make race the organising principle of a new chapter of our Constitution.

One of my friends reluctantly voted “Yes” for precisely this reason. She had no confidence that the measure would enable the government to address socioeconomic issues more effectively and she feared that The Voice would end up being made up of a wealthy subset of Indigenous people, who were not in touch with the needs of the working class. Nevertheless, she still believed it was “the right thing to do,” especially since she felt “complicit in the settler colonialism that devastated the First Peoples”—even though her ancestors were taken to Australia from England very much against their will. 

It can be both natural and good to feel the kind of shame that inspires a commitment to make things better. Australians have a joint responsibility to tackle the problems affecting their First Peoples and many feel what my friend describes as a “distinctly Australian aching for meaningful reconciliation and to see Indigenous communities prosper.” Since it has rejected the Voice, the country now needs to find other ways of making this happen. 

But these must not include berating “No” voters or assuming that they were motivated by indifference towards the welfare of Indigenous people. As my friend said, “The public should not be scapegoated as a nation of racist idiots for the failings of government and Voice architects to put forward a clear proposal.” People are right to fear that the failure of the referendum could be received by many Indigenous people as a message of indifference. Nationally, just under 40% of Australians voted “Yes,” but in regions that were comprised of over 50% Indigenous people, “Yes” garnered 63% support. There was also a sharp divide between urban and rural voting patterns: city dwellers were far more likely to vote “Yes.” A friend fears that, as a result, the Voice may “become our own ‘basket of deplorables’ moment,” cementing a divide “between people perceived as ‘city elites’ and the rest of the country.” Another friend fears that the “the hyperbolic rhetoric surrounding the referendum seems to be inciting more and more eye-rolling toward the issue of Indigenous problems on the part of Australians—and that is a shame, as these problems merit serious consideration.”

I very much hope that Australia turns back from this approach and instead focuses on developing a clear plan to improve the life outcomes and increase the political participation of the First Peoples. The general population will only be able to support such a plan, however, if they are told exactly what it entails. The prospects for that are not currently looking good. In a recent speech on this matter, Albanese still appeared reluctant to concede that he had not presented voters with a clear plan, and seems to resent having even being asked for clarification: 

What we have campaigned for, I said very clearly, was to listen to First Australians about matters that affect them. If those opposed think that we should not listen to Indigenous Australians about matters that affect them at all, then they should say so.

This suggests that he is currently sticking with what one “No” voting friend called his “just trust us and be on the right side of history approach,” which is simply not good enough to convince him that a workable, ethical, and democratic plan that will genuinely improve outcomes for Indigenous Australians will be forthcoming.

Senator Jana Stewart has drawn attention to the false claims that a “Yes” vote would result in losing property and fishing rights and lamented the fact that so many Australians “went into the polling booths with fear instead of facts.” But she has not yet indicated whether her follow-up plan intends to provide any of the facts that she recognises as important.  

There is still time to prevent the polarisation that will occur if politicians go down the route of dismissing “No” voters as uneducated racists. Accusing people of horrible things will not inspire them to trust your judgement or to believe that you are on the right side of history. It will just make them think that you are wrong about them and wonder what else you are wrong about. Some of those people will go on to assume that you are lying about everything and resist everything you advise on principle.  

Please do not do this, Australia. Embrace your national stereotype of being thick-skinned, practical, plain-spoken, and down-to-earth. Accept that you fucked up that referendum, accept that the vast majority of Australians care about the Indigenous population and want them to thrive, and resolve to communicate with each other frankly and sensibly and make concrete plans to improve things. You Australians are typically really good at that kind of thing. If even you can’t do it, we’re all screwed—but especially Indigenous Australians. 

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