Complex Perspectives: Australian Voters and Indigenous Affairs

Public opinion research reveals that voters’ views on key concepts like “equality” and “disadvantage” are often contradictory and incoherent. This inconsistency allows both progressives and conservatives to gain majority support, as seen in the marriage equality plebiscite and the Voice referendum. Voters often express loyalty to general principles while supporting policies that contradict those principles, often being conservative.

Australians have high levels of patriotism but are not aggressive nationalists. Some left-wing general principles, such as equal opportunity and immigration, attract strong majority support. However, voters’ interpretation of these principles is not a left-wing one, with affirmative action for women being unpopular and multiculturalism being doubtful about immigrant communities receiving government assistance to maintain culture and traditions.

The history of public opinion on Indigenous affairs reflects a pattern of political right-left coalition, with the political right often being more divided on policy than the left. In liberal democracies, “equality” is powerful but contested, with conservatives primarily advocating for formal political equality since the 19th century.  The campaign against the Voice aims for equality against the special treatment of Indigenous people, a theme that has persisted for nearly 50 years, dating back to the 1970s mining industry campaigns.

The idea of equality is a powerful tool against institutionalized racism, as evidenced by the 1967 referendum where voters supported the idea of equality despite rejecting social closeness to Indigenous people and having a low opinion of their character and abilities. However, public attitudes towards Indigenous claims have shifted since the 1990s, and the Voice now seems destined for defeat in an Australia less racist than ever.

Voters in Australia do not view equality as simple sameness and do not support a libertarian view that past history and cultural differences do not affect contemporary entitlements. They recognize identity and difference claims, but support for land rights is higher when beneficiaries are defined this way.

Voters are more sympathetic to identity claims when they are innate to individuals, but less sympathetic when they are a collective political project. Scott Morrison’s religiosity initially boosted authenticity, but his attempt to grant exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation was unpopular. The campaign for marriage equality appealed to ideas about the right to love.

Conservatives argue that the high number of Indigenous MPs means First Nations peoples are already represented, but this views Indigeneity as a personal attribute rather than a political force. The settler majority has accepted Indigenous people as equal citizens and supported special entitlements for some, rejecting a purely libertarian approach. The decline in support for the Voice demonstrates settlers’ resistance to the idea of Indigenous peoples as a collective subject entitled to a unified Voice. Australian democracy is not colour-blind but defines differences within a limited framework.

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