The Referendum on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament was in dire straits before October 14, as referenda proposals are rarely successful in Australia. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s article of faith aimed to determine if an advisory body, purportedly expert and informed on First Nations Peoples’ interests, would be constitutionally enshrined, intended to advise Parliament on policies and legislative instruments directly concerning them.
However, details on who would make up such a body and how it could achieve Olympian aims like abolishing indigence in remote indigenous communities or reducing the horrendous incarceration rate among its citizenry were deemed inconsequential.
The loss was largely due to two ideologically opposing forces exploiting a fundamental contradiction in the proposal: the measure advertised as “substantive” in terms of constitutional reform while also being conservative in giving Parliament a free hand, and the conservative “Australia as egalitarian” view, which argued that creating a forum based on race would be repugnant to the country’s tolerance and colour-blindness.
However, the British Empire’s thick historical links with race, eugenics, and policies that would have to be judged as genocidal in the Australian context would have to be considered. Enshrining an advisory body in the Constitution would only make it harder to abolish in the event it failed to achieve its set purposes.
The Voice campaign, which aims to provide non-binding advice on government legislation and policy, has faced criticism for its lack of transparency. The No campaign, which won 59% of the vote, has been accused of disinformation and misinformation. Concerns include the possibility of court challenges that would tie up legislation, as well as the potential tarnishing of Australia’s exceptionalism.
The first concern is unlikely to carry much weight, as Parliament’s decisions in the Westminster model of government are considered unquestionable writ. The second concern is more specific, as the Voice would act as a spur in the constitutional system, building upon the journey of reconciliation. However, the No campaigners, such as former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer, view matters such as treaty and truth-telling commissions as divisive and best scotched.
The procedurally minded and pragmatic sort, who make up the majority of Australian voters, were concerned about the formation of the advisory body. Any new entity born from political initiative risks falling into the hands of political intriguers in the government, vulnerable to the puppeteering of the establishment. In Australian elections, where pragmatism is elevated to the level of questioning, punishing God, the question of “how” often leads to “how much,” and the Voice would ultimately face the invoice.
The Voice, a referendum aimed at bringing justice to First Peoples in Australia, has been criticized by the Black Sovereignty movement, led by independent Senator Lidia Thorpe. Thorpe argues that the referendum has divided and hurt First Peoples, as it would not bind elected members and had no powers to compel parliament to follow their guidance. She also highlights the colonial parliament’s supremacy over the Voice, which she believes perpetuates the oppression of Indigenous people. Thorpe also argues that the writing of Indigenous people into the colonial Constitution is another step in their ongoing attempt to assimilate them, making the body a pantomime of policy making.
Undecided voters, such as indigenous activist Celeste Liddle, view the Yes measure as another failure on the road of failures. She expresses dissatisfaction with broken promises and lacks faith in the current political system. The sinking of the Yes measure does not necessarily mean the program for improving and ameliorating the condition of First Nations people in Australia. However, for those seeking a triumphant Yes vote, the lesson is that no measure will pass the double majority hurdle in a majority of states if it does not have near-uniform approval from the outset.