Opinion Indigenous voice to parliament. The Guardian view on Australia’s Indigenous voice referendum: a yes vote is a clear step forwards Editorial.
The yes campaign strategy has not been without flaws but settling for the status quo on 14 October after a campaign full of misinformation would represent a disastrous missed opportunity.
Tue 10 Oct 2023 12.36 AEDT
The yes campaign in Australia’s referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament has focused on the immediate questions, the ones on the ballot on 14 October. That is understandable. Will voters recognise the original inhabitants of the land in the constitution? Does wider society think Indigenous Australians should provide advice on decisions affecting them?
These simple asks were always intended as the first step on a long walk to make peace with the past. They were the precursor to a deeper and more difficult discussion about the ongoing impact of colonisation and dispossession and all the policies that followed; a conversation that will take years.
This was not a sneaky, hidden agenda, as the no campaign has claimed. It was trumpeted in the slogan “voice, treaty, truth”, and even more clearly in the Uluru statement from the heart, which says Indigenous sovereignty has never been ceded and coexists with the sovereignty of the crown.
The crisis in Indigenous communities is rooted in powerlessness, it says, and the remedy is a “fair and truthful relationship” with modern Australia, based on justice and self-determination.
But by focusing on the first step, the yes campaign left the way clear for others to run a campaign that was in large part neither truthful nor fair, to distort and fearmonger about the as-yet-unmapped parts of the journey; to falsely assert that it would come at enormous cost, or threaten ownership of land or somehow bestow unfair advantage on the most disadvantaged Australians.
The no campaign contends that history has little relevance to the present, that the murders and the stolen generations can be compartmentalised to the past. They say governments should just get on with improving the lot of all Australians, with no additional advice or consideration for Indigeneity needed, an argument that raises questions about the future of any dedicated Indigenous funding.
The leading no campaigner and Walpiri-Celtic woman Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price said she believed colonisation had actually been good for Indigenous people because now they had “running water and readily available food”. Tony Abbott, citing another former Liberal prime minister, John Howard, insisted that “none of us can be responsible for what happened more than a century ago”.
It’s an alluringly comfortable answer for many non-Indigenous Australians, much easier than considering that dispossession and deliberate policies might contribute to what we so benignly call “the gaps”.
But Guardian Australia sees this view as fundamentally wrong. The murders continued until the 1920s, the stolen generations until the late 1960s, the lie of terra nullius until 1992. We can’t wish away the shadows of the past. They may not explain everything but facing them has to be part of moving on.
Everyone in this debate claims to want to improve the material circumstances of Indigenous Australians but the yes case has not sufficiently explained why requiring policymakers to listen would help, and the no case cannot answer how maintaining the status quo will somehow achieve different outcomes.
Guardian Australia believes a no vote will be a triumph for populist misinformation, a political victory devoid of practical answers and freighted with an unimaginable burden for First Nations people, who will know that the country has judged their call for inclusion and decided against it.
If that is the outcome it will be a disastrously squandered opportunity – but it can’t be the end of the story. Australia will still have to end the silence and face the truth of our past, somehow, sometime. The unacceptable, shameful disadvantage will still be there. And Australia will have to find a way to avoid this referendum campaign atrophying into an endless culture war, or degenerating into a cycle of frustration and anger and blame.
A no vote changes nothing for the better. By contrast, a yes vote on Saturday will be a clear step forwards, a recognition, an obligation to listen, a constitutionally enshrined right to be heard. A yes vote won’t solve everything but it will be a start.