After the Referendum

13 September 2023

Professor Matthew Ogilvie 

When goodwill and unity prevail, the best people will have the most prominent voices. When ill will and divisiveness prevail, the loudest voices will be those who seek division and revenge. 

I fear that the ‘Voice’ campaign has divided our nation. Whichever way the referendum goes, if we can heal from the divisive experience (and I emphasise ‘if’) it will take years.  

If the ‘yes’ vote wins and the referendum supports changing our Constitution to establish a race-based ‘Voice’ the loudest and most divisive voices will be encouraged. We already see something of that in the long version of the Uluru Statement and the dialogues and referendum council documents that had to be released under freedom of information. The 26-page Uluru Statement contains sections on invasion, resistance, mourning, and activism, but it does not give the same attention to reconciliation.  I would also argue that by Voting ‘yes’ people will turn their backs on liberal democracy, the foundations of which are in the political equality of all people and their equality before the law. 

In Western Australia, we have already seen divisive voices in response to the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act. To give one example, with the legislation coming into effect, a $2.5 million payment (I’d call it extortion) was demanded to allow a tree planting to occur

The ‘No’ case is also falling victim to a divisive mentality. A scan of social media (not a recommended experience) shows that anti-Aboriginal sentiment has been fuelled by the antagonistic environment created by the Voice campaign. To give a personal example, when visiting the Northern Territory recently, it was heartbreaking to listen to a highly educated and liberally-minded gentleman who had spent decades working with Australian Aboriginal people. He summed up the feelings of many Territorians by saying, ‘We used to like Aborigines, but now we hate them because of the Voice.’ 

‘Yes’ supporters have also accused ‘no’ supporters of being racist, or worse. That label will not be easy to shake off. It would seem that even if Albanese fails in the referendum, he will have succeeded in dividing the nation and in creating a civil conflict that will persist for years.   

The full Uluru Statement warrants careful attention, and I suggest every Australian should read it. It raises pressing issues of poverty, dispossession, and marginalisation. These injustices are serious and they must be addressed by all Australians. However, some of the ways of rectifying those injustices seem to come from divisive left-wing ideologies. 

I have mentioned divisiveness, but where does it come from? I would argue that it comes from the abandonment of traditional Christian and Aboriginal values. It would seem that, in Australia, when people have lost Christian faith, they have also lost hope and love. Love is always a great healer. As Dietrich von Hildebrand taught, love can help us look past a beloved’s faults, so that we can see their true selves. The same applies in politics. When we love the other, we define our relationship not by their faults, but by the joy, hope to which we look forward in our common future. When there is hatred, faults and prior hurts define our relationship to the point in which there is no hope and no reconciliation.  

I would also argue that many have abandoned traditional Aboriginal values. In her maiden speech to Parliament, Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price spoke of her traditional Warlpiri belief that ‘Australian children of all backgrounds belong to this land.’ She also spoke of reconciliation. We do not see those values in the divisiveness caused by the Voice campaign.  

Our nation will take years to heal, but how will that happen, if at all? In a nation bound to secularism and the rejection of the values upon which it was built, there is no hope. However, the values and virtues given to our civilization by our religious heritage, both Christian and Aboriginal, will help with the healing. As Phillipe Nemo writes in his masterful book ‘What is the West?‘ there is the radical message of the Hebrew Prophets who assured us that, with God’s help, we could make the world a better place. There is also the spirit of sacrifice, and the virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation given to us by Christ, and the commitment to solidarity and unity preached by St John Paul II. These virtues are shared with traditional Aboriginal culture that values forgiveness and reconciliation. 

If we can be hopeful, the irony will be that a nation that has recovered its traditional virtues (virtues that are shared by many people of other faiths or no faith), Aboriginal people will have strong voices — there will not be a voice forced from above from Canberra, but people will, out of Christian charity will listen to and act on the voices of those who need to be heard. That is, Christian virtue will demand that we listen not only to the powerful and well-organised, but also to those who are ‘nameless and unadvertised.’  

The ‘Voice’ campaign has caused and will continue to cause much pain and division. But there will be hope. A recovery and renewal of our traditional virtues and values will see this nation heal and become stronger through goodwill and unity. But for that to happen, we need faith.