26 September 2023
The Voice referendum to be held on 14 October would make the most significant change to our Constitution in its history. It is timely to remind ourselves of the principles of liberal democracy articulated in the west during the Enlightenment period, as well as the roles of institutions supporting those principles. The principles remain sound, but the institutions are failing us because they have lost focus on their proper purposes.
The referendum puts a double-barreled proposal:
- to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia, by
- creating a body … (the Voice), empowered to make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to [those] peoples.
The idea of recognition is popular, with around 90% support, while the new Voice body has less than 45% support. Yet we must accept or reject the proposal in toto.
What is the Voice, really? In functional terms, it would be a funded lobby group, unique in being entrenched in a separate chapter of the Constitution, alongside chapters concerning the Parliament, Executive and the Judiciary. In constitutional terms it would be a fourth arm of government, although its relationship to the three traditional arms is not entirely clear.
The Voice represents a repudiation of important Enlightenment ideals. These include:
- evidence and reason in the search for truth
- primacy of the individual rather than groups: thus, collective guilt is anathema, individuals are equal before the law, and equally entitled to participate in the political life of the nation
- clarity about the purposes and boundaries of the institutions of liberal democracy.
These principles have served us well, generating wealth and wellbeing unprecedented in history. We jettison them at our peril.
There is no denying that the conditions of indigenous people in many remote communities are appalling. We should all be angry about that. Voice advocates have had a seat at the table for decades and have had much to do with setting up the support systems that are now said to be failing. A Yes vote would permanently entrench their position by adding a new body on top of existing, failed ones. It would ignore the crying need for a forensic audit of the $35 billion spent annually by the Commonwealth. It would not bring us together. Rather, it would kick off a new era of ‘victim’ politics, likely to last decades.
The way the proposal has unfolded is unfortunate, to say the least. The consultation process was narrow at the outset and became even more narrow towards the end as moderate opinions were excluded. The referendum question was deliberately framed to cloak the Voice proposal within the soothing notion of ‘recognition’. The Yes campaign emphasises recognition. But what advocates really want is the Voice body.
Almost every assurance given by the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, that the Voice proposal is a ‘modest’, ‘gracious’, or ‘generous’ offer is contradicted by words and behaviour from activists who foreshadow expansive, separatist agendas to come, all leading in the direction of separatism. One of those agendas is ‘truth-telling’; it will be anything but, involving a distorted re-telling of Australia’s ‘history of shame’, lacking nuance and proportionality. Albanese evades any discussion of Voice details or downstream agendas. He may have no choice since the indigenous community is itself divided. After a successful referendum there would have to be much horse-trading: first, on legislation setting the powers and functions of the Voice body, then on who will be appointed (or elected) to the Voice, and then between the members over the long-term agendas to be promoted to government. All before any practical measures are taken ‘on the ground’.
At times Albanese seems to distance himself, suggesting it is not really his project but simply what indigenous people want (and it is just ‘good manners’ to agree). He tells supporters the Voice will be powerful; to others he insists there is nothing to fear. Meanwhile, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, when questioned on detail, merely recites boilerplate rhetoric.
The government sought by various means to advantage the Yes case and to suppress the No case (e.g., by resisting tax deductibility for donations to the latter). It calculated that it could rely on the influence of powerful elites. On cue, major corporations, public broadcasters, universities, unions, not-for-profits, big tech, superannuation funds, the arts, and religious bodies have lined up in support of the Voice – little heeding the wishes of their shareholders, employees, and members. A large war chest has been procured by the Yes campaign. The Paul Ramsay Foundation donated $5 million. Several corporates have made donations of $2 million each. Cultural and sporting bodies are offering cheap seats for those who tick a box to say they identify as indigenous. The national carrier Qantas is giving free travel for the Yes team and has emblazoned aircraft with Yes insignia. Fact checkers have entered the fray, controversially siding with the Yes case.
As the campaign proceeds, we are likely to see an intensification of celebratory Yes messaging at daily public events, with advocates crisscrossing the country, while 30,000 volunteers knock on doors. The Yes campaign has arranged to use John Farnham’s iconic hit, You’re the Voice, in its campaign. All this may energise some (especially young) voters sufficiently to swing the referendum.
Or it may have the reverse effect, which brings us to a final thought.
Survey evidence over recent decades has shown a steady loss of trust in our ‘institutions’. I include in this term both public institutions and large corporates with a ‘comfortable’ relationship to government, and a role in protecting truth, justice, or freedom in a liberal democracy.
Could it be that our loss of trust in these institutions has something to do with the inroads of ‘social justice warriors’? We know them by the language they use: e.g. ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ – three Orwellian words which can mean the opposite of what you might think. In the political world they occupy ‘apparatchik’ roles in Minister’s offices – close to power yet with no experience of meeting a payroll – authors of some spectacular policy mistakes of recent years. In the corporate world they occupy personnel, publicity, and executive roles and have become custodians of a new corporate conscience of their creation. Mostly urban, university-educated elites, they don’t feel the cost of woke measures as keenly as the non-university educated. Secure in their moral superiority, they see any institution they join as a vehicle to advance the cause. Make no mistake, they will seek to control AI algorithms that decide what information we are permitted to access.
The capture of institutions by elites has reached a new high-water mark with the Voice. Though most Australians are against the proposal, institutions have taken it upon themselves to enter the political fray in support of the Yes side. Some corporates have remained neutral, perhaps fearful of being attacked on social media for being ‘on the wrong side of history’. Few if any have been brave enough to back the No side. The Prime Minister even boasts that ‘[e]very major business in Australia is supporting the YES campaign’. It is doubtful if we have ever seen such a preponderance of power on one side of a contested political issue. There is resentment and suspicion from those who sense they are being talked down to by their ‘betters’.
Bar Associations have taken a formal position in support of the Voice, against strong dissent from members who would prefer they stay neutral. Do they stop to think about the message being sent to, say, a potential litigant who is in dispute with an aboriginal land council?
The push for corporate donations does not come from ‘mum and dad’ investors. It comes from larger (institutional) shareholders such as union-affiliated superannuation funds and fund managers who control trillions of dollars of Australians’ wealth. Over recent decades these bodies have gained power while we barely noticed. They steer investment to enterprises whose values pass their metrics of ‘corporate social responsibility’. ‘Mum and dad’ may disagree with some of those values, but the decision is way above their pay grade.
Virtue signaling over the Voice may backfire, particularly if corporates come under scrutiny by people who are finding it hard to make ends meet. There is likely to be a backlash from retail shareholders enraged that the corporation is using their money to promote the directors’ pet cause. This will be dangerous if linked to the issue of bonuses for directors. They will be told, ‘how about making political donations out of your bonus, rather than company money?’
We may also see class actions alleging breach by directors of their fiduciary duty to serve the interests of the shareholders. The ‘Big Australian’, BHP, and other miners may be on safe ground. They can argue the corporate interest is served by preserving good relations with their many indigenous employees (not to mention that land councils are gatekeepers to mineral resources).
Other corporates do not have the same excuse. Qantas is vulnerable because of the controversy over selling tickets for cancelled flights, as well as its apparent closeness to government. Referring to Qantas’ troubles, journalist Paul Kelly writes:
‘It seems to reflect Australia’s emerging problem – the arrogance of elites and their disconnection from the broader community. This idea is taking hold; it is spreading across the nation. It will assume unprecedented prominence if the futile and endless celebrity ploys fail to persuade the public from voting down the voice referendum.‘
Strong words. But I would omit the final qualification. Regardless of the outcome it is time for many institutions to re-examine their hubris. They are too quick to adopt causes that are not part of their proper roles and – in so doing – disrespect their stakeholders.
As for the future of our troubled indigenous communities, my hope is that in time their people will find pathways to integrate into the broader Australian community. It is not just a matter of saying, ‘take responsibility’. Those trapped in remote communities will need helpto make the transition. That will require fresh thinking by indigenous leaders. Hopefully new leaders will turn away from collective solutions and towards solutions that emphasise the individual. Perhaps they can find better ways to preserve the best of indigenous culture, language, and knowledge than by maintaining dysfunctional communities which are only a parody of a hunter gatherer existence. And perhaps then we can remove the existing ‘race’ power from the Constitution, dispense with special welfare arrangements for indigenous people, and frame solutions around problems, not race.
A first priority should be the children.