the Voice

The Voice: Integration is Essential

13 September 2023

4.3 MINS

The Voice referendum reveals some interesting dimensions of contemporary Australian culture that are being obscured by the political debate that inevitably ensues in the context of yes/no propositions (these understandably end up pragmatic and utilitarian, focusing on the effects of the decision).

1) Perceptions Askew

It reveals a failure of democratic narrative. The emphasis here is on the term narrative. The Voice referendum comes at a time of unprecedented Indigenous representation in the federal parliament on both sides of the aisle. It also comes at the high point of honest historical appraisal, respect for Indigenous culture (e.g., welcome/acknowledgement to country) and efforts to include Indigenous people in all institutions, from the Board room to the classroom.

Yet this momentous historical development comes at the precise time that many Australians have become convinced (or been convinced) that representative democracy has ignored, disempowered or failed Indigenous Australia. That our democratic reality and our narrative, which is to say our perception, of our democracy, are so out of step is a very significant development in Australia (the reasons for this are too complex to get into here). Whatever your position on the Voice, this kind of disjuncture between empirical reality and conceptual reality is problematic. There is more pain to come if this gap is not closed in the future.

2) Hijacked by Activists

It reveals that, while the majority of non-Indigenous Australians understand and recognise that Indigenous Australians historically suffered injustice at the hands of settlers, or as a consequence of settlement (an important distinction), and that many Indigenous Australians live in the shadow of these historic wrongs today, and therefore they genuinely desire to do what they can to both atone for this injustice and to ameliorate its effects, the truth is that they are on a ship designed and captained by activists and they are just along for the ride.

In fact, I don’t think many actually know where the destination is. This is to say that the Voice agenda reflects a strategy and roadmap set by activists, with many ordinary Australians simply caught up in the current of the time. This in itself is not particularly remarkable. This is how so much political and cultural change actually occurs. And the truth of the matter is that the vast, vast majority of people simply move where the cultural winds blow them. In this case, earnest and general goodwill has enabled an activist agenda to make a lot of progress, to the point of getting a referendum before the Australian people.

But now that a specific reform proposal is on the table and all Australians must vote, we are seeing a gap open up between the political agenda of the activists and the general, but amorphous, goodwill of the Australian public. This is ultimately the fate of all activist movements, left or right.

If the Voice goes down, it will be a classic case of activists running down a path at the head of the masses only to turn around and realise that they got too far ahead and completely lost sight of the masses. In this sense, the referendum is actually a good test of where middle Australia is on our national journey to deal with the most complex and difficult part of our history and national identity—the Indigenous question.

3) Left Behind

Finally, it reveals a failure to incorporate Indigenous Australia into the national story. There is much blame to go around for this failure, but here some must go to conservatives. Australia succeeded in the historical honesty domain, but failed in the national identity domain. The referendum on the Voice is only possible because Australians, including the conservative side of politics, failed to find a way to incorporate the unique place of Indigenous Australians (and it is historically and culturally unique) into the story of Australia within its existing constitutional and institutional framework.

The polarisation around the Voice question, and it is polarised, reflects a more general polarisation around this question. There is a wide, if in some quarters begrudging, consensus that settlement had some very adverse effects on the original inhabitants of the continent. There is historical debate about the facts, figures and motivations. But no one is seriously arguing that there was no suffering or negative impact for Indigenous peoples.

There is, on the other hand, a complete lack of consensus about what to do with this fact and how to incorporate it sensibly into an Australian story that can rightfully boast an impressive list of successes, from economic prosperity, to democratic institutions etc.

This lack of consensus has allowed the space for the Voice proposal to enter the stage, i.e., it is because this question is not settled that the Voice proposal has come along offering to settle it once and for all.

The Howard government belatedly realised that some form of recognition was necessary lest more radical proposals gain traction. The Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison governments didn’t really invest much in the project and thus made little progress.

Conservatives have a big role to play here. Talking to a number of Indigenous Australians about these issues, it is clear that they have very complex identities as Australians, and conservatives have done a poor job at recognising this. So all of the representation and advancement in the opportunities and positions, not to mention standing, of Aboriginal Australians is clearly insufficient to solve the identity and belonging question for many.

For all those who oppose the Voice, the question you should begin thinking about is how to make room in the Australian story for Indigenous Australians who have mixed feelings and a mixed experience of our great nation, while allowing them to participate in its sense of success and pride. Simply closing the gap will not address this issue. And the conservative, above all, should be able to grasp the importance of cultural identity, family, belonging, nationhood, national story, civilisation AND a sense of history. These things are meaningful and powerful and will shape politics in negative ways if not watered, fed and nurtured wisely.

I’m not saying this can be solved simply or easily. The fact that it is very challenging is why conservatives generally avoid confronting the incorporation question at all. But I believe it is possible to get out of the binary view of Australia as either good, with a few hiccups here and there, or an unmitigated evil. If it is not possible for Australia to find a way of integrating historic injustice into a story of national pride and success, then the future is bleak. We can expect perpetual cultural and historical conflict and polarisation to slowly eat us away.


Originally published on Dr Jonathan Cole’s page.
Subscribe to his podcast, The Political Animals, for more insights.
Image by Penny from Pixabay.

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  1. Peter Pearce 13 September 2023 at 8:39 am - Reply

    The Global Context

    Dr. Jonathan Cole’s article on the Voice referendum offers an insightful perspective on the state of Indigenous representation in Australia. However, while he posits that the Voice proposal emerges from a lack of consensus on the representation of Indigenous Australians, it is crucial to consider the global backdrop against which this proposal emerges.

    The Agenda 2030 of the United Nations and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outline a global ambition towards inclusivity, equity, and sustainability. While many of its goals are laudable, skeptics see some of these initiatives as vehicles to subvert national sovereignties for a more globalized governance structure. For instance, SDG 16, which promotes “peaceful and inclusive societies,” could be perceived as a guise for a more centralized, global governance.

    The WEF and Klaus Schwab’s Vision

    Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, has made controversial remarks that resonate with a neo-communistic tone, such as “you will own nothing and be happy.” Such statements, if brought to fruition, would signify a dramatic shift from individual ownership and national sovereignty to a globalized, shared economy and governance.

    The Voice Proposal: A Trojan Horse?

    Considering this global context, is it too far-fetched to see the Voice proposal as aligning with this broader movement? While the initiative may be genuinely rooted in addressing Indigenous representation and rights, could it also be co-opted to further an international agenda that dilutes Australian sovereignty?

    The growing influence of activists, as Dr. Cole points out, is undeniable. But one must question the source of this activism. Are these activists operating solely on the interest of the Indigenous community, or are they influenced by a global agenda that seeks to standardize nations under a one-size-fits-all approach?

    Furthermore, the focus on integrating Indigenous Australia into the national story might be seen as a microcosm of a larger push to integrate nations into a global story – one that diminishes individual national identities in favor of a collective, global identity.

    In Conclusion

    While addressing Indigenous rights is paramount, Australians should remain vigilant to ensure that the path chosen to address these rights is in line with Australian values and sovereignty. It is essential to discern between genuine attempts to better the country and potential Trojan horses that might advance external agendas at the expense of national interest.

  2. Ben 13 September 2023 at 11:51 am - Reply

    Generally good, but I’m not really sure what is meant by this: “…how to make room in the Australian story for Indigenous Australians”.

    One only needs to take a look at every school’s curriculum to see that there is ample space provided. One can’t start a meeting in corporate Australia, or land in a plane without intoning some kind of ubiquitous welcome to country.

    Just generally, I’m not sold on the idea that X group needs inclusion. Individuals should be included, sure, but that’s because of their inherent worth as humans, not because they’re part of some group.

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