Opinion: Bipartisan approach to 'yes' vote on Indigenous Voice to Parliament is a must

Image by Chickenonline from Pixabay
Sunday 27 November 2022

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Returning to the United States for the first time since the pandemic, a friend found himself ostracised.

During awkward days at the family home, some never uttered a word.

He admits he should have expected it, but was stung nonetheless.

His crime? He had publicly challenged the "big lie".

Such relationship breakdowns are now endemic in the bitterly divided United States.

There are many conditions underlying this pathology but the big one is obscene inequality.

Forget about whether America is failing. For many, it already has. Even aside from the poor, the great middle class - which makes up 60 per cent of the population and provides the ballast of America's political economy - now holds less combined wealth than that of the mega-rich.

The yawning gap between the rich and the rest has opened a toxic gulf between American promise, and economic reality.

Once fought on physical battlefields like Antietam and Bull Run, a Civil War 2.0 is raging between those who still believe in the union, and those who've lost all hope.

The rebels seek secession not from a nation-state but from a shared belief in their republic's rule-of-law soul.

Donald Trump didn't invent these grievances, and certainly didn't experience them himself.

He simply packaged them up for political ends.

It is easy to pillory Trumpists, and to scoff at the anti-vax "cookers" here with their tantrum politics and cartoonic conceptions of freedom.

But the underlying pathology is only hardened by such insider contempt hastening the social unravelling.

Fortunately, the local outlook is better. While the best America can hope for is a cooling of its febrile soul, Australia faces the unlikely prospect of moral consolidation.

Inequality remains a problem, but our political norms and bedrock institutions are intact and still respected across the spectrum.

This will be crucial in 2023, because as mortgage repayments triple for some, and energy prices spiral, this nation will ponder one of the most defining questions it has ever faced.

Essentially, what it really means to be uniquely Australian. Not British. Australian.

Foundational to the question of whether to enshrine a First Nations Voice to Parliament in the constitution, is a shared confidence in the process.

This social and institutional impartiality is crucial.

Despite the opportunities for political exploitation within the community, the debate proceeds from this plinth of trust.

The biennial Australian Reconciliation Barometer for 2022 released by Reconciliation Australia on Thursday, showed 63 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians trusted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the same was also true in reverse. Better still, the levels of reliability rise further when the two groups have first-hand experience of each other.

RA chief executive Karen Mundine said this showed there was a high degree of goodwill between the two cohorts, and "that support for reconciliation and the Uluru Statement from the Heart remains strong".

"Trust levels rose to 86 per cent of non-Indigenous people expressing trust in First Nations people and 79 per cent of First Nations trusting non-Indigenous people," she said.

Of these two numbers, it is the lower one that might startle us most. After everything that has been done to First Nations people from the Frontier Wars and the systematised removal of children on race, to the sustained denial of these atrocities, First Nations people can still see the core of a virtuous Australia. And, they still harbour the goal of full national inclusion.

"These rising levels of trust augur well for change, as we head towards the national referendum on The Voice to Parliament," Mundine noted, hopefully.

Of course, there are countless ways in which the redemption of our nationhood can be hobbled.

Reform in this country has rarely been easy, especially when it involves the tricky business of constitutional amendment with its requirement for a double majority.

The lesson from past referendum failures, and it is one reinforced by the antipathy between so-called "woke" Democrats and many US voters, is that the Voice referendum must not present as an elite project, a bespoke obsession foisted by cosmopolitans on the wider community.

That way lies the wreckage of the 1999 republic referendum even if at the moment, 79 per cent believe the creation of a national representative Indigenous body should be protected in the constitution.

Those conversant with the Uluru agenda, must recognise there will be many citizens who are not so engaged. Some might start out as soft supporters, while others will be sceptical, though perhaps amenable to reassurance through respectful persuasion.

They are not all racists - depict them as such and they will be lost.

Respect is a two-way street.

How the campaign is prosecuted will determine where many of these votes end up.

The are two other requirements.

The first is political leadership.

If undecideds see strong bipartisan support for a 'yes' vote, it will go a long way to assuaging their fears.

Which is why Peter Dutton's comments last Sunday are concerning: "There are many Indigenous leaders, particularly in regional areas that I've spoken to over the course of the last month ... and they are very worried that it is essentially an elitist model; that it's designed to represent a capital city view."

As America drowns in partisan advantage-taking, Australia instead has a belated shot at "a more perfect union". As long as opportunist politicians do not play the angles.

That's the second requirement? Honour. Doing what is right.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  28 November 2022/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications