Opinion: Voice to Parliament isn't dividing Australia, it is revealing the country

Photo by Danny Lau on Unsplash
Friday 15 September 2023

By Mark Kenny

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

The deterioration of Australia's Voice debate is revealing a country profoundly divided.

Cleaved between myth and fact. Between fear and courage. And between the "haves" and "have nots" of the old-fashioned virtues - honour, civility, and a responsibility to others.

Essentially, the country looks brattish, indignant. The situation has not been helped by a government that is apparently well-intentioned but clueless.

The cultural insensitivity (and tactical insanity) of conducting two weeks of parliamentary sittings after firing the starter's gun has helped ensure that the scaremongering and mischief-making of recent months has escalated to name-calling, scurrilous misrepresentation, and worse. Predictably, Parliament provided the high-octane licence for this shabby and embarrassing spiral.

One myth at least has been scotched through bipartisan agreement. The myth being that Australia is a post-racist society. Both sides have now complained that Indigenous leaders are being targeted by opponents with vile racist abuse and threats of violence. So nobody's pretending on that score anymore.

Racism, it turns out, was there all along, coursing like the psycho-magnotheric slime beneath Gotham's streets in Ghostbusters II, just waiting for enough boorish negativity to summon it forth.

When Peter Dutton warned that the Voice was divisive, would "re-racialise" Australia and create an Orwellian disparity that would make Aboriginal people more equal than others, that's precisely what he did. Perhaps he didn't know his own country, or perhaps he knew it all too well?

Why is the Voice in 2023 inherently divisive and the 1967 referendum not so? The answer is in the bipartisanship that had been open to him.

Back then, both sides agreed and brought the nation together. Simple. And that civilised consensus, remember, was around enabling the Commonwealth to make race-specific laws and deliver special programs.

In other words, it was around the very "principle" most "no" campaigners say they cannot, will not abide - inserting race in the constitution.

As recent days have depressingly shown, No campaigners skate over these facts. Division has become an end in itself. Witness when deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley told Parliament that Professor Marcia Langton had accused "no" voters of opposing the referendum because of, "base racism or sheer stupidity".

Langton had been speaking about the "no" case rather than "no" voters. Clearly the anti-Voice side of this debate is looking for its Hillary Clinton-style "basket of deplorables" moment to stoke its narrative that the "yes" case is an elite project. Since when is it racist to call out racism?

The referendum is not dividing the country, it is revealing the country. What is divisive is not the question but the answer.

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

Updated:  19 September 2023/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications