Recent Notes 34: Trouble & strife
Hamas, Iran, Israel & war without end

The three factors that gave us the No vote


TUMBY BAY - Making sense of the overwhelming No vote in last Saturday’s referendum on an Indigenous Voice is difficult because the water has been so terribly muddied.

On the face of it the failure of the referendum appears to have been caused by multiple factors. Among those factors three seem to stand out.

The first was the unexpected strength of the undercurrent of racism running in the Australian community.

The second was the deliberate tactic of the referendum’s opponents to ‘flood the zone with shit’.

This term, courtesy of Donald Trump’s erstwhile ally, Steve Bannon, means to put out so much false, meaningless and absurd information that the public can no longer tell what is real and what is false.

The two main mediums for this ‘flooding’ was social media and the conservative press, particularly that owned by Rupert Murdoch.

The third factor was the deliberate politicisation of the referendum by the LNP Coalition.

Their hope was to simply score a hit on Anthony Albanese regardless of the merits of the question or the ramifications of the outcome.

Some pundits have also suggested that Albanese’s mishandling of the referendum process also contributed to its failure.

This is plausible but when you consider the simplicity of the question and the simplicity of Labor’s undertaking to take it to a referendum it is a difficult argument to sustain.

Although calls for an audit of Indigenous funding are beginning to echo in the conservative press no one seems to have mentioned this as a factor in the failure of the referendum.

The innate distrust that white people in Australia have about how large amounts of government money are spent on the welfare of Indigenous people is also worth considering as a factor.

While the Voice was specifically designed as an advisory body without any funding powers, people still managed to conflate its purpose with the ineffectiveness of past funding programs and the Indigenous people involved in running them.

It’s a point that the Yes campaign failed to anticipate and counter, probably because the system failures are indefensible.

A large amount of money has historically been poured into Indigenous welfare programs with very little to show for it, especially at the grassroots level.

The inference is that the so-called elites who run the programs cream most of the money off the top before it has a chance to reach the people who need it.

Creaming money seems to be a frailty of welfare organisations whether they are black or white.

It could be argued that this incorrect conflation of purpose with the Voice is what killed it in the end.

Put in simple terms the Australian community seemed very willing to acknowledge Indigenous Australians in the constitution as our first peoples but misunderstood or mistrusted the purpose of the Voice as an advisory body, particularly in a form that would require another constitutional change to undo it.

The framers of the Voice wanted the advisory body enshrined in the constitution so that future hostile governments could not abolish it but the people of Australia mistrusted that idea because of the sorry record of such advisory bodies as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission (ATSIC) in the past.

The irony is that if ATSIC and its predecessors had been effectively run by honest and dedicated people the Voice may not have been deemed necessary.


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Bernard Corden

Dear Phil - Posh Spice's (aka Julie Bishop) former squeeze, Ross Lightfoot, was also born in South Australia, a mere 50k down the road from Tumby Bay at Port Lincoln.

In Mcglade v Lightfoot, a complaint was lodged against the Imperial Wizard over comments he had made that Aboriginal people were the most primitive people on earth and that aspects of their culture were abhorrent.

Philip Fitzpatrick

A very interesting article Bernard. It's author, Julie Wark, grew up in the mid-north of South Australia but has lived in Barcelona for the last 25+ years. I think she's a strong supporter of Catalan independence but its difficult to find out much about her. She's certainly a prolific writer.

Stephen, I think the differences in concepts about land between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous people, as Henry demonstrates, are particularly problematic in both Australia and Melanesia.

Land (and place) are certainly important to Indigenous people but not so much in terms of ownership but rather in terms of rights. Thus they speak about land rights rather than land ownership.

When an Indigenous person speaks of sovereignty they mean something different to what is understood by other Australians. For them sovereignty represents a collection of rights to not only use land but also to care for it, including speaking for it. It’s an attractive but misunderstood concept.

While the High Court decision in the Mabo case overturned the concept of terra nullius and paved the way for the Native Title Act in 1993 it was necessarily couched in Western concepts that included legal terminologies like ‘titles’ and ‘boundaries’.

There was never anything analogous to a ‘title’ over land among traditional Indigenous people. Neither was there a concept of land boundaries and spatial divisions. The land was there and people had recognised rights and responsibilities over it but no one individual could actually claim an exclusive right or title to defined parts of it, especially on a large continental scale.

Non-Indigenous Australians constantly fail to understand these conceptual differences. This is why the ridiculous claims that Indigenous people wanted to take over people’s backyards gained traction during the Mabo case and later in the Voice referendum .

Lindsay, I'm not quite sure what an 'ASOPA officer' is. Presumably it's a pejorative term. But you're right, of course, PNG Attitude, whilst left-leaning is a forum for a much wider and diverse exchange of ideas.

Bernard Corden

The following link provides access to an interesting article by Julie Wark on Counterpunch entitled 'An Australian Referendum - Legalised Lawlessness'.

Lindsay F Bond

The many Papua New Guineans who have contributed to PNG Attitude might decry the assertion that the blog is no more than a "political flag for ASOPA officers".

So many commenters not of ASOPA have exercised their voice as exemplified by their earnestness in writing for this blog.

Stephen Charteris

This issue is understandably highly emotive, but there is no point in trading brickbats. What matters is how a new generation take this forward.

For me, recognition is a straightforward concept without hidden arrows. I have worked closely with PNG communities for over three decades and had stints in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. The notion that their connection to their 'place' would not be recognised by another authority is unthinkable. Place captures the essence of one's being, a bond never to be broken.

Rightly or wrongly, I see the connection of First Australian’s to 'place' in the same light. “Always was and Always will be.”

This does not represent a threat under conventional law, but a statement of unalienable fact that we need to internalise.

The question for us all is how we accept concepts like connection to place in the spirit in which it is intended and work together to address the urgent issues that have arisen through the separation of people from place.

If we, the 96% are serious about 'closing the gap', may I suggest we show respect, listen to what Australia’s first people say they expect and embrace mutually agreed changes that foster a return of pride in self and connection to place on their terms.

Henry C Sims

Thank you, Phil, for your denigration of the majority 'No' voters.

I spoke from experience of living 15 years alongside of Palawa and Liah Pootah peoples in Tasmania, 17 years exposure to Wongai of Kalgoorlie and from receiving vitriol from Nyoonga people in Esperance and here in south-west Western Australia over the past 19 years.

I feel it is a shame your blog has gone unchallenged and stands as a political flag for ASOPA officers who speak from a privileged internet platform. Bamahuta.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Henry's comment is symptomatic of the deliberate ignorance that characterised the 'No' campaign and which was promulgated by its mean spirited supporters, both black and white.

Henry C Sims | Australind, Western Australia

Some of we 'No' voters read in full the Statement from the Heart and feel that the giving Australia's Indigenous people sovereignty over the land and waters of Australia is racist and any treaty including this retrograde step would lead to 93% of the population having to pay compensation to those claiming Indigenous heritage.

If truth telling is to be invoked, it must be agreed that the British crown of the day did in fact, ignore the inhabitants of Australia and deem the continent as Terra Nullius (land legally deemed to be unoccupied or uninhabited).

Guns and poisons were used in the ensuing genocide and displacement of the original peoples from their traditional lands in favour of the intruders whose technology and political sanction of the day won the war.

The nearly 800,000 Indigenous people of today do have an axe to grind, but the other 27 million of us are still the majority.

As a fifth generation Australian, this situation was not of my doing, so why should I have to pay or otherwise leave my country?

The recent referendum was not about land matters, which had previously been settled by Australia's High Court in the Mabo Case of 1986-1992 (see link below) - KJ

Philip Fitzpatrick

I agree with your points 2 and 3 Chips, although you could probably say the same thing about other things in the Constitution. It's not a great Constitution by any means. It's dated and heavily biased towards the establishment.

With respect to your point 1, the idea of linking the recognition of first Australians to an advisory voice in the Constitution was to ensure that the advisory voice couldn't be abolished by a future hostile government. In retrospect I think that was a tactical error on the part of the Voice designers.

I still think that the misconstrued suspicion that the 'elite' proponents of the Voice were intent upon setting up a golden goose in perpetuity in the constitution contributed to the failure of the Yes vote.

I should perhaps have added a fourth factor in my analysis, that is, the innate conservatism of large sections of the Australian community. Your local electorate is a good example.

In the huge Maranoa electorate 86% of voters wrote no on their ballots – the highest no vote in the country.

Maranoa also recorded the highest no vote in the referendum to make Australia a republic in 1999.

Maranoa also rejected the same sex marriage plebisite by a very high percentage.

However, conservatism isn't analogous to racism, as my years working in the bush tells me, so there is no claim for any sort of correlation. Indigenous and non-indigenous people generally get on well together in the remote regions.

Stephen Charteris

It was a simple proposition.

For a committee of people chosen by over 500 nations to present their collective view to the decision makers in parliament on matters that affect them (and only them).

The Voice - a concept where agreement is reached through an extensive process of consultation between all stakeholders on a matter of importance to them. A consensus seeking process common in Pacific nations.

There is nothing in our existing system that duplicates the respect and acknowledgement of contrary views that leads to binding agreements.

Members of our parliament do not engage in this process. They represent their electorate or more often the party view.

What passes for first nations policy arises out of a system so alien to first nations people that it may as well have come from Mars.

The resulting disconnect, between intent and impact is as much a result of a flawed and culturally inappropriate process as it is bad policy. Ergo, the Howard intervention in the Northern Territory that scored negatively on both counts.

The Voice is simply an attempt to elevate a first nation’s consensus view directly to law makers and prevent such ill-conceived policies from happening again.

And because our system has never allowed for such a process and in light of outcomes over the first 250 years something different is called for.

A Voice – a consensus view – doesn’t sound like a radical proposition, ideally enshrined in the document that recognises the rights of everyone else. (It was not written to represent First Nations people and hence the call to rectify that.)

Had we on 14 October agreed to hear that Voice instead of turning it into a political free for all we would not be where we are today.

I take great comfort from the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It speaks truth to power. So, let’s roll up our sleeves, act like adults and work with the architects of this profoundly important document to move forward together.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Racism is an extremely problematic concept because what purportedly defines it is something that doesn’t actually exist.

Modern humans are a single species, there are no sub-species. No matter the minor, environment induced variations in our physical characteristics we are all the same.

There is no such thing as distinct biological races within our species. We are all members of the same species of primate characterised by our paucity of hair, two-footed stance and degree of intelligence.

The misconception of race is based on sociological concepts rather than fact.

Of those concepts the idea that one group of people with similar physical characteristics, such as skin colour, are somehow superior to another group with different physical characteristics is the most widespread.

When we see individuals labelled as racists it is this concept that comes to mind.

Unfortunately it is an accusation that has long been weaponised to include much more than simple discrimination on the basis of colour or place of origin.

The labelling of no voters in the Voice referendum as racists is a case in point.

Many of those voters actually had the welfare of our first nation’s people in mind when they cast their votes. To them the model proposed was the problem.

Others of a conservative bent were simply reacting to a fear of change.

Disagreeing with the model proposed by the Voice by people sympathetic with the problems experienced by Indigenous people can hardly be called racism.

Neither can being afraid of change be called racism.

Roland Lindgren

My experience was that I certainly did not receive "floods" of misinformation from the No campaign. In fact it was hard pressed to find anything about it. On the other hand I received "floods" of propaganda from the Yes campaign. This included TV advertising, brochures in the mail, unsolicited text messages from Yes23 and even companies that I purchase products from using my email details to send me their Yes view.
Even when the No vote was successful, the ABC reporting panel was heavily filled with Yes supporters and empty of No supporters.

William Dunlop

Thanks, Chips, Applied; Sense and Sensibility.

Chips Mackellar

Yes, but what if some people voted NO for these reasons:

1. The government could have achieved all its Voice proposals by a single Act of Parliament. It had the numbers, and with a few renegade Liberals also voting in support, there would have been no chance of failure.

2. It didn't matter what form of words were inserted into the Constitution, any four unelected High Court judges (out of a total of seven) could have deemed the words to have had an entirely different meaning, thereby giving a result no one, not even the government, intended, and

3. What if the whole proposal failed, for one reason or another. We would then be stuck with an unworkable situation in the Constitution which we could never change.

So you don't have to be racist to vote No for these reasons.

It is just plain common sense.

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