It is an iron law of Australian politics that the country moves slowly. It is not opposed to change, but as an overall incredibly comfortable country it requires a lot of convincing. This general suspicion of change means that Australians are susceptible to being swayed by strong advocates against change. Referendums in Australia face a high bar to be able to pass – an overall national vote, plus four of the six states – and if all significant political parties aren’t advocating for an affirmative vote, the proposition tends to fail.
Over the weekend, Australia rejected the referendum to recognize Indigenous Australians in the country’s constitution and to establish a new advisory body – the Voice to Parliament – to assist government on Indigenous issues. The proposition was designed to not only demonstrate respect to the country’s First Nations people, but also find new pathways to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia across a range of human development indices.
Indigenous Australians comprise around 3 percent of the Australian population. They are a small enough minority for many people to – unfortunately – not consider their difficulties to be of any great consequence to the overall national strength. Yet, national strength and national health are interrelated concepts. The persistent disadvantage of one group clearly affects the country’s overall national health, and therefore inhibits its overall capabilities. There exists a civic responsibility to care for all Australians.
The disadvantage of Australia’s First Nations peoples also affects Australia’s moral standing. Without the uplift of Indigenous Australians, the country cannot fully claim to be a force for good in the world, and this leaves it susceptible to accusations of hypocrisy when seeking to address external problems.
Rather than understand this responsibility, both the Liberal and National parties sensed political opportunity in opposing the proposition. Both also had the gall to claim that in doing so it was the Labor government – which supported the referendum – that was being “divisive,” as if these parties had no control over their own behavior. Presented with the opportunity to demonstrate leadership and be problem solvers, these parties instead saw the lives of Indigenous Australians as a way to cynically sow fear and score some short-term political points against the sitting government.
The “no” campaign’s slogan of “If you don’t know, vote no” was a further affront to civic responsibility. The philosophical heart of Australia’s compulsory voting is that each citizen has a duty to be informed. This doesn’t mean there’s an expectation that people will trawl through policy documents and be able to debate the finer points of proposed legislation. But it does mean that people should have general awareness of the country’s issues. This general awareness – and encouragement of thoughtfulness – builds a platform of informed decision-making that protects the country’s politics from being captured by extremism; it is a stabilizing force.
Of the actual substantive arguments against the Voice was the idea that it would have undermined the liberal neutrality of the state – giving one ethnic group special privileges. Liberal neutrality is an important principle, but not one that should necessarily be adhered to as an absolute. One of the great advantages of liberalism is that it is not doctrinaire – it has the flexibility to consider responsibility, to understand failures and seek practical solutions.
Australia, like most liberal democratic states, does this with providing universal health care and unemployment benefits. The state is not neutral when it does so, but it is acting with values and a sense of social responsibility – an understanding that as a nation (not just an array of random individuals) there are duties and responsibilities we have to one another.
Yet in an era of heightened insecurity – financial, physical, cultural, and emotional – it can be difficult to comprehend that we owe each other these duties and responsibilities. Rather than embracing the ideals of nationhood, we instead retreat into more immediate and insular concerns. We become susceptible to negativity and fearful of initiatives that are not known knowns. In this context the “no” vote at this referendum could also be read as a broader psychological no – an attempt to resist the modern world’s incessant pace of change and the challenges this is presenting us.
The irony here is that when we abandon these duties and responsibilities we only compound our insecurity. Nations become more unstable, less resilient, less capable of addressing serious problems, and less interested in being positive and ambitious. Security and confidence come from the durability of the nation as a whole, where each component is robust and capable of flourishing.
Indigenous Australians will undoubtedly take this result with grace and seek other paths toward the uplift of their communities. But it will be incredibly disheartening for them to know that most of the country doesn’t share this commitment – and that it will now be more difficult to have their voices heard in national affairs.
While those who opposed the referendum question may gloat and feel a brief sense of triumph, they will be celebrating an impasse. Their victory came at the cost of Australia deciding that it doesn’t see the gap between Indigenous and other Australians as a problem worth addressing, and that responsibilities are for shirking, not embracing.