The lack of surprise hasn’t taken the sting out of the reality. As Australia gets back to work and attempts to move on from the decision made loud and clear at the weekend, communities are hurting and questions have to be asked.
What does the No vote mean for the future of Australia? What kind of a nation have we become and is it markedly different from the one we inhabited on Saturday?
I’ve lived in this country for five years and, watching the referendum debate, was struck by the similarities with the British one to leave the European Union in 2016. It was the outcome of that vote which, in part, motivated me to undertake my own personal Brexit to these sunny shores. Having experienced the impacts of Britain’s disastrous self-sabotage, I had hoped that Australia wouldn’t make a similar mistake.
It’s not just myself who noticed the parallels, either. A vote granted by a well-meaning but naive Prime Minister trying to settle a decades-long argument who felt assured his side would win. The details of what exactly was being voted on, hard to grasp. A strategic campaign built on lies, division, and secretive right-wing American dark money supercharged through social media winning out over bumbling platitudes about unity and ‘doing the right thing’. Finger-pointing on both sides over who the real ‘out-of-touch elites’ are. The most disenfranchised in society bearing the brunt of the decision. Over all of it, the spectre of Murdoch.
The Prime Minister, in his speech on Saturday night following the referendum results, called for Australians to show kindness to each other and for the country to come together.
“Just as the Uluru Statement from the Heart was an invitation extended with humility, grace and optimism for the future, tonight we must meet this result with the same grace and humility. And tomorrow we must seek a new way forward with the same optimism,” he told a press conference in Canberra as he conceded defeat.
“Tonight is not the end of the road and is certainly not the end of our efforts to bring people together.”
He said as much because he knows the result has the potential to tear this country apart.
The Voice Will Divide Us Further
The day after the Brexit vote was one of those ‘where were you when…?’ moments. It was galling to realise the kind of nation you actually lived in and the views of the people who shared it. It dawned on half the population that the future would not look like the one they had hoped for. It was terrifying.
Chaos reigned. For some, the regret was immediate, others viciously doubled down on the arguments that had brought the country to this point. The Prime Minister resigned. Recent expats from Eastern Europe and elsewhere received the message loud and clear that they were not wanted. They departed the country in droves, leaving gaping holes in underpaid but essential services. For the last seven years, Britain has been plunged into economic and political chaos that it is unclear it will ever claw itself free from.
The Voice to Parliament referendum will not have the same immediate economic impact as Brexit, at least, not in the short term and not amongst the non-Indigenous population who voted against it. However, like Brexit, this vote is a state of mind that cannot be shaken loose – the spiritual legacy, the symbolism of it, will ring out for generations.
To this day, what you voted for in the Brexit referendum in 2016 is a defining part of your identity. In certain circles, you would not disclose your vote for fear of social rejection or hostility. Looking at the vast geographical split in support for The Voice, the choice that all Australians have just made at the ballot is about to become as significant.
“I think it’s an incredibly risky sort of situation for the whole the whole society, actually,” Professor Patrick McGorry, youth mental health expert at the University of Melbourne, told The Latch prior to the vote.
“Obviously the highest risk group would be Indigenous people, but I think the rest of the country is going to be damaged in a fairly pervasive way,” he continued.
“People who respect and want to see progress and equality for Indigenous people are going to be very angry and frustrated by a No vote and really be very disillusioned with our country”.
The No campaign promised to deliver us from division but, let me tell you, that division has only just begun. In a society where the life expectancy, suicide rates, incarceration, educational and financial attainment, and healthcare outcomes between First Nations and non-Indigenous people are so grotesquely wide, we could hardly afford new rifts and yet, here they come.
“The government, in putting the referendum to the people, didn’t think about the consequences, a bit like [British PM David] Cameron didn’t think about the potential consequences of a Brexit decision,” McGorry said.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People Will Be The Most Affected by the Outcome
While the No campaign attempted to characterise this vote as one not well supported by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, those same communities appeared to vote in greater numbers for it than in other places. It is them and their leaders for whom the reality of this vote hits the hardest.
For the Yes campaign, and those who supported it, there is bitterness and a desire to reject those who voted down the proposal. Noel Pearson, ahead of the vote, argued that this was not a simple ‘Yes or No’ but a choice with profound moral implications.
“There’s a moral choice here. There’s one choice that’s morally correct, and the other one will bring shame upon us, and we will have to wear that shame and dishonour for a long time to come,” the long-time Indigenous campaigner and one of the architects of The Voice said.
Pearson said that a No vote, for him, would be the end of reconciliation and that it would send a clear message to Indigenous people; “we don’t want you, we don’t like you, we don’t need you.”
Many Indigenous leaders, public figures, and organisations have expressed similar sentiments online. Marcia Langton has declared reconciliation “dead”. Leaders like her feel betrayed, that their worst fears about the colony have been confirmed, and that, once again, they have been used for political point scoring.
Others feel hardened into militantism, something that the Blak Sovereign movement that drove the ‘progressive No’ arguments will no doubt benefit from. For them, this is an awakening. The phrase ‘no more breadcrumbs’ is being shared widely.
“It would of course be extremely traumatizing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” Dr Dani Larkin, Bundjalung, Kungarykany woman and Deputy Director of the Indigenous Law Centre at UNSW told The Latch before the vote.
“We have issues with mental health and valuing ourselves and belonging and being included within society already as a people.
“You really will understand exactly where all other Australians in society place you – at the bottom of the rung”.
Larkin, who is an Uluru Dialogue member, notes that there will be feelings of guilt amongst Indigenous activists who will question if they could have done more and an overwhelming sense of disillusionment with the system for a long time. However, she also notes that the fight will go on.
“Whether non-Indigenous Australians care, or whether the Australian Government cares, we know that we’ve got each other.
“We’ve survived year after year, change after change with government leadership because that’s what we do best. We survive, we rebuild, and we keep fighting.
“You play a long game in this field of indigenous politics and a fight for justice doesn’t happen overnight.
Heartbreak and being let down by government and the wider population is part and parcel of the Indigenous political experience, Larkin said. She hopes that younger activists will learn the lessons of the past and apply them to this present loss.
“Never give up. Always value yourself and always come back to your culture and community. Because that’s where you build yourself back up and heal. So you can go out and keep trying to get justice for the next generation coming up”.
The Voice Will Damage Our International Reputation
Internationally, decisions like this are not a good look. Just as with Brexit, the nuance of this vote will not be conveyed. The world heard the UK voted to leave the EU because it is a nation incurably plagued with an undercurrent of stupidity and racism.
Former BBC correspondent Nick Bryant said ahead of the vote that the world will not ‘get it’ with us either — it being any debates about bureaucratic scepticism, Treaty first, or better options — and will simply understand that Australia has told its First Nations people it doesn’t want to hear from them.
“A yes vote would help quash any lingering vestiges of the stereotype that Australia is a redneck nation. A no vote could be devastating, and seen as proof that the country is a racial rogue nation,” Bryant said.
Dr Hannah McGlade is a Kurin Minang Noongar woman and human rights lawyer who works with the United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The UN has long been critical of the way Australia treats its Indigenous population and McGlade told The Latch, prior to the vote, that a No outcome will have a “very significant” impact on Australia’s reputation.
“The Indigenous and non-Indigenous global community and the UN are fully aware that Australia has some very serious issues to address in terms of human rights and its mistreatment of Aboriginal people,” she said.
“These are no secret, they’re very well known and reflect very poorly on our international standing and reputation globally.”
During the campaign, Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong was cagey in speaking about how the vote would impact Australia’s international reputation. However, the former Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said that No would send “a very negative message about the openness and the empathy and the respect and responsibility that the Australian people have for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders”.
When asked if she agreed with that statement, Wong said that Bishop was “very eloquent” but declined to comment further. She didn’t have to – the foreign press has made clear what the world now thinks of us.
The Washington Post has said the result is “crushing” for First Nations people who had hoped Australia would “turn the page on its colonial and racist past”. The Associated Press described it as a “major setback to the country’s efforts for reconciliation.” The word “racism” has been thrown around a lot. So too have ‘Brexit’ and ‘Trump’. Now it’s our turn to emabaress ourselves on the global stage.
This Will Not Go Away
The Voice to Parliament was supposed to be the first step in implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart. That document was born out of lengthy discussions with Indigenous Elders from across the country over many years.
Pearson, one of the architects of The Voice, said that it was put to the Australian people in such a watered-down way that it would be acceptable to even the most hardline conservatives.
“Frankly, the voice is a proposal so pathetically understated that I’m amazed most Indigenous people are settling for it. After all, I helped design it as something so modest that no reasonable non-Indigenous Australian could reject it,” he said.
“More fool me.”
Senator Pat Dodson, the government’s special envoy for reconciliation and implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, has said that the referendum will not stop states and territories from legislating their own Voices. This is something that South Australia and the ACT are already in the process of establishing. Perhaps, with experience, Australians will see the benefits of such a system.
The Federal Government is already weighing up what its next moves are. Albanese has only said so far that he “respects” the outcome of the vote.
Parts two and three of the Uluru Statement are Treaty and Truth, towards which $5 million has already been committed in this year’s budget to help establish. It’s part of a broader $27 million that has also been promised for a Makarrata commission overseeing the process of those two.
Indigenous leaders have called for a week of silence for Australians to reflect on “the role of racism and prejudice against Indigenous people” in the No result. The government has said it will wait to give Indigenous leaders time to process before engaging them again in the next steps.
Because, as with Brexit, first there will need to be soul searching. The No vote will sting, badly, for a long time, even if those who voted for it don’t understand why. One of the biggest drivers of division in the UK came from telling the opposition to ‘get over it’ – salt to fresh wounds. Then came the screeching about ‘get Brexit done’.
Albanese will need to tread very carefully if he wants to implement something similar to what the people have already rejected. That, of course, means that nothing will change, except our perception of each other.
“We will be set back in terms of race relations. There’s no doubt about it. We will have to tackle the issue of prejudice, racism and discrimination, which is ongoing,” McGlade said.
“I think we’ll lose the opportunity to change that the course of a history that has been so damaging and disturbing.”
For her, Australia will simply continue to spend tens of billions each year just to “violate human rights.”
Brexit was lost 52-48. This referendum looks as though it will be lost by a far greater margin. That, in some ways, will make things easier, as a more decisive result sends a clearer message. In other ways, it will make things far harder if the vast majority of the country appears not to want to do anything to alleviate the systemic suffering of First Nations people.
Far from settling things once and for all, the fight over the meaning of this vote and the delivery of justice to First Nations people is only just beginning.