13 April, 2024

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Australian ‘Voice’ Referendum & Possible Learnings For The People Of Sri Lanka

By K. Mukunthan

Dr. K. Mukunthan

The ‘Voice’ Referendum 

Australians voted in a referendum on the 14th of October 2023 on whether or not to alter the country’s Constitution. The proposed amendment had two elements. One, recognizing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia. Two, creating a body called the ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice’, which may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the ‘Voice’ was to be entirely in the hands of the Parliament, subject to this Constitution.

For many people, the proposed changes were simple, straightforward, and overdue. The Australian continent has been the home to the Aboriginal peoples for more than 60,000 years, whereas the Australian colonial history commenced only in 1788 – a mere 0.4% of the history of the former. So, recognizing the Aboriginals as the First Peoples was only stating the obvious.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who constitute only 3.8% of the total population experience severe disadvantage compared to the general Australian population. These differences are commonly referred to as the ‘Gap’. For example, the life expectancy of Indigenous people is 8 years lower than that of non-indigenous Australians; unemployment among Indigenous people is more than double that of non-Indigenous people; and the national imprisonment rate of Indigenous adults is 24 times that of non-Indigenous adults. A truly shocking gap, and ‘Closing the Gap’ has been impossible so far despite concerted efforts from different governments to address these perpetual disparities. Therefore, seeking advice from a new representative Indigenous body about how to address Indigenous disadvantage seemed quite appropriate to many. 

Australians voted ‘NO’                                  

Consistent with the predictions from many polls, the referendum was severely defeated by Australians, with only about 40% of the people supporting the proposed changes. Detailed analysis shows good correlations between those who predominantly rejected the changes and the demographic patterns in the society, such as age, education, and income levels, and between inner cities and outer suburbs/regional areas. Irrespective of all that, the fact remains that the referendum has been defeated, not only nationally, but also in every state – bringing the constitutional exercise for aboriginal recognition to an end for the foreseeable future.

Undoubtedly, it is a shame for a progressive and prosperous country like Australia and a lost opportunity for the people to erase a stain in the history of their country and rectify a mistake in its founding document. 

It was the past Australian Prime Ministers who requested the Indigenous peoples to come up with their proposals to address the past wrongs and the legacies of colonial history, violence, and dispossession that continue to affect their lives. After years of consultation with various Aboriginal nations, over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates from across the continent came together in 2017 and drafted the historic ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’. This was a modest and spirited request to progress towards recognition, reconciliation and address the terrible legacies of the past. 

A few Prime Ministers in recent years did not want to proceed with that any further. Though progress along these lines have been achieved in countries with comparable histories like Canada and New Zeeland decades ago, many Australian leaders felt this was unacceptable and hard to achieve. To the credit of the current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, he included full implementation of the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ in his election agenda and repeated his commitment in his victory speech on election night. It is that which culminated in the ‘Voice’ referendum, and the verdict shows the country was not ready even for these mildest of changes to the Constitution. 

For many aboriginal leaders and elders this appears to be the end point of their dedicated effort over a lifetime, with a group of First Nations leaders declaring a ‘week of silence to grieve the outcome and to reflect on its meaning and significance’, and ‘to convene in due course to carefully consider the path forward.”

A few factors at play              

Australia is the last among the comparable colonial countries to come out of its racist past. It is a country built on the legal concept of ‘terra nullius’ (nobody’s land) used by the British government to justify new settlements; the White Australia policy that lasted until the 1970s due to fear of being taken over by others was a fundamental feature in forming the federation in 1901; the policies of forced assimilation, including the ‘stolen generation’, where aboriginal children were taken by force to live with white families causing severe trauma to the children and their biological parents; and, it was only after a successful referendum in 1967 aboriginal people were counted as part of the population and the government was able to make laws for them. Despite its modern outlook and admirable treatment of culturally and linguistically diverse peoples, Australia’s history of race relations until the 1970’s was not something to be particularly proud of. 

Passing a referendum in Australia has been proved to be quite difficult. Out of 45 referendums held since 1901, only 8 have been successful. The bar is high – not only a national majority of the people (50% plus) from all states and territories, but also the majority of the states (4 out of 6) have to support the change. On top of it, voting is compulsory, which means every voter has to make a choice – YES or NO. In Parliamentary elections where party loyalties and economic issues play a big role, decision-making is perhaps easier. But with referendums, everyone taking the time and effort to understand the nuances of constitutional change is not a trivial matter. Unless one is passionate about the matter under consideration, finding a flimsy reason to not support the proposed change seems to be a default option.

There are some who argued that no community should get any form of ‘special treatment’ in the country’s founding document. But the primary forces at play were employing some truly despicable political tactics. A few notable ones were – political opportunism (the main opposition party using the opportunity for its political comeback); scare tactics (e.g., the propaganda that ‘Voice’ will have a say on issues such as monetary and defense policies of the country!); simple sloganeering (e.g., “If you don’t know vote NO”); misplaced arguments (‘Voice’ introduces differences among communities and is divisive.); politics of envy (if Aboriginal people have a ‘Voice’, why not for multicultural communities); using chosen Aboriginal leaders as front people for the NO case (though it was understood more than 80% of the aboriginal people supported the YES case) – the list is long and painful to contemplate.

There was also a concerted effort to undermine the referendum using many tactics, which unfortunately included right-wing populist activism through adverse social media usage, exploiting the fears and prejudices of segments of the population. 

Despite all that, the ‘Voice’ proposition was supported by 40% of the Australian population and that needs to be acknowledged and appreciated. Also, a few prominent leaders (present and past) of the main opposition party supported and canvassed for the YES case, even though their party’s official position was to oppose it.

Possible Lessons for Sri Lanka        

Do the people of Sri Lanka have any lessons to learn from the Australian experience on the ‘Voice’ referendum, especially in the context of the constitutional resolution of the national question – which has been the aspiration of the Tamil people for several decades?

To set the scene, every country is different – democratic developments, political culture and societal interactions in each country are vastly different. Equally, two different political problems cannot be compared without oversimplifying them. Despite all that, there are a few parallels between the way the Australian referendum initiative progressed and the manner in which Sri Lanka handled its national question (in the context of majority-minority), especially in relation to the political process. There are also lessons if one carefully observes how the referendum exercise in Australia evolved and failed at the end.

The tactics used by the Australian NO case proponents resonate well with what has been the Sri Lankan practice for decades – political opportunism, populism, and fear tactics that do not give any weightage to the suffering of the minority communities or the long-term well-being of the country, but squarely focused on political point scoring and winning the next election.

Making constitutional changes through referendum that deals with community-based disadvantage and aspirations can create uninformed raw passion among different segments of the population, exposing and magnifying fault lines that already exist in the society. This was clearly seen as the Australian referendum campaign progressed – the quality of the debate decreased, the vitriol increased, and the support for YES case steadily dropped – the eventual failure pushed back race relations by decades rather than promoting as hoped for. One needs to be mindful of such eventualities when referendums are contemplated under comparable circumstances.

The diametrically opposing views articulated by a few, well-known aboriginal leaders – some promoting NO case arguing (against all evidence) that colonization has no ongoing negative impact on the aboriginal people, whereas more ambitious aboriginal groups supporting NO case citing the inadequacy of the power and structure of the proposed ‘Voice’. This did not help their cause. This too is an observation one can relate to in the context of Tamil politics in Sri Lanka when comes to addressing the Tamil national question.

Above all, achieving a positive outcome in a referendum without first achieving consensus among the major political parties in near impossible and the Australian exercise proved this conclusively – an observation relevant to Sri Lanka where the political culture is often highly polarized.

One approach that is being considered by many well-meaning Australians is to act in a less ambitious manner whereby the individual states, even the federal government, embark on ‘Voice’-like arrangements not through constitutional changes but through legislative arrangements under the existing constitution. That, of course, will be a diminished arrangement and not a permanent one enshrined in the constitution and can be easily revoked by the next government. Perhaps that may be the best possible mechanism to address the severe disadvantages faced by the Aboriginal communities in the present circumstances. Such an approach of addressing long-festering problems by seeking consensuses or majority support within the Parliament, without resorting to a nationwide referendum that could be risky, may also have some relevance to today’s Sri Lanka.

Final Analysis                                  

A most affected and disadvantaged minority of the First Peoples of Australia made a modest request to a largely affluent and prosperous majority, to overcome the enduring inequalities and adverse impacts of the past injustices meted out to them. However, a majority of Australians could not find it in their hearts to accede to this modest request.

It was always thought that this referendum would either add a new chapter in the history of reconciliation in Australia or cement failure due to a lack of awareness and empathy among the majority population. Undoubtedly, the country has failed the empathy test.

Instead of the majority gracefully delivering to the minority, the onus is now on the minority to rise above this failure and find new ways to overcome the historical grievances they were subjected to by building alliances and creating more innovative social structures. And the atonement of the majority for past wrongs, it seems, is also the burden of the minority.

That is, indeed, a tragedy the Tamil people in Sri Lanka can very much relate to. 

*Dr. K. Mukunthan is a Director of Global Tamil Forum (GTF) where he is a Senior Member of the Strategic Initiatives Team.

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Latest comments

  • 4
    0

    A good piece.

  • 4
    0

    The Whites in Australia and the Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka have the same racist/ ethnic mindset. Nevertheless, the Tamils in Sri Lanka are in a much stronger position than the Aborigines in Australia who have no external support whatsoever.

    • 4
      1

      Not that simple. Depends on where they came from, the class and education level. In the major urban areas and in the inner cities/suburbs as well as in many predominantly wealthy and well-educated areas the vote was a predominantly a yes. However, the further you go away from these inner cities and wealthy educated areas into the outer suburbs, rural areas, bush and the outback the vote was predominantly a no. Even in areas where nonwhite Asian and other immigrants predominated. It was not only racism, but the opposition ran a successful negative fear campaign and people always react to negative and fear campaigns. In fear of losing something, just like the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. We are strangely receptive to negative messages and campaigns, this why they always work and politicians and other know this and thrive on it. We are afraid of losing something real or imaginary. Strangely even in many areas where there were a large number of Aboriginal people living, like in the northern territory, central Australia ETC, they had voted no. Around 48% of the Aboriginal population voted No and 52% voted Yes. As many prominent Aboriginal politicians and personalities were also campaigning against the referendum.

  • 3
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    Well written. Some consensus among the major parties are essential for successful outcome in a referendum.

  • 4
    1

    “Australia is the last among the comparable colonial countries to come out of its racist past.”
    Nice to hear, but what does the ‘NO’ vote tell us?
    Besides, many recent Asian immigrants are as racist as the Whites in these matters.

    • 6
      0

      SJ,
      “many recent Asian immigrants are as racist as the Whites in these matters.”
      Spot on! I am sometimes flooded with racist messages about Muslims, aborigines, etc from Sri Lankans in Australia, along with raving forwards of speeches by Pauline Hanson.

      • 4
        2

        Thanks OC for sticking your neck out to be pelted with eggs by our patriots

      • 4
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        Anti-Muslim sentiments are rather universal and significant in the non-Muslim populations!

        Given that the current population of Australia consists of ~30% immigrants (Asian immigrants ~18%), their sentiments certainly carried a lot of weight on this referendum.

        • 0
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          S
          I agree with the two comments, taken individually.
          But is there a connection between the two?

    • 2
      2

      Spot on SJ, many Australians of Sri Lankan Indian and other Asian backgrounds even from Western Asian backgrounds were personally ranting to me and urging me to vote NO and if the Yes vote prevails, we will all not be safe, and the Aboriginals will come and claim our homes and backyards and rejoiced at the No faction winning.

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