The abhorrent racism on display in the lead-up to a historic vote on Indigenous constitutional recognition in Australia has underscored exactly why the legislation is sorely needed.
Australia will hold a historic Indigenous rights referendum on 14 October. First Nations have lived on the continent for at least 60,000 years. If Australians vote yes, the country’s constitution would recognise First Nations and Torres Strait Islanders for the first time.
Crucially, the so-called ‘Voice to Parliament’ would enshrine Indigenous peoples’ right to be consulted on laws that impact their communities. Specifically, it’s a proposal to set up an Indigenous-led independent body to advise Australia’s Parliament.
‘Voice to Parliament’ referendum to redress racism
At the crux of this proposal is the cold hard fact: Australia is a deeply unequal, racist society.
More than two centuries after the first British colonists dropped anchor in Sydney Harbour, the colonised country has failed to address its striking racial disparities for its Indigenous residents. Discrimination and the resulting inequality pervades everything from education, healthcare, through to justice.
Shocking no one with an ounce of racial awareness, the state is ten times more likely to incarcerate First Nations and Torres Strait Islanders than non-Indigenous inhabitants. Of course, it all boils down to a deadly systemic cocktail of racial profiling, over-policing, and state surveillance. Despite making up just 2% of the general population, Indigenous people comprise 26% of those the criminal justice system imprisons. Moreover, Indigenous deaths in custody are rife.
Inquest after coronial inquest have led to the sum total of bugger all change, as deaths continue to soar. Over 30 years after they were made, the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) – predictably – remain largely unimplemented.
Clearly, these deep inequalities cannot be separated from the intergenerational impacts of colonial violence against the First Nations. Policing academic Amanda Porter has pointed out how Australian police forces were:
founded on violence: racist violence, imperial violence and settler colonial violence.
Given this, as the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs has explained:
The cycle of colonial control continues, as these Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families become vulnerable to a lifetime of government surveillance and potential criminalisation by the system.
In short, like many settler nations, Australian society has yet to truly look its colonial past in the face. Moreover, it has still to reckon with the ongoing racism its violent colonial history underpins and emboldens. Enter the Voice to Parliament; the referendum now offers tentative, early steps towards redressing these imbalances.
Racism and conspiracies at large
Inevitably, the vote for Indigenous representation – however moderate it might be – has drawn out the vile bigots in their droves.
As the BBC has reported, people have splashed sickening anti-Indigenous memes across social media. Prominent Indigenous campaigner for the Vote Yes drive Thomas Mayo told the broadcaster that online trolls have directed vitriol and threats to him throughout.
Like a moth to flame, racist pundits, activists, and lawmakers have stoked a virulent disinformation campaign against the vote. The Guardian’s Van Badham listed some of the absurd conspiracies she has encountered on social media during the referendum campaign:
The Indigenous voice to parliament proposal is not a secret UN plot to steal Australian land. It is not a proposal for a “third chamber of parliament”. It is also not a conspiracy to stop dairy farming, impose “backdoor communism”, force people to listen to rap music or start a new religion … though I have been told all these things on social media this past fortnight.
Rap music, communism, and a healthy dose of anti-dairy sentiment strikes fear in the hearts of racist conspiracy nuts – good to know. Predictably, there’s clear crossover with the Covid conspiracy crowd too.
Unsurprisingly however, much of the misinformation has centred round race. One senator has nonsensically equated the Voice with apartheid. Meanwhile, other opponents have claimed the referendum will create greater inequality.
Translation: their fragile egos can’t countenance a break from the white settler status quo. It figures that a mild chance to put Indigenous voices into policy-making has the right wing frothing at the mouth.
The misinformation machine
Opposition leader Peter Dutton, of the conservative Liberal Party, spearheaded the No campaign in Parliament. Dutton has claimed that the vote “divides the nation”. As the BBC highlighted, disinformation analysts have found that a lot of the misinformation content online:
mirrors the narratives that underpin the No campaign. That includes claims from Australia’s opposition leader Peter Dutton that the Voice will “permanently divide” the nation based on race, creating an “Orwellian effect” that gives First Nations communities greater rights and privileges.
And who better to fan the falsehoods than right-wing racist misinformation mogul-in-chief Murdoch? The billionaire media tycoon’s Sky News has racked up views on its Youtube channel amplifying a series of deceitful No campaign claims. For instance, this has included the patently incorrect suggestion that the referendum’s success would render parliament powerless.
Right-wing senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, an Indigenous Australian who opposes the Voice, said it would sow division and discontent. As the Canary’s Maryam Jameela has articulated before, this once again proves that:
Getting Black and brown faces into positions of power means very little if those same people don’t use their power to make life better for the most vulnerable people in society.
Jameela explained how diversity metrics can be naive, since political representatives are:
in these positions of power because they’ve chosen to act in the interests of power.
Indigenous communities mobilise
Of course, the limits of diversity are also a core reason why the Voice itself can only go so far. Its mild demands would simply establish an advisory position for representatives of First Nations and Island peoples to input their thoughts on legislation.
Crucially, parliamentarians would be under no obligation to heed the advice or act in favour of Indigenous communities. The countless commissions and inquests on Indigenous rights and injustice that have gone ignored do not instill confidence in this regard, either.
Nonetheless, in spite of its limitations, Indigenous Australians have passionately championed the referendum.
Campaign group Yes23 has said that “more than 80 percent of Indigenous Australians” were behind the looming referendum. On Sunday 17 September, Australians rallied around the country to fight for the landmark Indigenous rights reform. Tens of thousands joined “Walk for Yes” events in major cities ahead of the vote.
However, recent surveys have shown that about 60% of voters are against the reform, versus 40% in support. This is a near reversal of the situation a year ago.
Ultimately, the persistent and pernicious scale of systemic and institutional racism towards Indigenous citizens has spelled out exactly why they need a channel to lawmakers in the corridors of power.
Yet for some egotistical racists, even this modest proposal is a step too far, too fast. First Nations peoples have a right to be heard on the issues that affect them. Now the only question remaining is: will the people of Australia listen to their Indigenous neighbours and vote yes on 14 October?
Feature image via Sky News Australia/Youtube screengrab.
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse
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