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Respectfully Rebutting the Progressive 'No'

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

The Voice is a modest proposal, but it’s one that the Left should be proud to support

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With each new day, hopes chill for a reasoned debate about the Voice to Parliament, let alone for the “movement of the Australian people for a better future” called for at Uluru. No wonder Yes voters are being encouraged to “keep that fire burning”; this will be a winter of discontent and misinformation.

Since mid-May, I and nine other Monash University students at the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law have been staying warm by developing projects that encourage Australians to make an informed choice in the upcoming referendum. Our target audience will mostly be moderates: the undecided, the unengaged, the ‘soft No’s. This focus isn’t unique; the entire referendum will likely be largely pitched towards swing voters.

However, Yes campaigners need to ensure that, in bending over backwards to assuage the centre, we don’t ignore the burgeoning ‘progressive No’ movement in our own backyard.

There seems to be a tacit expectation that any sceptics on the Left are bluffing and will come to Jesus once they’re in the voting booth. Maybe — polling suggests 90% of Greens voters are already in favour of the Voice, the highest level of support of any party. Or maybe not — in June, Greens MPs deferred the Senate vote on the Housing Australia Future Fund, arguing that Labor had not done enough to meet progressive concerns about renters’ rights. The Voice and the housing crisis are obviously vastly different issues, but still: the backbone of the Australian activist Left is a force to be reckoned with — and the Right is primed to amplify and exploit progressive dissent for their own regressive ends.

Progressive Yes voters need to develop a vocabulary for countering the progressive No case without either capitulating or chastising. This means engaging sincerely, particularly when First Nations Peoples share their lived experience; after all, the very point of the Voice is that those in a position of power or privilege actively listen. However, this also means responding passionately with a substantive defence of the Voice as a valuable progressive reform in and of itself.

I identify two key concerns of the progressive No case: one around process, the other around power. The process concern is twofold: it alleges that the Uluru Dialogues, the process that led to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, were unrepresentative; and it alleges that the sequence of Voice, Treaty, Truth — the order of the reforms recommended in the Statement — is misguided. The power concern relates to the alleged weakness of the proposed constitutional amendment.

The thirteen Uluru Dialogues, hosted across Australia by various land councils and community organisations between December 2016 and May 2017, were the most proportionally representative consultation process ever undertaken with Australian First Nations Peoples. At the May 2017 National Constitutional Convention, 243 out of 250 delegates — 97% — endorsed the Uluru Statement. Today, over 80% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians support the Voice. This doesn’t mean the consultative process was perfect, nor that there was unanimous consensus. However, it does indicate that the Dialogues democratically reached a popular result. The Left is not betraying the anti-racist cause when it listens to a supermajority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons.

Every Uluru Dialogue prioritised Voice before Treaty or Truth. There will be an inherent power imbalance when negotiating with the state, but having a constitutionally enshrined elected body to assist with Treaty will mitigate this. A No vote on Voice will thwart momentum and delay a federal Treaty for a generation. We can already look to Victoria and Queensland, respectively: Victoria’s First Peoples’ Assembly, the state equivalent of a Voice body, is leading the way in negotiating a Treaty, while the process in Queensland — a state without a comparable consultative body — has been criticised by elders. Fears that constitutional recognition will extinguish Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty have been debunked by multiple constitutional experts. Enshrining the Voice in the Constitution is an important practical safeguard; it protects against a future Parliament abolishing the body.

Some take issue with the advisory nature of the Voice and do not trust Governments to actually listen if they are not formally compelled to. This is reasonable; Australian history is littered with broken promises. However, just because we are concerned that the Voice’s representations will be ignored doesn’t mean we should reject the Voice entirely. A successful referendum proposal, the first in over 40 years, would constitute a resounding public endorsement and likely imbue the Voice with great moral influence, at least temporarily. More so, we should continue to campaign after the referendum, to ensure that the Voice’s representations are taken seriously and that the entire Uluru Statement is realised. There is nothing inherently wrong with the Voice as a body or instrument. Any issues that may rise will be a reflection of our own shortcomings.

Australian progressives are privileged to have a preferential voting system; I know that I am one of many who favour the Greens, but always put Labor above the Coalition. In a referendum, the Left does not have that luxury. The choice before us is binary. A No vote by any other name is still a No vote.

We shouldn’t get baited into rejecting the good in pursuit of the perfect. The Voice is a major step forward. I look forward to spring, to finally being handed my referendum ballot. I will be proud to accept the Uluru Statement from the Heart. I will be proud to write— Yes!


Thomas Ponissi (he/they) is a Laws/Global Studies student at Monash University, and a community legal centre paralegal.

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