November 2023


True colours

By Daniel James
Empty seats with No campaign placards on them in an event venue in Melbourne, September 15, 2023,

A “No” campaign event in Melbourne, September 15, 2023. © Diego Fedele / AAP Images

What the outcome of the Voice referendum suggests about the future of reconciliation, and what it says about the national character

In the dark recent recess in civility and joint hope that was the 45 days of what could notionally be called a national debate on constitutional reform and a Voice to Parliament, character was often cited by those opposed, on the airwaves or in Facebook posts, as a remedy, an antidote to the divisive proposal that pedestalled one part of the population over the rest. They would often quote, or in the main misquote, the famous passage from Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.

The quote goes, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” The constant wheeling out of those words on talkback, in social media posts and eventually in the lame advertisements funded by a mining magnate demonstrated two things. Australians are much more familiar with the history of America’s civil rights movement than they are with the true history of their own country. And, given the nature of the debate and its result, people have a very loose definition of what is deemed “good character”.

The idea of good character is something that many in the First Nations community will ponder for years to come. The scale of the rejection, the racist forces at play, the relentlessly negative campaigns backed by some of the country’s richest people fed into the overall apathy of the electorate. The resulting defeat from such a spiteful campaign will pose questions around truth and trust for generations to come. A nation where the vast majority doesn’t wish to acknowledge the past, let alone reckon with it, cuts deep. It has left many who have dedicated their lives to improving outcomes for their people broken-hearted, wondering whether they knew their country at all. Whether the thousands of conversations held with people from all backgrounds were of any use; whether anyone really listened. Were those interactions genuine or just on trend?

Was the flaming comet that was the Black Lives Matter movement, imported from America, a true moment of reckoning or just a feigned interest in the plight of Black people in first-world countries? The BLM chapter always left me perplexed. It exposed a deep ignorance about the plight of Black people here, people who have always been here. It took time for media and popular attention to tune into the treatment of First Nations people – as a percentage, the highest incarcerated people on earth.

But not long after, the hashtag faded away, and the pageantry and the performances of influencers retreated down the road, reducing to little more than sad-faced snaps on Insta or the Tok. Soon one wondered if it ever happened at all, because, in the wake of BLM, Australia’s First Nations people continued to die while in incarceration or the pursuit of arrest. Well over 500 have died in the country’s prison and remand systems since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report was handed down. If a royal commission couldn’t instigate real change, there’s not much chance for a hashtag.

Five and a half years after Professor Megan Davis first read the Uluru Statement from the Heart to the Australian people, it took just one hour and 24 minutes after booths closed on referendum day for it be coldly and utterly rejected.

The result and all that led to the result have rendered things such as the national anthem a fantasy. The only line in our national song that remains unequivocally factual is that we are all girt by sea. We’re certainly all at sea when it comes to reconciliation.

In the days that have followed, with the referendum hurtling into the brick veneer wall of rejection in the suburbs and towns of Australia, there has been much talk about timing being a reason for its demise. Right idea at the wrong time, the argument goes. But proponents of this argument, just like opponents of the Voice, haven’t offered any alternative. When would have been the right time?

Should we have held off our own reconciliation until the Ukrainians and Russians had reconciled themselves, waited until the cost-of-living crisis was over and the gas-guzzling Toyota HiLux stopped being the number-one selling car in a time of record fuel prices? Perhaps if we waited another few years, until the government intervention associated with Covid had receded into the fog of long Covid itself? (It seems to have affected people’s trust in government, don’t you know.)

Yet, if we are to realise anything about the times in which we are living, it’s that there will always be something or someone waiting to knock the best laid plans askew. We wait to see what this summer has in store as a pre-emptive example. There is a level of condescension among those who propagate the timing argument, an assumption that Australians are unable to think about more than one national issue at any given time. That’s what makes the October 14 result even harsher: people in the main knew exactly what their vote meant.

The polls had been telling for months. It would have required a miracle for the referendum to succeed. Millions would have had to change their minds with pencil in hand to alter the result. Yet hope persisted as hope does. It drove us here in first place, the spirit of the same bus ridden by the freedom riders of the ’60s.

On polling day, the level of online trolling increased in volume only. Anyone urging a “Yes” vote via social media was met with torrents of abuse from accounts with flags and faceless men. The types who love their children and country and have a phone book full of numbers after their name, such is the way of things on the richest man in the world’s social media platform. The bulb of racism and hate shone most brightly before the campaign was burnt out and the results were in.

What of the political fallout? Despite analysts already poring over electoral maps looking for consequences for the polity of Australian governments, the fact remains polls have barely moved in terms of support for the Albanese government. If there is an early lesson from the result, it’s that the polls got it spectacularly right and, despite episodes of cognitive dissonance among press galleries across the country, have done so since the 2019 federal election.

Given the ongoing accuracy of the polls, the latest Newspoll has the Labor Party sitting comfortably, with a two-party preferred result of 54 per cent. Anthony Albanese retains a commanding lead as preferred prime minister, 51 to 31. It spells bad news for Peter Dutton, who without doubt used the referendum as little more than a vehicle to advance his own political fortunes. His was a strategy bedded in division and cynicism, which saw the defeat of the referendum but has done less than nothing to improve his own political fortunes. A thousand Kitchen Cabinets won’t save the leader of the opposition – history certainly won’t. The dog whistling, the race baiting and the lies that ensued over the 45 days of the campaign, the failure to condemn the most vile and violent slurs from “No” campaigners, will not be forgotten. They will mark Dutton’s, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price’s and Nyunggai Warren Mundine’s place in history. Conversely, the gutter tactics and disingenuous claims espoused by the conservative “No” campaign won’t be forgotten by political strategists here and elsewhere, because those tactics worked. They laid waste to a “Yes” campaign that thought the Uluru Statement from the Heart was enough of a strategy itself. It wasn’t.

The steep uphill battle to garner support for the Voice meant educating Australians about the dark and insipid history of the way First Nations people have been treated since the earliest hours of invasion. The theft of land, the massacres, the raping, the spread of disease and the genocidal acts of governments designed to assist the death of a “dying race” of people. It seems almost ludicrous now to think the Australian people were prepared to hear the truth and turn it into a positive.

It turns out that almost two thirds of the population didn’t want a bar of it, either wilfully or through ignorance. Those of us who have been passionate about the story of our people had always assumed there were massive gaps in the Australian consciousness as a result of true Australian history and civics not being taught in classrooms across the country. The referendum confirms that explicitly. It doesn’t explain the result, but it’s certainly a key element in the mix.

So what does the result mean for reconciliation, when all we are left with is a barren landscape? Ideas to advance reconciliation, to increase understanding between Australians, have been left in the scattered pages of royal commission reports, coronial findings and policy launches, or are swirling in the wind with no place to land within the conscience of the country. In my lifetime we have never taken a bigger leap backwards on this path.

I now reflect on all of the Reconciliation Action Plans I have borne witness to. All of the associated morning teas and knowing looks when people take a couple of moments a year to think about the plight of “our Indigenous people”. The flag-raising ceremonies, brief chats over skewers of wallaby and crocodile meat, could have led one to believe we were heading somewhere. I look back on it all with such a sense of waste. Time wasted when serious conversations could have been had about the true essence of reconciliation. Reconciliation had become performative and had convinced many there were better days ahead. Maybe that’s why hope on October 14 held on all the way to 7.24pm.

Now the Uluru statement is just a memory. Its quiet articulation of the plight of our people combined with a modest offering as a way forward, the start of a new journey out of this mess, never to be actioned.

As I have written previously, the referendum represented the last major action of a whole generation of Indigenous leadership. Age and time will get the better of them. One can only speculate about the sense of waste they must feel. Commentariats are already speculating about who the new generation of leaders will be. Pundits can speculate all they want; it’s not for them to decide. We will decide, but it won’t happen anytime soon.

In the interim, there is still a reckoning to be had, and who would with any forethought for self-care stick their head above the parapet given what we have seen? In the waves of emotion in the aftermath of it all, there will also be memories of those who didn’t stand up. Members of our community who sat by passively as their First Nations brothers and sisters on both sides were being attacked, trolled and vilified on a daily basis. I and many others won’t want to hear from them anytime soon; that will be part of the reckoning.

What is already abundantly clear is conservative politics, in its current Trumpian form, will never provide any answers for First Nations people. Dutton celebrated the rejection of the Voice with Gina Rinehart, someone who has never been prepared to give up an inch of stolen Aboriginal land if it means diminishing her wealth by a cent. Dutton said he would consult with Price, who claimed that grassroots Aboriginal people (read: “real Aborigines”) were opposed to the Voice. It turns out those same people in remote communities across northern Australia resoundingly voted in favour of it. What does that say about her character and her credentials for speaking on behalf of First Nations people? And yet it is with Price that Dutton will confer about the future of Indigenous affairs and reconciliation. The voice of one, above the Voice of many.

At the end of it all, it has to be said: Australia has failed its own character test. If First Nations people have been judged by the colour of their skin, then it is only fair that we in turn judge those who oppose us – and who oppose the true history and the ongoing impacts of colonialism – by the content of their character. It doesn’t make it hurt any less.

Daniel James

Daniel James is an award-winning writer and broadcaster. He hosts the radio show The Mission on 3RRR FM.

From the front page

Photo of Animal Justice Party MP Georgie Purcell outside Parlament House with rescued greyhound Graham

Dog day afternoon

Animal welfare concerns have long plagued the greyhound racing industry, but in Victoria a campaign from covert investigators now has a parliamentarian leading the fight

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Mars attracts

Reviving the Viking mission’s experiments may yet find life as we know it on Mars, but the best outcome would be something truly alien

Close-up photograph of Anne Summers, 2017

How to change a bad law

The campaign to repair the single parenting payment was a model of how research and advocacy can push government to face the cruel effects of a policy and change course

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

In This Issue

Nick Cave performing with The Birthday Party at The Venue, London, 1981

The candles flicker and dim: ‘Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party’

Ian White’s documentary captures the incendiary trajectory of the seminal Melbourne band at the expense of the inertia that fuelled it

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Fighting fire with fire

Early dry-season burning by Indigenous rangers in the Northern Territory is reducing the risk and severity of wildfires

Cover of ‘The In-Between’

Christos Tsiolkas’s ‘The In-Between’

The latest from the acclaimed Australian author throws scorn at those who claim virtue and the complete control of their desires

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The seat of our plants

An environmental lawyer turned activist is installing street furniture in inner-suburban Sydney that discreetly turns food waste into compost

More in Comment

Image of Treasurer Jim Chalmers standing at lectern at Parliament House, October 25, 2023, taken from side stage

What kind of year has it been?

Was 2023 – beyond the referendum calamity – a year of government timidity or a demonstration of its ability to keep the national conversation on course?

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Truth after the Voice

The lost opportunity of the Voice referendum revealed Australians’ poor understanding of the Constitution, and the level of racism in the community

Supporters of the “Yes” campaign in Melbourne, Sunday, September 17, 2023, wearing "yes" T-shirts and raising their fists

The Voice beyond symbolism

As October 14 approaches, opposition to the Voice has been dominated by false claims and discredited ideas

Image of Parliament House, Canberra, under storm clouds

Robodebt and the life of Canberra staffers

Does the extreme pressure put on Canberra’s overworked political staffers fuel tragedies such as robodebt?

Online latest

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

Image of Margret RoadKnight playing guitar and singing.

The unsung career of Margret RoadKnight

Little-known outside the Melbourne folk scene for decades, singer Margret RoadKnight’s 60 years of music-making is celebrated in a new compilation

A woman rides her bike past the Australian flag, the Indigenous flag and the flag of the Torres Strait Islands, Canberra, October 13, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Beyond the Voice referendum

Looking towards the next 65,000 years

View of the High Court of Australia. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Guarding the power of the court in our democracy

The hidden forces agitating at highest levels to undermine judicial independence