The Politics    Wednesday, May 17, 2023

A new low

By Rachel Withers

Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Warren Mundine are seen in focus in the background, while a young Indigenous supporter wearing an Australian flag can be seen in the foreground

Country Liberal Party Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Warren Mundine speak to young Indigenous supporters at a meeting at Parliament House, March 22, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Is there any ethical boundary the “No” campaign will not cross?

It’s hard to know what to be most sickened by in the “No” campaign’s unethical use of a Millwarparra man’s likeness. There is the initial misidentification of Stewart Lingiari as “Vincent Lingiari’s grandson” despite the fact that, as RMIT’s FactLab uncovered, he is not related to the celebrated land rights activist. “If they had asked me directly, I would have told them I’m not his grandson but they never asked me,” he told Guardian Australia, adding that he felt “humiliated” by the episode. There is the fact that his face is being splashed across social media, despite Lingiari saying that he did not give permission for his image to be used in this way. There is the fact the voice discussion was sprung on him and other traditional owners when they travelled to Canberra to discuss other issues. “If I would have [known] what this voice was, I wouldn’t have said this. This is what the cameraman told me to say,” he told FactLab – a claim backed up by another man present. And then there is the fact that lead “No” campaigner Warren Mundine has dismissed the report, saying RMIT needs to learn about “cultural kinship”, even as Lingiari says this is not accurate and he wants it to stop. With polls showing support for the voice may be in decline, Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney asks a pressing question: “How low can the ‘No’ campaign go?”

It seems there is no ethical line that the “No” campaign will not cross, as it seeks to exploit First Nations people in pursuit of its cause. Of course, not all Indigenous Australians agree on the voice, and there are legitimate concerns regarding its power and effectiveness, but recent polls show 83 per cent support among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The “No” campaign, however, doesn’t seem interested in listening to what the majority of Indigenous people actually think, in its bid to tear down the Uluru statement’s gracious request. The Fair Australia campaign’s misuse of Lingiari’s photo, and its refusal to immediately heed his pleas for his image to be taken down (Mundine tells NITV the campaign is discussing whether to remove Lingiari’s image from the website, though it was still there at the time of writing, two days after the story first dropped), is only the most abhorrent example of what has been a long-running pattern, in which, as Professor Megan Davis notes, the “No” campaign is “aided by an uncritical media”.

Mundine and shadow minister for Indigenous Australians Jacinta Price both claim to speak for those they do not represent, and they are both used for their Indigeneity by conservative (and non-Indigenous) opponents of the voice. It’s unclear what exactly drives them. Noel Pearson has suggested that Price, a Sky News darling, is caught in a “redneck celebrity vortex”, and is being used by the right to “punch down on other Blakfullas”. Mundine, meanwhile, has gone from being a long-time Labor member (and ALP president) to a conservative political commentator, and from supporting a voice to fiercely opposing it, saying First Nations Australians don’t need one because they have people like him. Price speaks with great passion about Indigenous disadvantage, even as she rails against the voice. But it’s clear they are both being used by white conservatives who are not known for their interest in Indigenous advancement (see: Gina Rinehart, Pauline Hanson, Peta Credlin, Andrew Bolt), but who have suddenly become huge fans of “listening” to Indigenous voices, so long as they are voices that oppose a voice to parliament. (Any attempt to point out that a great many Indigenous groups have disavowed Jacinta Price, saying she does not speak for them, prompts allegations from “No” voters that you are not interested in listening to Indigenous voices. How ironic.)

We’ve already seen the “No” campaign exploit Indigenous people in various ways. After a brief spell being obsessed with making baseless claims about the sexual abuse of children in the Northern Territory, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton seems to have forgotten about that bugbear – one that many suspect had far more to do with undermining the voice than anything else. It’s still unclear who Dutton is referring to when he claims he has spoken to Indigenous people “on the ground” who do not want a national voice, as justification for his own opposition. Indigenous leaders in areas he has cited told the ABC the voice was not the focus of their conversations with him, and they are in favour of one. And now it’s clear the “No” campaign is willing to simply ascribe opinions to First Nations people and misuse their names – and the names of celebrated Aboriginal rights activists for good measure. After being called out for it, Mundine is then willing to use Aboriginal cultural concepts to deny he has done anything wrong, even as Stewart Lingiari points out that he is from a totally different area to Vincent Lingiari’s family.

Burney said in a statement regarding the story that “this raises real questions about the credibility of the ‘No’ campaign”. Worse, it raises serious questions about their morals, and could be taken as confirmation of what many feared: that they will be simply unscrupulous in their bid to deny First Nations peoples the voice. The “No” campaign does not have facts on its side, and it does not have history on its side. Nor, it seems, does it have any respect for the people whose names and faces it is using, as it seeks to steal their voices too.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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