Between October and December this year, Australians will vote in a referendum to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament in the Constitution. Championed by Labor prime minister Anthony Albanese, if the voice referendum passes, it will require parliament to legislate for a body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to advise the government of the day. As Albanese has stressed, the Voice will have no power to legislate and will remain subordinate to parliament. Rather, its function will be purely advisory.
Opponents of the Voice have described it hyperbolically, as a House of Lords or a fourth layer of government. However, Liberal pro-Voice MP Julian Leeser was probably closer to the truth in a recent op-ed, where he observed that its work will largely revolve around trying to “better direct Federal Government funds” allocated to Indigenous communities and organizations.
Some supporters of the Voice have matched their opponents’ rhetorical excess. Noel Pearson — a Guugu-Yimithirr man, right-winger, and one of the architects of the Voice — has argued that “Australia is an incomplete idea” and that the Voice represents an “opportunity to make it complete.” Cobble Cobble woman and academic Megan Davis has argued that constitutional recognition via an Indigenous parliamentary body is an important step toward self-determination.
Despite occasionally sweeping claims like these, proponents of the Voice have made it clear that the idea is based on a “radical centrist” approach to politics, and is designed to rise above left versus right divides. Far from uniting Australians across the political spectrum, however, recent polling indicates that the Yes campaign is failing badly. According to polls, in 2022, national support for the Voice was around 65 percent. As of July 2023, it is estimated to be as low as 46 percent. This precipitous decline points not only to problems with the Yes campaign, but to weaknesses in the initial proposal as well as deeper problems facing the Albanese government.
Why Is Support Dwindling?
There are built-in structural barriers that make it very hard for any referendum to win in Australia. Because the constitution requires a majority of voters and states to vote yes, Australia’s constitution is one of the hardest in the world to change. Since Federation, only eight out of forty-four referendums have succeeded.
In addition to giving states with a smaller population undue weight, the double-majority requirement is a further reason why the Voice looks set to fail. Currently, the yes vote is only leading in Victoria and New South Wales.
As support for the Voice stagnates, the small-l liberal commentariat is already asking itself what went wrong. For many — Albanese included — the blame lies with opposition leader Peter Dutton’s misinformation campaign. Others, like prominent Wiradjuri journalist Stan Grant, blame a failure of values, arguing that the debate is “bypassing compassion.” And then there some who blame Albanese’s lackluster effort, which he justifies on the grounds that Australians don’t appreciate long campaigns.
Opponents of the Voice don’t only come from the Right. There is also a radical-left critique of the Voice, spearheaded by Aboriginal leaders like Green-turned-independent senator Lidia Thorpe. She argues that the Voice will be symbolic, subservient to parliament, and will detract from claims to Aboriginal sovereignty. Or, as radical Gumbaynggirr activist Gary Foley argued at the 2023 Melbourne Invasion Day rally, the referendum has “a snowball’s chance of hell of succeeding,” in part because the advisory body it will set up will be toothless.
For the small but outspoken Blak Sovereign Movement (BSM), a reform that only pretends to be a great change is not actually a “step in the right direction.” Instead, the BSM argues that a treaty is first needed to “deliver real power to First Nations people in this country.”
Whatever you think of their arguments, it would be wrong to suggest that the radical-left critique is responsible for undermining the Yes campaign. The BSM is numerically small, and at any rate, the Greens’ support base is unambiguously the most left-wing voting bloc in the country — and at 73 percent as of early July, support for the Voice is highest among Greens voters.
So, the questions remain: What explains the growing malaise and resignation surrounding the Yes campaign, and why has the Voice been met with apathy, even among well-meaning social progressives?
The Politics of the Voice
In part, the Voice lacks organic momentum because it did not arise out of a social movement. Rather, the idea of establishing a constitutionally recognized advisory body was developed in 2014 by Pearson — whose conservative Indigenous think tank, the Cape York Institute, supports cashless welfare for Aboriginal communities — and non-Indigenous constitutional lawyer Shireen Morris. In 2015, University of Sydney professor of constitutional law Anne Twomey developed the proposal by drafting a constitutional amendment.
Indigenous and non-Indigenous politicians and lawyers further developed the initial proposal, hoping to boost its political viability by designing it conservatively and pragmatically.
Then, in 2017, the Voice went through a consultation process in a series of First Nations regional dialogues with Indigenous community leaders. These community leaders were usually picked, and the list includes CEOs, academics, administrators, and entrepreneurs. These dialogues culminated in the National Constitutional Convention, which formalized the call for constitutional change with the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
This is not to suggest that more radical or working-class Indigenous voices have been entirely absent from discussions leading up to the Voice. For example, after 2017, one of the leading campaigners for a referendum on the Voice was Thomas Mayo, a Kaurareg Aboriginal and Kalkalgal, Erubamle Torres Strait Islander man. Mayo is also a union official with the militant and left-wing Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and was formerly the cochair of the Uluru Statement working group. However, Labor has steadily sidelined Mayo throughout the 2023 campaign as No campaigners have pointed to Mayo’s involvement with the MUA and “communist sympathies” in order to attack the Voice as more radical than it is.
This points to a broader strategy by the Yes campaign, to shut out effective progressive campaigners — a choice that has drawn criticism from Kos Samaras, among others.
This top-down process that led to the Voice helps explain why the Yes campaign relies heavily on corporate social responsibility jargon like “providing opportunities” and “representation.” It all feels a bit like an HR-mandated cultural competency seminar for a workplace induction, and it contrasts sharply with historic and contemporary First Nations movements that have demanded land rights, self-determination, and reparations.
This is in line with Pearson’s original vision, which passionately rejects the more radical and frequently anti-capitalist approach favored by Black Power activists who participated in the movement for Aboriginal self-determination in 1970s. After all, in opposition to the Left’s emphasis on the structural factors underlying poverty in Indigenous communities, Pearson instead argues for a focus on “individual agency.”
Closing the Gap
There’s also a prima-facie implausibility to many Yes campaign arguments.
For example, approximately 30 percent of Indigenous households are living below the poverty line, while the average life expectancy for Aboriginal people still lags behind non-Indigenous Australians by over eight years for men and seven for women. The official Yes referendum pamphlet — sent to all Australian households — claims it will close this gap by giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
a direct line of communication with politicians in Canberra, allowing them to offer practical solutions to the unique challenges they face in areas such as jobs, health, education and justice.
It’s not a very persuasive argument. Few expect the Coalition parties listen to Indigenous people, Voice or no Voice. And although the initiative is closely associated with the Australian Labor Party (ALP), it’s hard to imagine Labor listening to any voices that disagree with their neoliberal worldview.
For example, Labor has consistently refused to implement even mild social democratic reforms to address growing inequality, which disproportionately impacts First Nations peoples. Seventy percent of Aboriginal peoples live in public or private rentals, and it doesn’t take a referendum to tell you that building more public housing or legislating for rent caps would help massively.
Similarly, approximately 50 percent of Indigenous adults receive welfare payments, most of whom are significantly below the poverty line. The Labor government is well aware that these payments are so low that they act as a barrier to entering the workforce and contribute to a higher suicide rate among recipients. Nevertheless, Albanese has refused to implement recommendations to lift people out of poverty by substantially raising payments.
Labor has also refused to act on problems that it knows specifically impact Aboriginal peoples. Following the 2006 Northern Territory Intervention into remote Aboriginal communities, former prime minister John Howard imposed cashless debit cards on Aboriginal welfare recipients, restricting where and how they could spend income. It was a racist and patronizing measure that increased financial stress and led to worse school attendance among Indigenous children.
After promising to abolish Howard’s BasicsCard program, Labor has instead introduced laws to develop a new cashless SmartCard — only without the sunset clause built into Howard’s legislation. First Nations Senators Thorpe and Dorinda Cox have denounced the new card as a continuation of “the racist BasicsCard.”
Beyond these basic measures, the government could also consider paying reparations for the estimated $500 million that was stolen from Indigenous workers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Australian governments have known the value of these stolen wages since 2006, and campaigners have lobbied all levels of government to repay them. Trade unions, including the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), have pledged their support for these calls, as have Indigenous community organizations, like Wampan Wages.
Albanese’s government has not listened to any of these voices, or the many others calling for action against Aboriginal deaths in custody or a treaty. The fact is, Labor’s extremely selective listening does not exactly inspire confidence in the Voice.
Labor’s Nonexistent Base
As Labor has shifted to the right, the party’s historic base has decayed, as has the union movement upon which the ALP historically relied. Labor’s historically low primary vote of 32.6 percent in the 2022 election is a symptom of this, and it indicates that Labor’s ability to win hearts and minds is greatly diminished. Beyond the political weaknesses of the Yes campaign, this is a further factor underlying its stagnation.
Indeed, although the official Yes campaign stresses that the call for a Voice did not come from politicians, it is difficult to avoid associating it with the ALP. The referendum was one of Labor’s election promises, and the Liberal Party has made it a partisan issue, which means that the no vote may, in part, reflect discontentment with the Labor government. Recent national polling conducted by political strategist Kos Samaras’s firm appears to confirm this, noting that support for the Voice is evaporating among Labor’s remaining working-class voters.
The alienation of Labor’s traditional base is part of a much bigger problem for the party that was established as the political wing of the organized labor movement. In 1992, nationwide union density was at 41 percent. Today, it is just 12.5 percent, a decline caused in large part by the neoliberal paradigm introduced by Labor PMs Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. As the decline of trade unionism has accelerated, the ALP has struggled to retain its legitimate social base in broader society.
Albanese has publicly stated that as the campaign ramps up, the union movement will help to mobilize people in support of the Yes campaign. However, with such low membership levels, it’s hard to see how this could tip the balance.
A comparison of two relatively recent campaigns led by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) reveals the unions’ declining mobilizing power. In response to anti-union WorkChoices legislation introduced by Liberal PM John Howard in 2005, the ACTU mounted the Your Rights at Work campaign. Although the unions were already weakened by 2005, it was a well-resourced campaign, bringing hundreds of thousands of workers into the streets. It continued into 2007, eventually contributing to Howard’s defeat by Labor candidate Kevin Rudd. The campaign was successful on its own terms, although many on the Left criticized Labor’s subsequent Fair Work Act as being WorkChoices lite.
In 2019, the ACTU tried to replicate this success with the Change the Rules campaign. It failed to resonate, and did not effectively swing marginal seats let alone depose the conservative government of the day. In part, the lackluster effort reflected the further narrowing of the unions’ power.
Simultaneously, ALP membership has been in terminal decline. This has not only damaged their political legitimacy, but left Labor with a significantly decreased capacity to organize mass campaigns in civil society outside of elections.
Sensing the vulnerability of the Yes campaign, parts of the Australian right are now framing the Voice as a power grab by the Aboriginal “elite” or “aristocracy.” While backing constitutional recognition, Liberal opposition leader Dutton has criticized the Voice, arguing that Albanese is deliberately obfuscating details in order to create an “Orwellian” society.
It doesn’t matter that many of these right-wing arguments are quasi-conspiracy theories. Indeed, during an accelerating cost-of-living crisis, they capitalize on people’s distrust of the government and distaste for creating a new governmental body. And the broad scope of the No campaign’s messaging is designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters. While the Yes campaign sticks to unconvincing, technocratic rhetoric about community consultation and “listening,” the No campaign is arguing that the Voice will interfere with everything from national defense to school curriculum. It’s a scattergun approach, and it is working.
If the Voice had emerged as a result of an organic movement — like the campaigns against Australia Day or those for a treaty, which regularly mobilize tens of thousands of people — then it might have been in a position to counter the No campaign. But this is far from the case.
In fact, among the highest-profile supporters of the Yes campaign are peak corporate bodies like the Business Council of Australia and mining giants like BHP, which has donated $2 million. It’s a far cry from the strikes that spearheaded the Aboriginal land rights movement of the twentieth century, which were aided by solidarity from unions and the Communist Party of Australia.