The Wrong Referendum


This year, Australians will go to the polls to have their say on the wrong referendum.

On the one hand, the aboriginal voice to parliament is a racist, meaningless, populist gesture straight from the Chinese Communist Party playbook.

On the other hand, the major parties have, over the past few decades, broken a convention that has been followed since 1948 for allocating 6 and 3 year senate terms after a double dissolution election. By introducing new legislation for counting votes, and repeatedly breaking promises regarding how these terms would be allocated, the major parties have opened the door to whichever group controls the senate effectively stealing additional senate seats for themselves. This has affected the outcome of two federal elections and consequently the type of legislation that has been allowed to pass through parliament.

Although an agreed convention ought to work for allocating long and short term senate seats, the repeated broken promises mean that the only way to fix the problem is via a referendum that dictates the seat allocation. Unfortunately, despite previously showing strong support for, and universal agreement on the method, the major parties are no longer willing to even acknowledge there is a problem to be fixed, because to do so is to acknowledge their own lies to the Australian people.

Back to the voice to parliament. It is, at its core, racist. You may be tempted to dismiss this as some kind of benign racism, just as you might be tempted to dismiss whatever form the voice takes a benign dictatorship, but it is far more insidious. It is an attempt to rebrand racism as a social good and a means to solve genuine and significant problems, particularly in remote aboriginal communities. It does this by providing a facade of progress that will, maybe for a decade or two, let people think we are fixing these problems. Further, it will continue the ultimate cause of these problems. The aboriginal culture that we as a society are suddenly so keen to protect is not the traditional culture of pre-colonisation aboriginal society. Instead, it is a new culture that has been crafted through generations of learned helplessness. By stealing aboriginal wages and giving them whatever we deem necessary, we have taught aborigines in our regional communities that there is no point trying to work hard to better their lives, and that they should look to white authority figures for a handout. This has been watered down in recent decades into various forms of welfare and the soft bigotry of low expectations. Even more recently, we have been teaching aborigines to turn this history of oppression into blind racism, which always comes with some kind of handout.

The great aboriginal court victories in battles for land rights have resulting in them owning vast swathes of land. Unfortunately, this is not genuine ownership in the conventional sense. Instead, the land is held communally and this ownership arrangement creates all the degradation you would expect from a mini communist dictatorship in a remote area with no productive industry. Eager not to be seen to destroy the culture preserved in these communities, various governments have been propping them up by whatever means necessary. The aborigines involved are part owners of a vast asset they have no direct personal control over, and the only way they can benefit from the asset they supposedly own is to live in squalor in a remote community with no hope for improvement, in the hope of ongoing handouts and maybe a huge payout in 10, 100 or 1000 years.

The correct, but (currently) unpalatable solution to these problems is to end racism in all its forms. We need to abandon the idea that it is less important to protect aboriginal children from rape, abuse and neglect than it is to protect aboriginal culture. We need to stop expecting far less of aborigines. We need to stop tolerating racism and sexism in their communities and in the laws and government policies ostensibly designed to help aborigines (case in point: legislating the exclusion of all women and non-aboriginal men from Mt Warning).

The Prime Minister has attempted to portray the voice to parliament as an exercise in democracy. While the initial referendum may be democratic, the voice itself is quite the opposite. It is answerable only to parliament. It is in no way answerable to the aboriginal people it is supposed to speak on behalf of. This is why some of the strongest criticism of the voice has come from aboriginal activists themselves, such as Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Warren Mundine and Lidia Thorpe. Being part of the political machine in Canberra, they recognise it as a Machiavellian gesture.

Like every previous incarnation of aboriginal bodies that are supposed to speak for aborigines but are not actually answerable to them, it will inevitably become corrupt. The government will have no incentive to combat this corruption, as it will make the mini dictators who constitute the voice far easier to manipulate for whatever the government’s short term goals are. Only when the situation becomes completely unworkable will the corruption finally be revealed to the public. Only this time, instead of scrapping the scheme, the government will be forced to reinvent it in another meaningless gesture with the same inevitable outcome.

The voice referendum is completely pointless. The government could achieve the exact same outcome without a change to the constitution. Further, there is nothing in the constitutional amendment to prevent the government replacing the voice with Clive Palmer working remotely from his mansion in the Maldives, or a disembodied voice powered by Artificial Intelligence that blurts out pleasant sounding platitudes to tourists visiting the gardens of parliament house. In fact, that would probably work better than anything the government comes up with.

Creating an institution that is not answerable to the voting public in any way, and which gives the government infinite flexibility to manipulate the work it does, can only result in undermining our democracy.

One of the most depressing events of late was an article from The Guardian in which the Greens and an aboriginal representative called for relaxing of voter registration rules for the referendum. The article was titled “Fears Indigenous Australians Could be Disenfranchised in Voice Referendum Unless Voting Rules Changed”. Joe Martin-Jard, the chief executive of the Northern Land Council, and a Kamilaroi man said:

“In a perverse way, [the current rules are] stopping our mob and suppressing their voice to get a voice its a very unusual situation, “

“If someone turns up at a polling booth and there’s a person in the community that can vouch for that person they should be able to vote, that is what we are advocating for. “

The vote he is talking about is a vote in the referendum, not the general election. Think about the message that this man is sending to his own community - that to avoid being disenfranchised (losing voting rights), instead of enrolling to vote and actually voting, they should attempt to cast a vote in the referendum without bothering to enrol, so that some kind of committee in Canberra that they have absolutely no control over can speak to the government on their behalf. This is how the government, and the various aboriginal representatives they have already appointed, have convinced regional communities they are going to magically stop children being raped, wives being beating and killed, deaths in custody, discrimination etc.

It is naive and intellectually lazy.

Which takes us back to the referendum we should be having this year.

In 1984, Labor passed legislation with Liberal support that requires the AEC to do a second count of senate votes after a double dissolution election. This count was supposed to be used to determine which senators got a normal 6 year term and which got a reduced three year term, so the outcome affects the balance of power in the senate between the 3 and 6 year mark. The constitution leaves the matter entirely up to the senate to decide, and prior to 1984 only 1 method had been used.

To be clear, the new method has universal support. It is supported by all the major parties and nearly every minor party. I support it. The problem is, it has never actually been used. Whoever controls the senate has the option of using it, but they can also get away with using the old method, without too much criticism. Unfortunately, in both of the double dissolution elections that have happened since, by chance it has turned out that the parties controlling the senate would get two additional 6 year senate terms by breaking their promise to use the new method. Presumably, in the next double dissolution election, the method used will depend once more on this role of the dice. This is an unacceptable outcome.

As well as bipartisan support for the legislation, both major parties publicly declared their intention to use the new method in 1998 and 2010. They both broke their promise in the double dissolution elections of 1987 and again in 2016. In each case, it made a difference of two senate seats for a period of 3 years. Enough to alter the balance of power in the senate, and to alter what legislation could be passed.

The major parties have been quite audacious in breaking their promises. More surprising still was their ability to get away with it. The voting public has responded with laziness and disinterest. So have the journalists covering the elections. Most of the news coverage was limited to parroting whatever spin the major parties put on their broken promises. It was not particularly clever spin. But the issue was apparently too complicated for our poor journalists to understand in the five minutes they spent writing their article. Even Antony Green, the ABC’s electoral expert, could not bring himself to explain the issue and merely offered up the feeble excuse that the constitution allowed the major parties to do this.

The constitutional method of leaving this issue to convention has been broken by the major parties. It is impossible to trust them to find a way out of it by repairing the convention. The only way to solve it is to alter the constitution to appoint senators based on the method already enshrined in the 1984 legislation. As both major parties support the new method (when there is no short term gain to be had from stealing senate seats), this ought to be simple. The problem is that the only way they can justify bringing this to a referendum is to admit that they have broken the constitution with their lies. So they are both remaining tight lipped and hoping the problem gets ignored.

I wrote last year to every political party I could track down, in the hope someone would champion this issue to make it a second question in the upcoming referendum. The result was disappointing. I only got one response showing slight interest, and it was basically a whinge about how they had been hard done by in the senate election, totally unrelated to the issue I raised. One of the major parties simply replied that they were “not ready” for this and I might have to wait another century or two.

The more you scratch at both of these issues, the more troubling it becomes. Politicians can get away with stealing senate seats. No-one cares. Journalists from all major outlets can report on this in the most superficial and shoddy way. They can basically parrot whatever excuse the major parties give without pointing out the lies and the undermining of our democracy. No-one cares. When I tried to report the simple facts on Wikipedia, it got deleted several times until I managed to escalate the issue to someone who realised that limiting the Wikipedia article to government propaganda and leaving out the critical facts is not really what Wikipedia is all about.

A genuine failure of our constitution, created by the greed and lies of our major parties, and which undermines our democracy by changing election outcomes, will not be addressed in the upcoming referendum. Instead, the government will create a racist, pointless body that can only do more harm than good. We are told that this body will represent aboriginal people and solve their problems, even though it is not answerable to them in any way and is answerable only to the government - a government that for decades has only ever managed to make the problems worse. This farce is being promoted by a weeping Prime Minister as a grand exercise in democracy.

Are Australian voters stupid enough to fall for it?

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