As former Labor minister Barry Jones has wisely noted, the Voice referendum feels like 2016 all over again.
The shock from the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom in June of that year set the stage for what came next: the off-the-charts upheaval of the Donald Trump earthquake in the US presidential election. The only consolation was that Trump did not win a majority of votes in the United States. He won the presidency through the arcane, undemocratic workings of the Electoral College.
Maybe the Voice will prevail, as Senator Pat Dodson says:
I believe Australians are better than this. I believe Australians will look at this on the day and say, ‘Well this is a decent, honourable, good thing for us to do’.
But given current projections, the best outcome on the referendum may well be a majority vote for “yes” nationally, but constitutional recognition of First Nations peoples and establishment of the Voice denied by the requirement that the measure be approved by a majority of the states. That can be a moral victory – that Australia’s heart did not go cold on its Indigenous peoples.
But we may not even get there. As with the Trump shock, it is hard to process how support for a benign, straightforward measure that opens the Constitution to Indigenous Australians and establishes an advisory committee on issues and policies crucial to their welfare could dissipate from 65% a year ago to just 43% today.
And how a proposal that enjoys unprecedented backing from the most powerful and influential institutions in the country, including those in business, labour, sport and culture, could be devoid of uplift and land with a thud.
A campaign defined by fear-mongering
US President Franklin D Roosevelt famously said when he first took office 90 years ago, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”. Which is exactly how the prime minister has framed the Voice. Anthony Albanese has said there is “nothing scary, nothing to be fearful of here”.
You can’t change a country for the better through fear. You can only change it for the better through hope and optimism and being positive.
But it is fear that is prevailing at this moment. The Advance Australia and Fair Australia telephone banks and their TikTok algorithms are infused with it. Fair Australia callers are telling undecided voters they have “heard” the Voice will mean monetary compensation to Aboriginal people, that the Voice will lead to the abolition of Australia Day, and that Voice proponents will push for a treaty.
The poison is spreading across the political landscape. Liberal Party politicians have been warned that those who support the Voice will lose their pre-selection for seats in parliament. Former ACT Chief Minister Kate Carnell has said
This has been politicised to the point that people aren’t comfortable to campaign for what they believe in because of the politics.
Perhaps this is baked in for the Liberal Party from its opposition to the Voice from the last three prime ministers: Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison. (Turnbull has since fully converted.) They never presented a referendum even on just constitutional recognition.
How Trump’s messages seep into Australia
In “Trump’s Australia”, my study of what could happen to Australia’s democracy and society if Trump returns to the presidency in 2024, I argue that approval of the Voice would help insulate Australia’s political culture from the corrosive effects of Trumpist messages from the news and social media.
Trump was the most divisive president America has ever had. In addition to his core values of “America First” nationalism, protectionism and isolationism, he also promoted nativism – fear of “the other.”
Australia, with its historically pervasive atmosphere of fear around Indigenous aspirations, is fertile territory for Trump and his rhetoric on race.
Trump knows how to push the fear buttons on race. He does not dog whistle. Take, for instance, his public demand in 1989 that New York reinstate the death penalty to punish the “Central Park Five” – the Black and Latino youths wrongly convicted of raping a woman in Central Park. Trump shouts his views from the podium. And we hear it here.
What could Australia’s democracy and society look like if Trump wins? What we are already hearing today from those leading the “no” campaign is an echo chamber of Trumpist sentiments for his supporters and acolytes here.
If he returns to power, Australia will undoubtedly see a steady flood of these messages via his social media posts and pronouncements from the Oval Office. His racially tinged views will only further harden the divisive sentiments on issues of racial equity here.
Trump is especially vocal in siding with police when acts of brutality have occured and when violent crime has broken out in major cities. “Law and order” will be a recurrent theme in the 2024 presidential election, should Trump be the Republican candidate again. Trump supporters in Australia, including some who hold or aspire to public office, will pick up those messages and propagate them here.
We have already seen a dry run of these themes by his Australian allies at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Sydney in August – an offshoot of Trump’s CPAC base in the US.
The core message from the Sydney event: the Voice is racially divisive and is being foisted on the country by “the elites”.
Right on cue, neo-Nazis then marched in the streets of Melbourne last weekend under a banner that read “Voice = Anti White.” It had the same look and feel as the infamous white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, which Trump said included some “very fine people”.
Why the Voice could insulate Australia from Trumpism
These messages are designed to kill the hope and buttress the fear expressed by Professor Marcia Langton, co-chair of the senior design group on the Voice:
A ‘yes’ vote delivers recognition through a voice and all the hope and healing it represents […] or a ‘no’ vote which binds us all closely – all of us – to a broken status quo.
If the Voice is approved, it will be able to call out policies that are not truly responsive to the needs of Indigenous Australians, including programs that do not get to the heart of, or try to resolve, the disparity between First Nations people and their fellow Australians. This can help shape more effective responses to issues where no progress has been made for decades.
The existence of the Voice will mean that Trumpism is unlikely to derail what the body is intended to achieve. If the Voice is defeated, however, change for the better is severely compromised.
If most Australians vote “no” the country will be reeling. The victorious opponents of the Voice, with their echoes of Trumpism, will be poised to keep advancing their agenda. The default position of the political culture on race, reconciliation and equity will have gone backwards, making it harder to redress historical issues of racial disparities.
The world is watching. As George Megalogenis recently concluded, “A ‘no’ vote would revive both the colonial ghost of dispossession and the federation ghost of the White Australia policy.”
That would be a victory for Trumpism in Australia, even before Trump’s fate is decided next year by voters in America.