This is one of two posts on this site, looking at the arguments for and against this year’s referendum, as described in the official booklet, which you can download from the Australian Electoral Commission here. The other post can be found here. These posts will analyse and criticise the arguments made by both the Yes and No sides.
We are also including a selection of links to fact checking sites, in case you’re looking for more detail than we’ve gone into here:
- How do the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ cases stack up? Constitutional law experts take a look (article at The Conversation).
- RMIT FactLab (assorted posts about specific claims).
- ABC FactCheck (assorted posts about specific claims).
- We gave the Voice to Parliament pamphlets to fact checkers. Here’s what they said (article at SBS News).
- Voice to Parliament referendum essays – annotated and factchecked: yes case and no case (at The Guardian).
Enough preamble. On with the analysis.
The Yes case for this referendum is, in general, making fairly modest claims. It’s got three main prongs to its arguments, which are:
- Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our Constitution and paying respect to 65,000 years of culture and tradition.
- Listening to advice from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about matters that affect their lives, so governments make better decisions.
- Making practical progress in Indigenous health, education, employment and housing, so people have a better life.
Of these, the first is a given – we could hardly create such a thing in our system without it being exactly that recognition. The second is a little more dubious, as Australian governments have a long history of ignoring advice they don’t care for – take a look at how many recommendations have been made by Royal Commissions and the like, and how few of them have been acted upon. It does, at least, indicate a willingness to receive such recommendations – and presumably also provides the same opportunity for media and pubic scrutiny about advice that gets ignored. Finally, the third is… well, a little weaselly. Better results are likely if even a single recommendation from the Voice were to be acted on, but this is more a reflection of how poor the current state of affairs is than a merit of the Voice as such. There’s also the possibility that the advice might be wrong – not, I think, a likely possibility, but the people who make up the Voice will be humans, and subject to the flaws and fallibilities we all have – as well as the possibility that a poorly executed translation of advice into action might have no effect or even make things worse – although again, I think is unlikely, it is not improbable.
The Yes case goes on to provide eight more reasons why it wants people to vote yes.
1. This idea came directly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The claim is that this idea was the result of grassroots activity, and not the work of politicians, and it’s hard to argue that this is not the case. The Uluru Statement from the Heart of 2017 explicitly calls for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution. You can read it yourself here or download a copy of it. So on a factual level, it’s certainly true. The idea of a voice has its roots in activism and idealism, not in cynical political calculation.
2. Constitutional recognition for concrete results.
This one is a little stickier. The results that are claimed under this heading are not concrete, but rather symbolic and emotional. They represent less any sort of concrete results, than they do a shift in orientation to make space for concrete results. I don’t deny that this is important, but I do not think that this claim is actually borne out by its explanation.
3. Ensure people have a better life.
This section opens with a claim that The Voice is a vehicle to deliver real improvements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and this is true. It could indeed be such a vehicle – but to extend the metaphor, that will depend on the willingness of governments to get behind the wheel and actually drive the vehicle. It less ensures anything than improves the chances of it happening.
4. Bring our country together.
No notes. Voting Yes is a powerful signal that the country as a whole is looking to the future and seeking to correct the mistakes of the past.
5. Save money.
This section’s claim is that When governments listen to people, they get better outcomes and use funding more effectively – and while I think this is broadly true, it tends to be at a finer scale than the Voice would be operating at. That said, there’s analogy here with how the Neami and VMIAC, while not perfect, have done a better job of directing funds to where they are needful precisely because, like the Voice, it is a lived experience model, and there’s ample evidence from its use in the disability sector that input from lived experience leads to better application of resources.
6. The time is now.
Voting No means nothing will change. It means accepting we can’t do better. I can’t disagree, that is a compelling argument.
7. Practical advice that works.
The claim is that the Voice can give frank advice, without getting caught up in short-term politics, and I would indeed be delighted to see it function in such a fashion.
8. Making government work better.
As with 6, above, this is really one we can only learn the truth of by trying. But it is hard to imagine that it could make government in this country work worse.
In summation, I think the Yes case is fairly strong, and the only thing I’d ding it for is making the assumption that the best case outcome is the most likely one in each case. I cannot imagine that people will not be people, that governments will not ignore the Voice when it is convenient for them to do so, that the Voice will not be politicised to at least some extent, and that the media will report it fairly. But even if all these things were to happen, it would be an error to let the perfect be the enemy of genuine improvement.