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How I’ll vote in Albo’s referendums

Malcolm Mackerras
11 August 2022

Among its 2022 election promises the Labor Party included that there would be referendums on the “Voice” during the present (47th) term of parliament and on the “Republic” during the 48th Parliament. I hope, and expect, that the Albanese Government will proceed with the “Voice” referendum.

One of my peculiarities is that I don’t mind telling people how I vote. Thus, on May 19 (two days before polling) there was posted in Switzer Daily my article 'How I’ll be voting this federal election' in which I gave every detail of my two 2022 votes. Then I went one better and posted on my website under the heading 'Informal Senate Votes' every detail of my federal votes in July 2016, May 2019, and May 2022.

At the forthcoming referendums, I’ll be voting Yes to the Voice and No to the Republic. If the Republic referendum is preceded by a plebiscite, then I would vote against the idea of a popularly elected president. If we are to become a republic it would be far better for the politicians to choose the president.

Readers may wish to know my predictions. I expect both referendums to fail – the Republic more spectacularly than the Voice. My reasoning is based on history. Of 25 referendum proposals placed before the people by federal Labor governments only one has been carried. It took place in September 1946 in conjunction with elections that made Ben Chifley a very powerful prime minister – which power he bungled, resulting in Chifley losing to Bob Menzies in December 1949.

As originally worded the Constitution gave the Commonwealth Parliament “power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to” a number of things including “xxiii. Invalid and old age pensions”. Chifley’s referendum success added “xxiiia. The provision of maternity allowances, widows’ pensions, child endowment, unemployment, pharmaceutical, sickness and hospital benefits, medical and dental services (but not so as to authorize any form of civil conscription), benefits to students and family allowances.” That was carried in all six states.

A major difference between the Voice proposal and the Republic proposal is that the former would add just one section to the Constitution while the latter would amend about 45 sections. In effect, a republic requires a new Constitution. The question for the Voice would read something like this: “Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice?” The voter would then write YES or NO in the space provided on the ballot paper. The new section would read something like the paragraph immediately below.

“There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. That voice may make representations to parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have the power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.”

As I see it the new section would be the same in principle as the current Constitution’s section 71 which reads: “The judicial power of the Commonwealth shall be vested in a Federal Supreme Court, to be called the High Court of Australia, and in such other federal courts as the Parliament creates, and in such other courts as it invests with federal jurisdiction. The High Court shall consist of a Chief Justice, and so many other justices, not less than two, as the Parliament prescribes.”

Again, I see Labor’s new section as the same in principle as the current Constitution’s section 101 which reads: “There shall be an Inter-State Commission, with such powers of adjudication and administration as the Parliament deems necessary for the execution and maintenance, within the Commonwealth, of the provisions of this Constitution relating to trade and commerce, and of all laws made thereunder.” The only difference would be that the Inter-State Commission was never created whereas the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice would be created.

There are those who say that the referendum should not be proceeded with if there is a chance it would be defeated. I disagree. It would not matter to Labor if such were to be the result. It had kept its promise to have the referendum and the effects of the defeat would be on the head of those leading the negative case.

Among the many opinion pieces that I have read opposing this proposal the one with which I have disagreed the most was by Tony Abbott in The Australian newspaper on page 11 on Monday August 3. It was titled 'Entrenching race in the Constitution drives us further apart'. The first paragraph reads:

“I’m all in favour of recognising Indigenous people in our Constitution, but not if it means making a race-based body part of our parliament and not if it means changing our system of government. The problem with entrenching in the Constitution an Indigenous voice to the parliament is not just that it makes race an element in who can vote and who can stand for election, but also that it unavoidably changes the way our system works – because a particular group will have an unspecified say over unspecified topics with unspecified ramifications.”

In every respect, my opinion is the opposite of that. Abbott seems to think the Constitution of a country is a history of that country, so mention in our Constitution that Aborigines have lived here for sixty thousand years – to pacify them. But a country’s Constitution is not a history. It sets up a system of government. The Aboriginal leadership knows that – so the kind of recognition Abbott would want the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders would see as an insult to their people.

The basic reason why the 1967 referendum was carried out so convincingly was the combination it had within it. On the one hand, it offended no one. On the other hand, it was campaigned enthusiastically by the Aboriginal leadership. What we need today is what we had in 1967 – an amendment that enjoys the enthusiastic support of the Aboriginal leadership. We have that in the Voice – but it offends the Abbotts of this world! The kind of change designed to offend nobody would be seen as an insult to the Aboriginal people.

There are those who, like Abbott, say race should have no part to play in politics. The trouble with such a view is the fact worldwide that most advanced countries recognise First Nations peoples as holding a special place. Regrettably, I conclude that Australia will distinguish itself in a negative way by rejecting that view. It does not matter to me personally – because I am a privileged white man from stock coming entirely from the British Isles. However, I think it would be a great pity if, as I expect, we reject the idea of social inclusion as we are destined to do.

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