We’ve been avoiding this for 200 years. No wonder the Voice debate has turned so ugly

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Last week was a week of clarity in the debate over the Indigenous Voice to parliament. This might seem an odd judgment because the week was dominated by misreporting and false assertions. But out of that muddle emerged a clear picture of what is actually driving the debate about the referendum – and what is missing.

On the Yes side, there was a report about Indigenous leader Marcia Langton calling No voters racist. The headline was wrong: she had, in fact, said that many of the No campaign’s arguments, once you started pulling them apart, were rooted in “base racism … or just sheer stupidity”. Later, she was reported as having said, on a different occasion, that there were “hard No voters, and I am hoping they are about 20 per cent, and they are the ones spewing racism.”

Out of last week’s muddle emerged a clear picture of what is actually driving the debate about the referendum – and what is missing.

What happened next was predictable. The No campaign was outraged. The press spent much of its time also criticising Langton for another reason: because she had recklessly hurt the Yes campaign. Sure, you are going to get campaign analysis in a campaign – but was this the most important thing, the one that most demanded discussion? Consider the more obvious questions that might have come next. What might make an Indigenous leader say such things? Could it be, say, the fact that racism and racists are quite present in this campaign? Perhaps we could examine that?

Some observers noted, in passing, that Langton’s observations were presumably informed by her own experience. But what about the questions that follow: what are these experiences? What does such racism feel like? What does this say, not about Langton and the Yes campaign, but about Australia? In other words, now that we’re all paying attention, we have a choice. We could try to learn more, to go further into this issue a respected Indigenous leader had raised, or we could get stuck on the surface, in the area of abstractions, in which “racism” was just a word and not a key to actual experiences. Guess which we chose?

On the No side, shadow minister for Indigenous Australians Jacinta Nampijinpa Price said colonisation had no ongoing negative effects on Indigenous people. In fact, the effects were positive: “now we have running water, readily available food”. Asked about trauma, Price said you’d expect those descended from convicts to be suffering from such trauma too: “So I should be doubly suffering from intergenerational trauma.” For this, she received laughter from her sympathetic audience.

Price had her critics – understandably. But what was striking was that she was received on both left and right as saying things that could not usually be said. In fact, they have been said loudly and often. In 2018, Tony Abbott, who just three years before had been prime minister, said the arrival of the First Fleet was a good thing for everyone in this country, “Aboriginal people included…” Three years after that, then-prime minister Scott Morrison made a similar comparison to the one Price made: when the First Fleet arrived, “it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either”.

Until this week, the Voice debate has reflected our inability as a nation to talk properly about the place of Indigenous people and our national history.Credit: Jim Pavlidis

Both Langton and Price said things that have been said by others many times before. The difference is that in Langton’s case, the instinct on both the right and much of the left was to shut her down: such things were either untrue or could not be said. In Price’s case, there was an eager audience wanting to hear more even though they’d heard it all before. Which of course is why the Voice is so desperately needed: Indigenous people know all too well that the rest of us are willing to let Indigenous people speak some of the time. It is just that we demand the luxury of saying which people and when they should stop talking. Unsurprisingly, we are more receptive to those who tell us we do not have to worry about the past.

On the weekend, the Yes campaign released an ad that deals with the reality of Indigenous lives. A young boy asks: “Will I live as long as other Australians? Will I get to go to a good school?” The unspoken answer is “no”, not if this referendum fails. That is the concrete reality Indigenous children and their parents are facing.

The ad is good; it is also a reminder of how abstract the debate has been until now. This has been the No side’s intention: making the debate confusing and frustrating to most Australians. And it has arguably been a mistake of the Yes campaign, which until now seemed to want to avoid a reality of its own: that in politics, if you want change, you must be prepared to argue for it in concrete terms.

That said, it should hardly surprise us that both sides gravitated towards the level at which non-Indigenous Australians are most comfortable: the abstract one, in which we don’t reckon with the specific reality of Indigenous experience – a key part of which, for many Indigenous people, is racism. One of the saddest aspects of recent months has been watching organisations which declared support for the Voice deliver only in the most half-hearted fashion. Big W was making in-store announcements – until it got complaints and stopped. The AFL and NRL look unlikely to proactively campaign for the Voice during the last stages of finals, despite declared support. And shouldn’t the Yes war chest be even bigger than it is? Sometimes it can seem like support for Indigenous Australians is a mile wide and an inch thick: it stops at the first sign of resistance. But anyone paying attention to the specific historical experience of Indigenous people would know that resistance was inevitable.

The debate about the Voice has often been unedifying. It is hopelessly abstract. But none of this should be a surprise. We are finally having a conversation about Indigenous Australians, one in which Indigenous Australians are playing leading roles. We have largely avoided having such a conversation for more than 200 years. Attempting to embark upon that with a fast-approaching deadline was always going to fall far short of nuance. That is a failure a long time in the making, and one that belongs to all of us. Perhaps even more damningly: without that deadline in place, we would probably not be having any discussion at all.

Sean Kelly is an author and regular columnist. He’s a former adviser to Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

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