Right wingers and racists are celebrating this week after Australian voters overwhelmingly rejected proposals to give Indigenous people some rights.
Over 60 percent of Australian voters voted against the proposal to set up a new advisory body, The Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Not a single state voted yes in the referendum.
Padraic Gibson is an anti-racist activist and member of Solidarity, the sister organisation of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. He told Socialist Worker that the vote represented deeply entrenched racism in Australian society, but added that The Voice was never going to secure Indigenous rights.
“For the last 15 years, politicians have been saying that their policy would support the constitutional rights of Aboriginal people to get votes,” Padraic said. “In 2007, Kevin Rudd, a very conservative prime minister, promised constitutional recognition of aboriginal people.
“He did this at the same time as introducing racist policies like the Northern Territory Intervention and other policies. This meant welfare payments were no longer paid directly into the hands of indigenous people.”
He added, “The call for constitutional recognition has never come from a protest movement. It’s never been about returning lands or sovereignty. It’s not about winning more rights for Indigenous people.
“The latest referendum wasn’t about a question of aboriginal rights. It was an extremely modest proposal to set up an advisory body that the government would control.”
Australian Labour prime minister Anthony Albanese bent to racist arguments during the referendum campaign. “Albanese made fighting for Indigenous rights a part of his campaign, including saying he would fully implement Indigenous groups’ Uluru Statement from the Heart,” said Padraic.
“But once in office, Albanese put across a weak proposal that he was always apologising for. He was always saying it wouldn’t have much of an effect.
“And when he was pushed to answer whether The Voice was a step towards the signing of a treaty with Indigenous people, he denied that it was. He wanted to please the right, to say that no one had to worry about Indigenous people taking their land back.”
Padraic said that The Voice has led to some tough arguments for socialists. “The Yes campaign was very weak,” he said. “It barely mentioned the rights of Indigenous people.
“The No campaign was largely very racist and was backed by the Liberal Party and the racist One Nation Party.
“Indigenous people themselves were split over it. Some said rightly that the proposal wouldn’t advance their rights and that they wouldn’t accept tokenism. But there were also those who thought that The Voice could be a way to influence government policies or a way to push for more funding or treaties.”
“Church groups, charities and trade unions backed it. But it was never going to come close to enshrining the rights of Indigenous people. Indigenous people are still denied their civil rights, the police routinely search their homes without a warrant, and children are still taken away from their families.”
And, as Padraic explained, the no vote is still a blow that will undoubtedly lead to more racism. “It was an awful experience for Aboriginal people,” he said. “Those who campaigned on either side of the vote were subjected to awful racism.
“They were forced to hear a debate about whether they deserve to have rights at all. What we have to learn from this vote is that Indigenous rights will not be won through parliament—only through collective struggle.
“There has been a proud history of Indigenous struggle in Australia, which socialists have been part of. Winning will require much more of this.”
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