The failure of Australia’s race referendum is a victory for sanity

The failure of Australia’s race referendum is a victory for sanity

It’s difficult to spoil an Australian election. And by spoil, I don’t mean “undermine its fairness”. I mean its public appearance and role in the country’s civic life. 


Voting in in all elections – including referendums – is compulsory. Australians vote a lot and are an unusually well-informed electorate. Elections, always held on a Saturday, are beautiful, carnivalesque celebrations of democracy. Australians stream out of their houses and workplaces, buy snacks (including the famous “democracy sausage”) and drinks at polling places, collect glossy how-to-vote cards – advisory only – from booth-workers who stand outside and represent different political parties, and then vote in a spirit of general bonhomie.

Saturday’s referendum on whether “to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice” came the closest I’ve seen to compromising that distinctive and rather lovely tradition. No-one chatted in the long line outside Australia House on the Strand as I queued up to vote, while friends voting in Oz complained the atmosphere at their local polling place was grim. “I want this to be over,” said one. “It’s ruining race-relations in this country.”

That said, given this was the first time Australia’s extraordinary electoral arrangements had been put to the test over a divisive, culture war issue, the system itself passed with flying colours. By way of background, it’s important to remember how the country protected itself from bad behaviour during 2017’s same-sex marriage plebiscite. 

Peter Dutton (now leader of the opposition, but then a government minister) arranged for the gay marriage poll to be conducted entirely remotely, by post. Long before Covid, Australians were doing things from home. At the time I was annoyed at his lack of faith in the electorate, and I’m pleased to report there were no – so far as I’m aware, we’re all still in the fog of electoral fallout – punch-ups at polling places over the Voice.

The process, however, has left the country bitterly divided. 

Australia is a proud constitutional bowerbird. A Westminster system with a bicameral parliament, yes, but the country also enshrines a federalism so intense it shocks many Americans. Australia also – when developing its constitutional arrangements in the late 19th century – copied the Swiss in changing its founding document.

Section 128 provides that the Constitution can only be amended by referendum. It also requires a “double majority”: a majority of the total population plus a majority in at least four of the six states. The two territories also vote, but their ballots only go towards the national total.

Saturday’s proposed amendment to the Constitution would have added the following Chapter and section:

“Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice

In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:


(1) there shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;

(2) the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;

(3) the Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.”

When first proposed in September last year, support for the Voice polled between 60 and 70 per cent. Labor PM Anthony Albanese thought he was onto a winner. 

However, as time passed, support drained away, cratering on Saturday to below 40 per cent. Some of this was Albanese’s (and Labor’s) fault: they took control of the campaign and micromanaged it to suit themselves, most notably by abandoning any idea of a constitutional convention or bipartisan parliamentary process. Labor also refused to disclose the architecture for the voice: that is, set out how it would function post-referendum. 

As public support drained away, the Yes campaign began to reek of condescension. It seemed to believe anyone not convinced was a cretin. Since the result on Saturday evening, this petulance has become worse: there’s talk of disinformation, forgetting that by the end of the campaign, Yes were condemning every argument against the Voice not merely as wrong but as deliberate duplicity.

However, the bulk of the failure has roots in the fact that the Voice – if passed into law – looked like awarding a group of people political rights based on their race. 

Aware that this was No’s strongest argument, Yes tried to rebut it by pointing out that there is only one human race, which means distinctions based on race can’t exist. The distinction, Yes claimed, is one only of ancestry, and refers to “inherent rights Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples hold as the original inhabitants of the Australian continent.”

Lawyers call this sort of argument “trivially true”. Biological race does not exist among humans. We are not genetically distinct enough. Chimpanzees possess biological race (biologists use the term “sub-species”). Humans don’t. However, Aboriginal ancestry in even tiny amounts stands out in a 23andMe test. The Yes claim that the Voice wasn’t conferring rights based on race thus looked like prestidigitation. Descent from the First Peoples of Australia (a real thing) was being used to draw distinctions between groups in the same way that nineteenth century racists drew distinctions based on race (not a real thing). 

It also led to a situation where people who voted against a proposed law intended to distinguish between groups of Australians based on ancestry and cultural practice were accused of racism. I’m afraid those who support race-based policies designed to ameliorate “structural disadvantage” or “inequity” – of which the Voice is one – need to understand that to most people, they just look like more racism. 


Meanwhile, as Chief Justice John Roberts of the US Supreme Court has noted, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

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Written by Politixia


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