IPA Today

The Voice Referendum Is Not 1967

Written by
23 February 2023
Originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review

A loss or narrow victory will set back reconciliation – that’s a truth advocates of both the Yes and No side must surely be able to see.

The Yes vote in the 1967 referendum was 90.77 per cent and won a massive majority in every state.

The legislation establishing the referendum was passed unanimously by both houses of parliament and because no MP opposed it the government prepared and publicly distributed only a Yes case.

The result of the 1967 referendum, published in The Age on May 29, 1967. The Age Archives
The result of the 1967 referendum, published in The Age on May 29, 1967. The Age Archives

The 1967 referendum did two things. It deleted the prohibition on the Commonwealth making laws regarding Indigenous Australians, and it removed section 127 that declared “Aboriginal natives” would not be counted in the calculation of the population.

Contrary to popular belief, this section did not prevent Indigenous Australians being included in the census and in fact often they were. The intention of the section (as far as can be determined) was to avoid disputes between states regarding finances and parliamentary representation according to their population.

Both provisions were discriminatory and their abolition is rightly hailed as a powerful legal and symbolic statement of political and racial equality.

It would be a dignified and gracious act of the prime minister to withdraw and acknowledge it cannot proceed in the current circumstances.

That the 1967 referendum was initiated by a federal Coalition government and carried overwhelmingly overturns the common caricatures about centre-right politics in this country and the supposedly unreconstructed attitudes of 1960s Australia.

News reports on SBS TV on the 50th anniversary of the referendum mentioned Gough Whitlam, the leader of the opposition in 1967, but made no reference to either the Coalition government or Harold Holt, the Liberal prime minister who carried the referendum.

In the lead-up to the referendum radio stations played a song by Sydney band The Pogs, with the words:

“Vote Yes for Aborigines, they want to be Australians too. Vote Yes and give them rights and freedoms just like me and you. Vote Yes for Aborigines, all parties say they think you should. Vote Yes and show the world the true Australian brotherhood.” A voiceover added: “Make Aborigines Australians in every sense of the word. Write Yes in the bottom square on your ballot paper.”

The Voice referendum is not 1967.

If current trends continue, the Voice is likely to be defeated, either because it doesn’t receive nationwide support or because it doesn’t pass in a majority of states.

There’s many reasons why the Voice had ended up where it has, and those reasons will long be debated, but the reality is what’s proposed has nowhere near the support such a measure should have if it is to be as unifying as its advocates hope.

The history of referendums is that support for Yes, regardless of what’s proposed, is over time far more likely to decline than increase.

1967 wasn’t political

Even if the Voice referendum somehow does win, in all probability no more than 55 per cent of voters will support it. The creation of a distrustful minority of losing referendum voters does not bode well for the country’s future.

A “winner takes all” attitude to the referendum result, which can already been seen to be developing, is turning the vote into a political contest – which is the last thing it should be. 1967 wasn’t political.

A more considered approach from those supporting either constitutional recognition or the Voice would have ensured that any referendum proposal only proceeded on the condition it had bipartisan support.

A loss or a narrow victory for the Voice will not be good for anyone and it won’t be good for the country. A loss or narrow victory will set back reconciliation – that’s a truth that advocates of both the Yes and No side must surely be able to see.

The closest parallel in Australian history to something like the Voice referendum is the conscription plebiscites of the First World War. The trauma of both the process and their results left scars lasting a generation.

It would be a dignified and gracious act of the prime minister to withdraw the referendum and acknowledge it cannot proceed in the current circumstances.

It may be that something like this has already been discussed in the upper echelons of the government.

The fear that to do so would risk a “Kevin Rudd ETS” moment with all its political consequences is not unfounded.

But if the prime minister truly believes the success of the Voice and what it represents is as important as he says it is, that’s a risk he should willingly bear.

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John Roskam

John Roskam is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs

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