The politics of Australia’s Failed Constitutional Referendum for First Nations Recognition
by Peter Boyle

[On October 14, 2023, a constitutional referendum was carried out across Australia on the following proposal: “To alter the Constitution to recognize the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice [a representative body]”. The proposal was rejected. Comrade Peter Boyle, a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive and has been an activist for First Nations rights since the early 1970s explains what the referendum meant for the First Nations people of Australia and why it failed to materialise]

Most First Nations people in Australia (who comprise 3% of the population) would have felt the result of the October 14 constitutional referendum as a slap in the face.

An extremely modest proposal for token federal constitutional recognition and a First Nations advisory body was voted down in every state and territory, except the Australian Capital Territory.

However, nearly all previous constitutional referendums have failed and the result of this referendum was predicted by all the polls in the lead-up to this referendum. So the result was not a surprise.

The polls also showed that the Yes campaign started up with close to 60% of the vote, but steadily fell to less than 40%, demonstrating that the Yes side lost ground over the course of the campaign.

The conservative No campaign played to fear, ignorance and entrenched racism from the start. The steady decline of support for Yes, despite a multi-million dollar campaign from many of the largest corporations, cannot be entirely explained by the conservative No campaign, racist and dishonest as it was.

The Yes campaign was initiated and designed by conservative First Nations “leaders” to be minimalist and conservative in the hope of getting the support of the major capitalist parties of government, which it failed to get. Consequently, its arguments were contradictory and its promises did not match its minimalist proposals.

It proposed token federal constitutional recognition (already inserted into every state constitution over the last few years) and the establishment of a First Nation’s advisory body which was somehow supposed to close the yawning gap on income, health, employment and other social conditions between First Nations communities and the rest of the population.

The First Nations average life expectancy is 9 years shorter for males and 8 years for females, unemployment is more than twice as high, average indigenous household incomes are more than 20% lower and First Nations people are 17.3 times more likely to be arrested than non-Indigenous people. The over-representation of First Nations people in prisons flows on to higher rates of indigenous deaths in police and prison custody.

Clearly it would take much more than a First Nations advisory body, which governments could still ignore, to close this gap.

On the other hand, many of the most militant First Nations activists argued for a progressive No vote, based on demands for sovereignty, truth telling, treaties and rights-based measures to close the gap between First Nations communities and the rest of the population. These militants have mobilised tens of thousands of mostly younger people in numerous and growing demonstrations against Black deaths in custody and to recognise January 26 (the official “Australia Day” commemorating British colonisation in 1788) as Invasion Day.

The militants argued that a new First Nations advisory body, bureaucratically dominated by self-appointed conservative First Nations "leaders", could be used to demobilise grassroots struggles for real First Nations rights.

Meanwhile, the Yes campaign was sponsored and funded by some of the biggest corporations, including the biggest mining companies (including Rio Tinto, which continues to destroy indigenous heritage sites), the biggest banks, the telecommunications companies and the retail oligopolies. 

Revealingly, Noel Pearson, a leader of the Yes campaign, told the elite King’s School in Sydney, just before referendum day: “Frankly, the voice is a proposal so pathetically understated that I’m amazed most Indigenous people are settling for it. After all, I helped design it as something so modest that no reasonable non-Indigenous Australian could reject it. More fool me.”

Pearson admitted that he had devised the proposal in discussion with conservative former Liberal prime minister John Howard and spent all his energy trying to win the support of conservatives.

Until recently, Pearson was the darling of the right. Pearson became famous for attacking the left for allegedly “inculcating a sense of victimhood” in First Nations people and making them dependent on welfare. Not surprisingly, he was feted and given platforms and funds by the right and their media empires.

Another conservative leader of the Yes campaign was Marcia Langton, who has continued to disgrace herself even after October 14 by attacking militant First Nations activists for supporting the Palestinian people amidst Israel’s latest genocidal war on Gaza.

First Nations people in Australia are right to feel like they have been kicked around like a political football by the major parties and the corporate interests they loyally serve.

Liberal leader Peter Dutton’s naked appeal to racism was despicable, but Labor’s decision to proceed with a campaign that was tailored to succeeding only with bipartisan support deserves deeper scrutiny.

Internal Labor party polling must have shown that the referendum would fail, yet Labor persisted with it, ostensibly as costly “proof” that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese “keeps his election promises”.

Albanese also promised to implement the Statement From The Heart agenda in full; we will see if his government now proceeds with Treaty and Truth-telling.

However, his government does not deserve the confidence of First Nations people because, even as it was promising to close the gap, his own ministers were supporting mining company interests against the objections of local First Nations communities.

During the Voice campaign, the Queensland Labor government legalised the incarceration of (mainly Indigenous) youth in adult lock-ups and the Western Australian Labor government back-flipped on Indigenous heritage protection laws it made after Rio Tinto legally destroyed the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters.

Recognising that most of the people supporting the Yes campaign were motivated by solidarity with First Nations people, the Socialist Alliance and other socialist groups took a critical Yes position in the referendum, while sharing and voicing the skepticism by the militants in the progressive No camp about what an unlikely Yes win could achieve.

After October 14, the socialist left acknowledged the sadness and anger in First Nations communities which in large majority had voted Yes.

Independent First Nations Senator Lidia Thorpe  - a prominent progressive No campaigner - said after the referendum, the movement needs to look forward.

“To all the grassroots mob, activists, and allies who have built up networks, Yes or No, in the name of advancing the rights of First Peoples: We must look beyond the division that the referendum has caused and come together to demand the justice necessary to rebuild, and nurture the strength and power of our communities.

“Do not let this be the last time you engage with our struggle. Pour your time, energy and passion into understanding our history and Lore, amplifying our voices and standing with our grassroots communities.

“We must continue to pressure the federal government to begin Treaty-making, implement the [United Nations] Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people and implement in full the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Bringing Them Home report that have been ignored for decades.”

The referendum results had a silver lining: they confirmed significant minority support for the ongoing struggle for First Nations rights especially among younger people.

Conservative ideas dominate most of the time under capitalism, because the ruling class has ample means to keep people depoliticised, confused and divided.

However, minorities can swiftly turn into majorities, especially if they are on the right side of history.

“Don’t agonise, organise!” should be our catch cry.

Politics of Australia’s Failed Constitutional Referendum