An Australian Referendum: “Legalized Lawlessness”

Photograph Source: Kgbo – CC BY-SA 4.0

Yes, it happened in this year of 2023, seventy-five years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. A referendum, which should never have been held, was held. The basic rights of Australia’s First People, about 3.8% of the population, were put to a national vote in a referendum where the non-Aboriginal 63+% would effectively decide whether they could have a “Voice”, a “Voice to Parliament” that would be protected by the Constitution and allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be more involved in political decision-making by advising the government on policies and projects that affect their communities. Unlike other countries with similar settler colonial histories, Australia never reached a treaty with its First People. That says a lot, to begin with. And, to end with, on 14 October, all six states said “No”, as did more than 60% of voters, thus confirming and fixing the country’s ugly self-chosen identity as a twenty-first-century settler colonial state. As Indigenous leaders pointed out, “…that people who have only been on this continent for 235 years would refuse to recognize those whose home this land has been for 60,000 and more years is beyond reason.”

The Voice is described by its Aboriginal initiators as coming from the “Uluru Statement from the Heart”, literally from the heart of the continent, and from their own hearts. In May 2017, some 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates met near Uluru for a National Convention on Constitutional Recognition, with the aim of amending the Constitution to recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Again, it’s “beyond reason”, of course, that they had to hold this meeting to talk about being recognized in the Constitution. The Statement also requested a Makarrata Commission. The Yolgnu word “Makarrata” means coming together after a struggle, and the Commission is described as the “culmination” of the Statement’s agenda, capturing “our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.” What could be more reasonable? For everyone in Australia. But it would seem that Australia does not have a society that wants this.

As for the Voice itself, the referendum question proposed by the current government was, “Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?” At least it admitted that there was no such Voice before the referendum and, afterwards, it was plainly shown such recognition of the First People is not wanted by mainstream Australia. The proposed amendments were: “There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

1) The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

2) The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers, and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.”

From the standpoint of the First People, these requests had to be made because they have no voice. But, before the referendum, the fact of their having no voice was already “beyond reason”. It’s beyond international law and the principles enshrined in conventions. Where it is perfectly logical is within the framework of settler colonialism which, first achieved by extremely violent means, now continues as cultural “assimilation”, and this means that the voice of the First People must be gagged in every area of life.

The indecency of the “beyond reason” stance of white Australia is underpinned by the fact that, as a settler colonial state in all but name, it rides roughshod over international agreements. Making “representations to Parliament and the Executive Government” is a basic right clearly stated in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives”. And Article 12 stipulates that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence”. If you don’t have a Voice, then arbitrary interference is a constant in your life, as Australia’s First People know all too well.

Moreover, several articles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Australia is now a signatory (after being, with Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, one of the four—unsurprisingly, settler colonial states—that initially voted against it) again show how the referendum was “beyond reason” because these human rights declarations establish “a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity, wellbeing and rights of the world’s indigenous peoples”. If this is not seen as reasonable, then it is suggested that, instead, all the violence of the past was right and reasonable, so there is no need for redress and, worse, it can be continued in updated forms of racism.

Here are a few points from the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

From the Preamble: Indigenous peoples “are equal to all other peoples, while recognizing the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such.”

All “peoples contribute to the diversity and richness of civilizations and cultures, which constitute the common heritage of humankind”.

All “doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust”.

Respect “for indigenous knowledge, cultures and traditional practices contributes to sustainable and equitable development and proper management of the environment”. This point is crucial now that all humankind is facing the drastic consequences of its own ecocide.

Article 5 states, “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.”

Article 8 1 stipulates, “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture”, while 8.2 says, “States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for: Any form of propaganda designed to promote or incite racial or ethnic discrimination directed against them.”

Article 18 specifies that, “Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions.”

Article 19 requires that “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.” The Voice invoked Article 19 in particular, but all the principles of all the human rights declarations and documents are relevant to what happened with the referendum of October 14, not least because human rights are supposed to be universal.

Tragically, all the violations of human rights represented by the referendum occurred right at a time when Israel is committing atrocities, war crimes amounting to genocide against Palestinians, with economic, political and weapons support from the so-called liberal democracies. The dreadfulness of Israel’s renewed, more vicious attacks on the Palestinian people (mostly children), and a kind of impotent despair over the non-presence of international rule of law and worse, contempt for its most hallowed conventions concerning genocide and crimes against humanity, are allowing other horrors in other parts of the world to sneak in under the rising bar of atrocity tolerance, especially when dressed in the doublespeak of the powers-that-be. Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty said it all. “‘When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’”

A modern Humpty Dumpty is the Australian Labor Party foreign minister, gay, Asian-born, and allegedly a “symbol for minorities and the marginalized”, Penny Wong who, in a speech to the Senate rightly denounced the Hamas attack but, ignoring Israel’s genocidal attack on the Palestinian people trotted out the usual “Israel’s right to defend itself”, and urged all sides to show “restraint”. Restraint when your children, who have grown in fear are now being slaughtered. Another “beyond reason”. But Penny ended soothingly with a rosily fake picture of Australia: “We must … preserve our uniquely harmonious multicultural character.” And she had the nerve to conclude, “It is why people come to this country.” That speech was on 16 October, two days after Australia’s First People were denied a Voice in a national referendum. Penny has a short memory. Yes, people went to Australia, in 1788, about 1,000 of them, convicts, their guards, and officers, in nine transport ships and two warships. They never went for any “multicultural character”.

They went to a penal colony. The Frontier Wars began soon after and officially lasted until 1934, though of course, since the racist foundations were well and truly laid, the violence became acceptable and it continued. That is the real constitution of modern-day Australia. It is estimated that between 2,000 and 5,500 colonists were killed. The death toll for Aboriginal people, never properly counted, is so high it’s impossible to know, but some historians judge that 60,000 Aboriginal people died in Queensland alone. Others venture that 90% of the pre-invasion population died as a result of colonial violence and imported illnesses like flu, measles, tuberculosis, and smallpox. The University of Newcastle has created an interactive map that shows the horrendous scale and nature of the many massacres that followed the invasion. Aboriginal people have been in Australia for perhaps as many as 120,000 years. At the time of colonization, they numbered, in a new high estimate of a meticulous scientific study, as many as three million, with about 260 distinct language groups. The 1929 census reported 78,430 Aboriginal people, less than 3% of the new high estimate of the preinvasion population.

This is the Australian history that has barely been taught, and this absence, or denial made a place for the White Australia Policy, the stolen generations, the infamous Northern Territory Intervention, denial of the right to vote in elections for the federal parliament until 1949, and the fact that the First People were only included in official population counts for constitutional purposes after a referendum in 1967. In 2017, according to the Human Rights Measurement Initiative, they were the most incarcerated people in the world, are at risk of torture, 93% are also in the “at risk” category for the right to health, 87% for the right to a job, 100% for the right to housing, 87% for the right to education. The Indigenous child suicide rate is six times that for non-Indigenous children. Out of all this pain, the “No” is understood by the First People, as saying, “you are not my equal. And as for your infant mortality rate, your mortality rate, your incarceration, your education, your health? Suck it up.”

Most non-Indigenous Australians are blithely unconcerned about these grave past and present human rights abuses. One reason for this is the enormous absence of the First People, created by massacres, violence, dispossession, laws, and controlling the narrative of the country’s history. I grew up on Ngadjuri land in South Australia. They were thriving there, described as healthy, well-built people, less than a hundred years before I was going to school and learning a white Australian history in which they didn’t exist. By the 1870s they’d been wiped out by dispossession of land and water, and especially smallpox. But nobody thought to change the beautiful toponyms they left behind. That was the only voice they had left and, for a child in those years, it was a loud voice in a traumatic absence that clung there in their words, but nobody talked about that in the “Lucky Country”.

The memory of past abused rights lays the foundations for the future of human rights, thus linking past and future. But the people who remember and lay the grounds for future human rights are mostly the ones who are abused. Among the abusers and non-abused, who must erase history and memory, human rights are watered down by legal abstractions, postmodern platitudes, and political abuse, aided by the media which intersperses images (maybe hard to distinguish from those of a computer game, or action film) of real human rights dramas with celebrity antics, “reality” shows, and washing soap ads. The notion of universal human rights remains safely abstract when one only fleetingly glimpses the horrors of abuse in the comfort of one’s living room.

The people of Australia voted but didn’t think of what their “No” means. It wasn’t just a “No” on one day, but a “No” added to a whole accumulation of crimes. A white Australian, who has never met or spoken with any Aboriginal person (as in most cases), blithely drops a “No” in the box. For the Kuwarra Pini Tjalkatarra elder Geraldine Hogarth, “The grief hurts so much, it’s like a knife in your heart”. But she also knows it’s a long struggle. “But we are strong, we will have our cry and we stand up again. They tried to get rid of us but we stand up and we get up.” Luke Pearson, a Gamilaroi man, says much the same. “Lastly, no matter which way it goes some mob are going to be devastated, but just remember it’s not the end, it’s just the beginning. We have a long road ahead regardless of the outcome and we need you all here with us. There will be tears and laughs and triumphs and challenges ahead”.

There’s a sad political paradox here. In Legacy of Violence (2022), Caroline Elkins shows how nineteenth-century imperialism boasted of its civilized universalism as expressed by the spread of the rule of law but, since the colonized peoples were deemed not fit to understand what this was, they were slyly shifted into some subhuman category and could therefore be subjected to what Elkin calls “legalized lawlessness”. But it’s clear that the powerful, deciding who has rights and who doesn’t, are the ones that have embraced their own form of tribalism and abandoned universalism. It’s the oppressed who really understand what the universal principle of justice is because they feel it in its absence.

If you really want to know about Australia, forget about the mainstream media, which is plummeting on the Press Freedom Index (39th of 180 countries in 2022) and despicably mendacious in all the ways needed to support the unacceptable racist status quo. Read Aboriginal writers and the Aboriginal-owned and operated media company IndigenousX. This is where you’ll find a Voice that is firmly grounded in reason, that is insisting on a commitment to universalism and justice. You will find, here, ideas that Richard Falk was expressing in his Achieving Human Rights(2009). “Of course, our future as a species depends on our far-sightedness and sense of human solidarity when it comes to human rights … Unavoidably, the vocation of human rights cannot be separated from the pursuit of justice in all domains of human existence. Human rights is ultimately about the quality of the world order as was acknowledged, but ignored, in Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized” (p.9).

To their shame, the majority of Australians showed on 14 October that they don’t give a damn about such a national or international order.