The Voice to Parliament debate shouldn’t centre on race, urged Australia’s race discrimination commissioner, saying that this will encourage racists and expose Indigenous Australians to abuse and demonization.
After a contentious debate in parliament last week, during which Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said the Voice would “re-racialize” Australia, Commissioner Chin Tan stated in an interview that politicians, in particular, had a responsibility to make sure the discussion did not devolve into a “racial bun fight.”
Tan expressed concern that the topic would become more racially charged.
“To me, that is usually a warning sign. It’s never okay because it leads to something else and encourages individuals to travel in ways they shouldn’t.
Tan avoided explicitly addressing Dutton’s remarks or his speech on the Constitutional Amendment Bill, in which the Liberal leader criticized the Voice for irrevocably dividing Australia along racial lines and making Indigenous Australians “more equal” than non-Indigenous Australians.
He disapproved of some of Dutton’s main points, however, and made a general appeal for “obvious reflection, particularly by our leaders, about what they are saying and how they say it,” contending that no one should be “in danger of being attacked, vilified, and stereotyped… because of who they are.”
“The referendum by itself, from my perspective, from a human rights perspective, and a jurisprudence point of view, is not about a race issue and ought not to be,” he claimed.
However, it will depend on how we describe it and advertise it.
He asserted that the idea was not about giving one group of people privileges at the price of another but rather about enhancing rights of the Indigenous people to actively participate in the nation’s democracy and that the “Voice in itself is not racist and it does not racialize Australia.”
Tan’s viewpoint, however, is in stark contrast to that of his coworker, Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay, who claims the proposed change “inserts race into the Australian Constitution in a way that undermines the foundational human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination” — a claim that has been refuted by five of her predecessors in the position.
Despite this division, the Voice to Parliament has received official support from the Australian Human Rights Commission, which comprises seven commissioners, as compliant with human rights norms.
Until last week, Dutton’s complaints against the Voice have centred on the risks to the law and the lack of specifics on how the organization would function. In doing so, he continues the tradition of prominent No campaigners Warren Mundine and CLP senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who have long advanced arguments along the same lines.
In contrast, senior Voice campaigner Megan Davis asked all politicians and leaders to be “fair and decent” in the discussion. At the same time, Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney accused Dutton of “taking the low road” and used his speech to spread false information about the Voice.
When contacted for reaction, Dutton’s office cited remarks he made last week in which he refuted Burney’s assertions and accused the Yes camp of “shouting at Australians [and] telling them that they are somehow racist because they don’t support the Voice.”
Kerrynne Liddle, the lone Indigenous senator for the Liberal Party, claimed that she agreed with her leader that the Voice would racially divide the nation because it involved enshrining a new body in the Constitution “based on a characteristic of a particular cohort”.
Dutton was “stating a perspective that I’m entirely comfortable with,” according to Liddle, an Arrente woman who opposes the Voice and is the coordinator of a recently created “Liberals for No” group.
Liddle declared, “I simply want to be clear: my view is Peter Dutton’s position.
She attributed the deteriorating tone of the national discussion to the Yes camp and claimed that non-Indigenous people were also suffering as a result. She claimed that individuals were hesitant to voice their worries about the Voice for fear of receiving negative attention from the public.
What would happen to them if they raised concerns? “It would take a courageous person to work for one of those organizations – be it part of a club or be part of a sporting group – that has come out so publicly and aggressively and said we support this,” Liddle remarked.
Liddle cited Voice architect Noel Pearson’s personal attack on Indigenous leader Mick Gooda earlier this month, in which he called the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner a “bed-wetter” after Gooda expressed his concerns that the referendum might not pass and called for compromise on the bill.
According to Liddle, “We should live in a healthy democracy, and attacking people simply because you disagree with them is not indicative of a healthy discussion or healthy debate or in the interests of anyone.”
The parliamentary discussion, which will continue this week in the lower house, has coincided with a broader conversation about the damage that racial animosity can do. This is because veteran Indigenous journalist Stan Grant resigned from host position of the ABC’s Q+A after receiving a barrage of racist remarks regarding his participation in the broadcaster’s coverage of King Charles III’s coronation.
Currently serving as the elder-in-residence at public broadcaster SBS, Widjabul-Wiyebal woman Rhoda Roberts said “high levels” of racism and lateral violence had always surrounded discussions of First Nations rights and advancement. She welcomed the current focus on how that environment affects journalists and Aboriginal communities.
“Most of the time, we forge through on our own, internalizing a lot of the resentment and jealousy directed at us, so we develop a thick skin. But sometimes it’s not enough,” she remarked.
As the referendum debate heats up, the First People’s Assembly of Victoria, which backs the Voice, stated last week that it was preparing for an increase in online racial hatred and has blocked nearly 300 people who had posted racist comments on its Facebook posts.
Racial abuse was observed throughout the Voice to Parliament Twitter debate on both sides, according to a research. However, there was overwhelmingly more hate speech in the tweets in support of the No side, which contained twice as much abusive language.