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A vote against a failed status quo

Australians have rejected division, not Indigenous peoples

A woman casts her ballot at a polling place in Sydney, Australia, on Oct. 14. Associated Press/Photo by Rick Rycroft

A vote against a failed status quo
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On Oct. 14, Australians said “No.” In a vote on whether to amend our Constitution to enshrine an “Indigenous Voice to Parliament,” the majority of voters and every state resoundingly rejected the proposal. In a divisive and, at times, vitriolic campaign, Australia had to face a difficult issue, and that is how to help our disadvantaged indigenous peoples.

The result of the referendum shows one thing clearly—Australians are not interested in the status quo. That appears to belie the reality of a “No” vote, which the latest count has at over 60 percent. However, the truth is that what the proposed amendment offered was more of the same.

For decades, Australians have watched on as Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders have tried and failed to fix the problem of disadvantage. Special bodies have been created, such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which typically resulted in power, influence, and benefit flowing to Indigenous elites while creating little change on the ground.

Aboriginal people in remote communities, who make up 25 percent of the Indigenous population, have ended up being underrepresented and not seeing results from institutions like ATSIC, even when governments gave enormous levels of funding to assist their people. And these are the very people who need help.

The idea of the “Voice” proposal was that a permanent, racially-defined body, which would have amounted to what former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called a “third chamber of parliament,” could represent the interests of Aboriginal Australians to the Federal Government. It was intended to be a key measure that would fix the frankly appalling disadvantage that 25 percent of Aboriginals face.

However, one of the great ironies of the Voice was that the leaders of the “Yes” campaign do not reside in remote communities, do not live in traditional ways, and do not face genuine disadvantage. As Gary Johns, a leading figure in this policy discussion, has argued, these leaders have all assimilated into Australia’s western culture and society, all the while leaning into their so-called “First Nations” identity.

These leaders have all benefitted from living in non-remote communities, getting a good education, and participating in mainstream Australia. And yet, a likely outcome of the Voice proposal was continuing the status quo of remote disadvantage. “Yes” leaders embraced racial identity politics and emphasized symbolic issues like “Welcome to Country,” but proposed no real solutions to real problems for their people.

Christians need to face the fact that the needy are not helped by identity politics, shallow symbolism, or racial division.

This seems to be why Australians voted overwhelmingly for “No.” It is not because Australians are racists. Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, an indigenous Australian member of parliament, emphasized this over and over in recent months. Australians have rejected a vaguely framed, racially divisive proposal that would have produced doubtful outcomes for the neediest in our nation.

How should Christians respond? I wrote previously elsewhere about the problems with the typical theological underpinnings of discussions around racial reconciliation in Australia. Along with rethinking that question, Christians ought to think hard about how to address the suffering and disadvantage many Aboriginal Australians face.

This is not easy. It’s probably the most vexed policy problem in Australian politics. A good place to start for Christians is with the words of the Apostle James: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15–16)

In short, when it comes to helping people, words don’t count for much. Symbolic practices like welcome to country, esoteric arguments about race and colonization, discussions about how many Aboriginal Australians voted “Yes”—these help no one.

Warren Mundine was right to erupt before the press on voting night and accuse them of focusing on things that don’t matter. People are dying in poverty. Children are being beaten and sexually abused. Teenagers are missing out on educational opportunities. Adults are permanently living off government welfare far from any possibility of gainful employment. These are the real problems that need addressing. This is what Christians should be focused on.

This referendum result can be interpreted as a triumph of the people over the elites, or a victory against wokeness. For Australian Christians, it is a chance to press reset on our discussions about the “least of these” in our society. Saying nice things and doing politically correct things does not help anyone.

Christians need to face the fact that the needy are not helped by identity politics, shallow symbolism, or racial division. Some have embraced these with the best of intentions. But it’s time for Christians—in every country—to support concrete solutions that truly help hurting people.

Simon Kennedy

Simon Kennedy is a research fellow at the University of Queensland and a non-resident fellow at the Danube Institute. He is also associate editor of Quadrant Magazine.

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