Why the Voice vote matters in the Pacific
Australia's Indigenous Voice referendum could also be seen as a referendum on how the nation will be perceived by its Pacific neighbours.
Australia’s Indigenous Voice referendum could also be seen as a referendum on how the nation will be perceived by its Pacific neighbours.
Pacific nations have put Australia on notice as it prepares to vote in the Indigenous Voice referendum after witnessing the bruising and often ugly campaign.
They believe Australia’s image in the Pacific is on the line when voters decide whether to recognise its First Peoples with a representative Voice to Parliament on 14 October. That’s the message delivered in strong comments from eight former Pacific leaders.
The Pacific Elders Group — comprised of former heads of state and diplomats — backed the referendum as a “first step” towards a treaty with Australia’s First Nations people and said they “pray that Australians find it in their conscience” to vote in favour of the constitutional amendment.
The Pacific has many paths to help its Indigenous populations be involved in issues important to them.
It gives Australia’s Pacific community — many of whom support the Voice — a clear vision of what closer integration of First Nations views and values can look like.
The Indigenous Voice referendum is, in some ways, a referendum on how Australia will be viewed by many within the Pacific.
Will Australia be seen as an inclusive neighbour, striving to learn from its own people? Or will it perpetuate what is seen in the Pacific as an ongoing paternalistic and privileged status quo that discounts diversity?
Already, Western countries like Australia have a contradictory relationship with the Pacific — providing funds and advice on how the region can mitigate climate change that they caused, while not doing enough themselves.
Pacific Islands states and territories receive aid from Australia — AUD$1.9 billion (USD$1.2 billion) over five years — but it’s given without considering Pacific-Indigenous perspectives and values.
Australia’s Pacific Regional development program is underpinned by three key pillars: health security, stability and economic recovery. At each turn, Western and white models of healthcare, governance and development are espoused and enacted. Pacific-Indigenous models of care, leadership and economic approaches are not incorporated into any of these pillars.
The exclusion of Pacific people who know the local context has made aid projects in the region less effective. For example, health literacy and help-seeking behaviour in Pacific communities improved once more Pacific Indigenous perspectives were included in mental health and well-being planning.
The debate around Australia’s Indigenous Voice referendum has also drawn out ugly reminders of the nation’s relationship with race. In some of the country’s most prominent media, what might be viewed by many as white hysteria and moral panic reigns.
Powerful white political figures are stoking outrage.
Former prime minister John Howard has rallied No campaigners to “maintain the rage”. Misinformation runs wild, from linking the Voice to payment of reparations to conspiracy theories about the Voice deposing the federal government.
It’s a debate burdened by what many scholars would describe as whiteness. Whiteness is the construct that a society sees only one correct way — ‘’white is right’’, ‘’west is best’’ — and sidelines diverse perspectives. When whiteness wins out, those who question the status quo risk being denigrated.
Australia’s status quo caters to a specific type of person: white, middle to upper class, cis-gendered, tertiary educated, Christian, heterosexual and able-bodied Australians.
Multicultural and faith groups in Australia have been prominent supporters of the Voice: from June 2023, more than 110 ethnic and cultural community organisations in Australia signed a joint resolution to indicate their “steadfast support” for the referendum.
There are signs the tone of the debate is taking a toll on some. The health and wellbeing of First Nations Australians is suffering from the referendum debate.
In September, Australian mental health not-for-profit Black Dog institute called on politicians to complete a “respectful referendum” pledge to be mindful and considerate of their words when debating the Voice.
The starting point for an inclusive Australia begins with First Nations communities, the traditional owners of the land. If the referendum fails, this might block progress in other areas of diversity — perpetuating an ‘‘us and them’’ binary approach to policy and practice.
Australia’s Pacific community might see the potential benefits of a more diversity-friendly approach.
If the referendum vote transcends the misinformation and toxicity of the debate leading up to it, it would challenge the perceived status quo in Australia.
Many other forms of diversity could also benefit — providing a platform for diverse voices, views and values to transform the binary approach to social structures, systems and services.
The strongest communities are shaped by the diversity of those within: they have resilient, responsive health, legal, education and welfare systems, that are tailored to meet the varied needs of the people in them.
Australia’s Voice debate needs to move beyond the fear, confusion and outrage. Failure to do this will only reinforce social norms and values that are divisive, leading to ongoing exclusion. Inclusion of diverse voices is key, and can promote better outcomes for all.
Jioji Ravulo is Professor and Chair of Social Work and Policy Studies at The University of Sydney