I would like to begin this review by acknowledging the “Yes” campaign, and I pay my respects to its tireless advocates, past, present and emerging. Across newspapers, airwaves and social media, Voice architects and cheerleaders seem to be making it a much easier decision to vote “No”.
This review appears in July’s Quadrant.
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For example, I always read or listen to Noel Pearson’s contributions to the debate with curiosity and appreciation, as I like to guess which ex-friend or persuadable set of voters he will freshly insult. Pearson, who has often played quite a talented demagogue, must be exhausting himself with all his invective of late and seems to be noticeably short on cheer. Writing in the Australian in one of his politer moments, he charged his own readership at the national broadsheet with casual racism, a strategic move unlikely to bring any fence-sitters to the cause. In the same piece, Pearson warned that the “Yes” campaign proper hasn’t even begun yet, which gives him plenty of time, I suppose, to abuse and dissuade just about every other voter in the country.
Fellow campaigner Marcia Langton has been equally hard at work. In her rare restrained moods, Professor Langton has accused those pesky requesters of detail of being—come on, have a guess—racists, of course, but of the subconscious variety, whatever that means. Though I am not a campaign strategist, I can’t imagine that her penchant for slurs will have its desired outcome: if undecided voters seeking clarity find only name-calling, they will—fingers crossed—decide to add their own names to the “No” column.
I like best Langton’s alleged threat, should the Voice campaign fail, to call off all future welcome-to-country ceremonies. Quite a few voters, I suspect, scrambled to the “No” camp upon hearing word of such a generous offer. I only wish that Langton had included acknowledgments of country, too, which occur, at the latest count, about every five minutes or so in the public service, the ABC, and any event where two or more progressives run into each other.
Incredibly, acknowledgments of country seem to have become both more frequent and interminable of late. Of course, the acknowledger bangs on, as usual, about the elders and the stolen land and whatnot, but there is now an addendum on walking beside Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, should any be present today, on this journey of listening and learning. This may well be tolerable, in moderation, but when one hears it for the fourth time in, say, a budget meeting, surely all sensible participants have to fight the urge to roll their eyes. For every superfluous acknowledgment of country, I also suspect, there are two voters sliding to the “No” side while silently groaning.
The book under review, The Voice to Parliament Handbook, I am pleased to report, also adheres to the genre I have sketched out. The authors, Thomas Mayo, attendee at the Uluru National Constitutional Convention, and former ABC journalist Kerry O’Brien, have written the pamphlet for the “Yes” side, which has the cheeky subtitle: All the Detail You Need. That detail, as well as arguments of any kind, really, is a bit thin, so the book is padded out with cartoons by Cathy Wilcox, lots of pictures and graphics, as well as QR codes for readers eager to join the campaign and continue the conversation.
In lieu of a case, the authors repeatedly offer the Voice to Parliament as a gift to non-indigenous Australians, not to be questioned, but simply accepted with a grateful smile. I wonder, though, how many undecided or soft “No” voters can be ensnared by such a tactic, especially if it is combined with such a risible effort to allay potential concerns.
As befits an honest reviewer, I should hasten to note that there are quite a few parts of the Handbook that I genuinely like. In a solo-authored chapter on what the Voice means to him, Mayo reports from the classroom, where the five-to-seven-year-olds can be more easily shaken out of their constitutional conservatism: “The children and youth of Australia seem to have an innate understanding that it is our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage that make this country unique.”
If only, he tearily adds, he could give voting rights to these primary school students, particularly the ones who wonder why a Voice wasn’t established long ago. Mayo is to be commended for drawing attention—albeit accidentally, sure—to the extent that propaganda has crept into our nation’s schools. I have a suspicion that Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine are still awaiting their invitations to stop by morning assembly and offer a balancing perspective.
I also appreciate the authors’ many helpful reminders that the Uluru Statement from the Heart is a gift to be delivered in three instalments—Voice, Treaty, Truth. For Quadrant readers, for example, jogging the memory about this potential triple whammy may even have a rallying effect, as it’s easy to imagine you all ticking the “No” box with a little extra oomph. For the might-vote-yes cohort, however, it becomes difficult to square these added complications somewhere down the track with the authors’ less than convincing and slightly desperate reassurances that there is “no mystery” to the Voice at all and the whole thing is “quite simple”, really.
Those same voters could easily get the impression that the skimpiness of detail is part of the plan. Take, for example, the authors’ repeated invocation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Australia is a signatory. The Voice, handily enough, accords with the Declaration’s call for Aboriginal self-determination with separatist institutional bodies. So there. Case closed.
Unfortunately, the authors forgot to mention a bit of detail a few paragraphs later in that UN document, which, I gather, would also be binding on the Australian government: the part that calls for reparations for colonial sins in the form of territory, resources and cash. I would posit that such detail falls under the subtitle of things one needs to know; perhaps the authors wanted to keep a few surprises in store for what the Voice might get up to on its first day of business.
Such omissions become something of a pattern in the Handbook. There is a whole chapter devoted to frequently asked questions, to which Mayo and O’Brien dish out some very unsatisfactory answers.
The question—which those naughty “No” activists keep bringing up—as to whether the Voice would possess veto power or amount to a third chamber of parliament seems to cause a bit of a tantrum for our authors. They rejoin that such a claim is “mischievous” and “discredited”, and there are the standard disclaimers about the limited scope and modesty of the Voice.
With a raised eyebrow, I went online in search of additional expertise and came across Voice designer and salesman Thomas Mayo, though on Twitter, where he’s often in more of a truth-telling frame of mind. The tweeting Thomas averred: “A politician or Party that ignores, or legislates against that collective Voice will do so at their own peril because we will be organised and ready.”
Handbook readers would remain entirely unaware that a mere advisory body would have the making of such threats on its to-do list. Mayo’s fighting words sound much tougher than a veto, I must say, which leads one to think that Anthony Albanese’s concession about only a brave parliament standing up to the Voice is quite an understatement.
In the same Twitter thread, Mayo imagined the reach and power of his ideal Voice, by which over 200 members would gather routinely “to make resolution on any matter they choose”. Against this giddiness and ambition must be set the answer in the Handbook FAQ on the Voice’s hypothetical interference in issues outside the remit of indigenous affairs: don’t be silly, the authors imply, before they nimbly move to the next topic.
Not for the first time in this debate, I admit, I have my doubts about the honesty of our interlocutors on the “Yes” side. Readers of this Handbook will only find frustration with the lack of answers to the most basic of inquiries. No, the authors intone, the Voice has nothing to do with race or its insertion in the Constitution, and they attempt to prove this by saying it over and over again, as if, by magic, it will then become true. What about the means by which constitutional recognition will transmogrify remote wastelands into desert Edens? What about the necessity of making the Voice permanent via constitutional enshrinement? I know this question causes a good deal of grouchiness, but if this is all simply about listening, why not have a legislated Voice? Finally, what—and please quit pretending there isn’t one—is the real agenda here?
Well, that’s enough questions for now: take your gift and don’t forget about the constitutionally inflexible no-returns policy.
The Handbook has been marketed as not only the most reliable source of voter information, but as a keepsake: it’s meant to sit on the shelf as a reminder of what a jolly time everyone had during the referendum. I do hope that such a tactic proves to be yet another embarrassment. At the time of writing, Voice activists are a bit gloomy, as they may have realised that a combination of fatuous arguments and guilt-tripping isn’t having a persuasive effect. Now, that doesn’t mean this pamphlet will be without its future uses: it nicely preserves a record of the mendacity and shortcomings that have characterised the “Yes” campaign, so it could serve as a required text in a political science seminar on how to lose a referendum.
Mayo and O’Brien have convinced me of one important matter, though: I share their dislike of the “No” side’s refrain, “If you don’t know, vote No”. On the contrary, if you don’t know, you should endeavour to find out. If readers dip into The Voice to Parliament Handbook for such a purpose, they may very well find their scepticism ripening into a “No” vote by the book’s conclusion. And for that, I suppose, we should show a little gratitude. It may not be in the spirit of gift-giving that the authors and the Voice campaign have in mind, but thanks very much, anyway.
The Voice to Parliament Handbook: All the Detail You Need
by Thomas Mayo & Kerry O’Brien
Hardie Grant Explore, 2023, 112 pages, $16.99
Timothy Cootes lives in Sydney and contributes frequently to Quadrant Online. He reviewed Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s Talking About a Revolution in the January-February issue.