In April this year, following news reports of Aboriginal youths in Alice Springs rioting and beating up bystanders, the polls for Yes votes in the Voice referendum turned sharply downwards. They continued in that direction throughout May. In an apparently united response, two of the most influential intellectual advocates of this long-term political campaign, historian Henry Reynolds and academic Marcia Langton, made similar public statements. If the No vote was victorious, they said, there would be violence in the streets. Reynolds wrote in an article in the Australian on May 3:
Defeat will have wide and serious ramifications. If the referendum goes down it will be one of the most consequential events in the fraught history of relations between the First Nations and the wider community … If the referendum is lost, a new, younger generation may return to the streets with campaigns of direct action.
He predicted that another response would be appeals to the United Nations in Geneva and New York where Australia would find it “had few friends in the erstwhile colonial world”.
Marcia Langton’s response was much the same. A report also in the May 3 edition of the Australian quoted Langton blaming “poverty and exclusion from the economy” as the cause of youth riots in the huge desert areas of Western Australia. “Unless we [the Voice] do something for that area,” she said, “we will have something like an intifada.”
This column appears in Quadrant‘s just-released October edition
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This is serious stuff. An “intifada” is an Arab term for a political uprising. In recent memory, the term was most used to describe intifadas of a very violent kind when Palestinian terrorists attacked Israeli troops and civilians from 1987 to 1993 and from 2000 to 2005. In the second of these uprisings, Palestinians resorted to suicide bombings of civilians. There was a heavy Israeli military response. Overall, the violence caused the deaths of approximately 3000 Palestinians and 1000 Israelis, as well as sixty-four foreigners.
Now, Langton and Reynolds have no fan base of angry teenage youths who might do what they want. Neither of them lecture undergraduates anymore, and the most they could hope for is that their message makes its way through other channels to youths who might take up the call. At most, what they are expressing is what they wish would happen. What they are actually revealing is the degree of hatred they have for the country that has given them all they have.
Down among the younger activists, there are some who actually do compare their position to that of the Palestinians. In 2015, a spokesman for the group Warriors for Aboriginal Resistance, Callum Clayton-Dixon, declared:
Like the Palestinians, Aborigines are an occupied people. Like Israel, Australia is an illegal settler state occupying another people’s land by force. Once we realise these truths, our whole outlook changes—“Australia” is no longer our point of reference in any shape or form.
However, apart from a small number of demonstrations that gridlocked Melbourne city traffic on Friday afternoons, the so-called warriors have not ignited much resistance. Nor have they expressed much anger or fury about the likely loss by the Voice this month.
In 2017, when PM Malcolm Turnbull rejected the Voice proposal, there was no subsequent violence in the streets or anger in the media. Turnbull rejected any concessions that would have privileged Aboriginal people, saying: “all of our national institutions should be open to all Australians, regardless of their race”. There was no great public reaction then or anything resembling an intifada.
Other attempts at this kind of ethnic blackmail have long been a feature of the campaign for constitutional change, so far to no avail. Two members of the “expert panel” appointed by Julia Gillard in 2011 to recognise Aborigines in the Constitution, Marcia Langton and Megan Davis, tried hard to shame Australians into doing what the pair wanted. In an op-ed piece for the Australian on January 21, 2012, they claimed Australia needed constitutional change because there were “racist provisions” in its Constitution which, if not removed, “the loss would brand Australians to the world as racists, and self-consciously and deliberately so”.
However, as a Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of New South Wales, Davis must have known that the only mentions of the word “race” in the Constitution with any connection to Aborigines are in Section 25, designed to prevent states from miscounting Aborigines in elections, and Section 51 (xxvi) which allows the Commonwealth to make laws for “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”. This was a constitutional amendment made in 1967 after Aboriginal lobbyists secured a 91 per cent win for their Yes vote. Until then, all laws on matters relevant to Aborigines were the prerogative of the states. The 1967 amendment’s mention of the word “race” has nothing “racist” about it. All the instrumentalities created by the Commonwealth since 1967, including the myriad of indigenous-only bureaucracies in welfare, health, housing, education and land rights, depend for their existence on the constitutional change made then.
The most likely response to the defeat of the Yes case on October 14 will be what Henry Reynolds predicted above, that is, the Aboriginal political class will renew appeals to the international arena, especially through the United Nations in Geneva and New York. At present, with the state of political and historical debate in both academia and popular culture in the US and UK about the colonisation by settler societies of the Americas and the Pacific, Australia would indeed find, at least in the auditoriums of the UN, it “had few friends in the erstwhile colonial world”.
In the short term, this might be so. Given the appalling historical rubbish now produced by universities in all English-speaking countries, Australians abroad will find they are regarded in “progressive” cultural circles as members of a pariah state, much like South Africa once was. Readers who doubt things are this bad should listen to the speeches of Senator Lidia Thorpe. She gets her ideas, and her unbending confidence, from the anti-settler-society radicals who now preach like her in local university lecture theatres.
The New Zealand Labour government of Jacinda Ardern did its best to support this dishonest interpretation of history by caving in to the political demands of the most radical of its Maori activists. In its support for constitutional change for the Voice, the Albanese government has been running Australia down the same slippery slope. Hopefully, a defeat of the Yes case on October 14 will dampen the enthusiasm of its proponents, but it would be naive to imagine their demands will come to a sudden halt.
Fortunately, 2023 has seen the publication of Nigel Biggar’s powerful defence of the British Empire’s role in civilising and modernising those countries lucky enough to have come under its rule. Quadrant’s May edition this year led with an impressive review by Sydney lawyer Matthew White of Biggar’s Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning. The response from readers was so good we also led our June edition with another review of Biggar, by Saul Kelly, an English historian at King’s College, London. The culture wars in the education system and the media and entertainment industries at last have an adversary too powerful for them to discount.
Since most of the contest for political ideas in Australia in the post-referendum period will be fought out in such a return to the culture and history wars, let me finish with the ambitions behind the Voice and what is really at stake. In Quadrant’s special edition in August, the methods and objectives of the Voice were summarised succinctly and accurately by Michael Green, who wrote:
Make no mistake, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is about creating a constitutionally enshrined indigenous representative body and the supporting governance structures that would amount to a de facto government for a quasi-independent indigenous nation that would have a treaty-governed, co-governance relationship with the Commonwealth of Australia. This referendum is about the very foundations of Australia. Aboriginal leaders know it, and Albanese pretends otherwise. Dutton and his Liberals need to wake up. Albanese is proposing a revolution.