We’re a plain-speaking people, Australians like to tell themselves. We call a spade a spade, don’t stand on ceremony and tell it as it is. And we have no time for political correctness or bureaucratic doublespeak. So we like to think.
Except if you point out a racist is a racist, which is now the worst thing you can do in the debate over the Voice to Parliament.
Marcia Langton didn’t even call anyone racist. The operatives of News Corp — a foreign-owned media company interfering in an Australian electoral process — lied that she did. For that she was pilloried. Then it emerged that she had stated that the arguments of the No campaign ultimately break down into racism — which they do, if you consider the myth of terra nullius, the official erasure of First Peoples, as fitting the bill. But she was pilloried for that, too, not because she was wrong, but because, well, it was politically incorrect — quite literally. It was seen as a gift to the No campaign, akin to Hillary Clinton describing Trump voters as “deplorable”.
To observe that the No campaign was founded or otherwise tainted by racism is to antagonise No voters (not to mention being that horrible thing, “divisive”) and reduce the chances of convincing them to change their minds. This attack on Langton for being politically incorrect was articulated best by News Corp columnist Joe Hildebrand, who insisted that calling No voters racist (which, to repeat, Langton had not) was to deride and shame them and was self-defeating.
Not that Hildebrand — a strong Yes supporter — is exactly alone in this, by any means. Prominent political Yes supporters, including the prime minister and South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas, have been clear that No voters aren’t racist, and that calling them such isn’t helpful.
So, in a campaign riddled with both open and coded racism, pointing out racism is now — almost officially — the great unmentionable. It’s okay to express racism, but for God’s sake don’t call it that. Of the major media commentators, only Niki Savva had the moral clarity to call out this rubbish. “[S]uddenly, calling out lies and racism is disrespectful or offensive,” Savva wrote. “It is wrong not to call out racism and lies.”
And this stricture applies only to the Yes campaign. Right from the outset, No campaigners have been calling a Voice to Parliament — and, for many of them, the very idea of recognition of First Peoples — “racist”. Peter Dutton has joined in, saying the Voice would “re-racialise” Australia. The innate “racism” of a Voice to Parliament is a core argument of the No campaign, along with the claim — also eagerly amplified by Dutton — that it is part of an elite conspiracy against ordinary people.
So it’s fine to accuse the Yes campaign of being a giant elite racist plot, but please don’t point out the racism of the No campaign. (And, hey, according to many in the media, if both sides are accusing each other of racism, well, it just shows both sides need to lift the standard of debate).
The funny part is it’s the No campaign that likes to pitch itself as the politically incorrect truthtellers, the ones prepared to tell us how it really is. But it turns out it’s those flinty call-a-spade-a-shovel No types whose feelings must be carefully protected.
As they say in the classics, they can dish it out, but it seems that have a very great deal of difficulty in taking it.
This leaves the No campaign as being able to do and say whatever it likes, while the Yes campaign must tiptoe around, mind its language and generally play nice. Take Jacinta Nampijinpa Price’s comments last week describing colonisation as positive and dismissing intergenerational trauma as a myth. As Crikey argued, this opens the way to full-blown assimilation and the ending of any policy that specifically addresses First Peoples’ disadvantage. Forget Closing the Gap — any gap is simply the result of Indigenous peoples failing to take advantage of the opportunities offered by colonisation.
And, lo and behold, on the weekend News Corp’s Paul Kelly — the man who, never forget, ferociously opposed the child sexual abuse royal commission — lauded Price’s “vision” “that Indigenous peoples must be joined together in the wider nation, that they not be seen as separate, that the long-run goal must be the phasing out of separate Indigenous institutions and special policies”. Price has given cover to white reactionaries to look beyond the referendum to a broader (whiter) policy goal of erasure of First Peoples.
The Yes campaign must censor and condemn those who point out the obvious about the racism of the No arguments and tread delicately around the subject of race for fear of offending No voters, while the No campaign can peddle openly racist tropes, conspiracy theories and pursue the case for full assimilation.
If No campaigners want to avoid those hurtful charges of racism, it’s actually pretty easy. Accept the historical fact that the dispossession of First Peoples was the foundational act of the Australian state. Respect what First Peoples say about living with the reality of that continuing dispossession. Listen to what they say about the best ways to close the gap in health, educational and economic outcomes.
Tiptoeing around racism, like Basil Fawlty trying to avoid Mentioning The War, isn’t going to win the referendum. If you’re doing that, you’ve already lost. If the majority of Australians don’t want to accept the historical facts and contemporary reality of the experience of First Peoples, hoping that if you just avoid triggering their sensitive feelings for a few more weeks, all will be well, is a fantasy.
And the No campaign is already moving on to see what hard-won achievements in Indigenous policy it can roll back after defeating the referendum. In that context, pointing out its racism isn’t merely appropriate, it becomes a moral obligation.
Does the Yes campaign need to be bolder in calling out racism in the No campaign? Let us know your thoughts by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your full name to be considered for publication. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.