In the multitude of voices, wisdom is found or so we thought....
Tomorrow in Australia at 4.49 p.m. is the spring equinox in the southern hemisphere. After then, days south of the equator will have more light than darkness. It is a delicious moment when all seems possible. Hope springs eternal as flowers bloom and deciduous trees burst into leaf.
Even in the northern hemisphere there are predictions that are extremely bold and hopeful. Novak Djokovic’s coach has hinted that his charge intends to play until the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, when the Serbian, who is now statistically primus inter pares , will be a mere 41.
Let’s not forget Joe Biden’s belief that he can be a credible Presidential candidate next November. Maybe it is time for Rupert Murdoch, a man often accused of exerting undue influence over politicians, to convince Joe of the virtues of retirement. Murdoch, who transformed his inheritance of The Adelaide Advertiser into a worldwide media empire will be the subject of many editorials and reviews. Loathed by some, including former Australian Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, as a demonic fox who regularly raided the chicken coop of democratic principles, Rupert is lionised by others as arguably Australia’s most influential businessman of the last century.
Now at 92, Murdoch has conceded that age does weary all. He has anointed his son, Lachlan, a spritely 52 to take over the reins, and he will remain News Corporation’s Chairman Emeritus.
Back to the equinox. Saturday is a day of climactic equanimity. If only one felt the same level of calm and order about matters political. If Dickens could write an opening sentence to a contemporary “ Tale of the World’s Nations,” it may well be: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was also the most confusing and uncertain of times.”
From matters trivial to fundamental, too much seems inexplicable, if not unmanageable.
First, to what might seem to many as trivial. Can anyone explain why Christmas food is appearing on supermarket shelves in September? Loaded with enough preservative to last until Djokovic’s Los Angeles Doubles’ match, it is a culinary and cultural outrage!
Secondly, the Davis Cup. Can anyone explain why an event, uniquely rich in history, has been truncated into a ghastly footnote in the tennis calendar? Australia has qualified to play in the week-long decider in Malaga at year’s end, but who will be watching or caring? Once the emblem of the best of international tennis, it is now a ghastly and ghostly parody of its former self. Its evisceration is the equivalent of Chanel deciding to sell its iconic No.5 fragrance in plastic tumblers rather than in its time-honoured iconic art-deco glass bottles.
While Australia is among the eight teams who've qualified for the knockout finals in Malaga in November, host team Spain was not - leaving the event without the buzz of a Carlos Alcaraz-led home team. The competition's restructure over the last four years has been a source of frustration for tennis purists, with home-and-away ties replaced by week-long group stages and finals featuring multiple countries all at the same venue.
For Australians, it can only be hoped that the arrival of equinox can bring sensible balance to the current debate on amending its Constitution to provide for recognition of its indigenous people and the creation of an indigenous advisory voice to the parliament and executive government.
Regrettably, the signs are not promising.
Recent findings indicate that the literacy standards of Australia’s school students are dropping alarmingly. Quelle surprise!
As a society, we are neither pursuing nor practising either literacy or civility. The decline in the former has led to the latter. Information has been reduced to debatable snippets, not even slices of information, embodied in the insidious ‘Tik-Tok’ medium. If an issue is not capable of being understood in thirty seconds, it appears to be beyond the attention and interest of most. Shrill sloganeering, simplification and, occasionally, vilification is the methode du jour of most political debates.
Rampant social media has made it well-nigh impossible to impose any control on the quality and content of political commentary. Yeats’ “centre” finds it hard to exist, let alone hold. Everything is reduced, as seen in the referendum debate, to a facile and/or emotional “Yes” or “No.” Nuance seems a lost art.
So, in the attempts of an equinox like balance, here is my summary of the competing arguments in the Voice Debate.
THE ‘YES’ CASE
The ‘Yes’ case is based on a combination of moral necessity and practical justice.
The moral necessity is to provide overdue constitutional recognition of Australia’s indigenous people.
A constitutionally established representative body of indigenous Australians is considered a practical imperative to provide our parliament and government with the advice needed to improve nearly all aspects of indigenous living standards. Its constitutional basis will make it an important and permanent part of our system of government.
These living standards, despite the government’s launching of the ‘Closing the Gap’ programme in 2008, shortly after Australia’s national apology to indigenous people, continue to languish well behind those of non-indigenous Australians.
THE ’NO’ CASE
The ‘No’ case is based on a critique of the proposal’s effectiveness and political and constitutional objections.
Those opposed to The Voice argue that nothing has been made clear about how the Voice will operate and it risks being another bureaucracy incapable of providing effective or unified advice about indigenous policies.
Opponents of The Voice argue that the only representative voices of Australia’s democracy should be its parliaments and that no group in society should have additional constitutional rights, especially based on race. This argument has been countered by the view that the historical experience of Australia’s indigenous people justifies a special focus on overcoming their disadvantage.
Those arguing against The Voice argue that creating the body as a constitutional, rather than statutory body is fraught with difficulties. Any legal argument about the role of the Voice will only be able to be resolved by the High Court, given it is the only court that can interpret the Constitution’s meaning.
Of particular concern to opponents is what may occur if a government chooses not to act on the advice on The Voice and a legal declaration is sought that a government has acted improperly. It is argued that the High Court will become highly politicised and The Voice will become a divisive rather than unifying agency. This argument is countered by the view that the High Court has historically interpreted the meaning of sections of the Constitution without creating tumult, even when decisions have had practical political ramifications. Further, it is argued that when the Voice is created by the Parliament, sensible limits can be placed on its scope of influence.
Opponents argue, however, that the proposed role of The Voice to give advice, “on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples", delivers The Voice an unrestrained range of influence, given that very few matters do not affect indigenous Australians as citizens.
Both sides of the argument have legitimate contentions. Worryingly, recent days in Australia have, as the October 14th referendum nears, seen discussion of these matters buried under an avalanche of rhetoric, often abusive and personal.
And the likely outcome?
At the start of this year, most expected a comfortable victory for the proposal.
Now, a tight result is expected. Its outcome may see a national majority vote being frustrated by the failure of the vote to obtain a majority in four States.
The following are important factors, the influence of which are unknown and have not affected previous referendums:
-What will be the influence of social media?
-What will be the effect of a low voter turnout given recent polling has suggested that up to 10% of voters do not intend to cast their vote? Common sense suggests that a significant absence of the disinterested will bolster the ‘Yes’ vote.
-What will be the effect of pre-poll voting? Will large numbers of pre-poll votes indicate a wish for convenience, or a desire to emphatically record votes of conviction and change?
The great gift of our Constitution was that only the people, whose federal government it created, can change the explicit wording of our cardinal political document. This gift has become a confused, cranky and cynical process where voters are encouraged to adopt a partisan position and occupy their trenchant trenches. Democratic discourse has been stranded in no-man’s land. Hopes of a light-filled national debate have been eclipsed by ungenerous voices and tones of hostility. Whatever the result, the hopes for a productive national “conversation” have not been realised.
Some important information about referendums:
Australia has held 44 referendums since 1901. Only 8 have been successful.
To be successful, a referendum proposal must obtain a DOUBLE MAJORITY: a majority national vote and a majority of States supporting the proposal. A referendum can obtain a majority national vote, but if only three States support it, the proposal is lost.
Australia’s last referendum was in 1999 when Australians rejected two proposals: to change Australia’s system of government from a constitutional monarchy to a republic and to insert a new preamble into the Constitution, which would have amongst other statements, recognised Australia’s indigenous people.
Australia’s last successful referendums were in 1977 when three of four proposals were endorsed. These proposals provided that: a. High Court and all Federal Justices had to retire at 70; b. citizens of the Territories could vote in future referendums; and c. that casual vacancies in the Senate had to be filled by a replacement from the same political party as the departing Senator.
Australia’s most successful referendum was in 1967 when 90% of voters and all States supported the removal of s.127 of the Constitution which prevented indigenous Australians being counted as citizens for Census purposes and gave authority to the Federal government to make laws for indigenous people, which had previously been only the domain of State governments.
The last referendum to be successfully proposed by a Labor government was in 1946 which provided for a range of increased social welfare payments to be paid by the Commonwealth government.
Voting in referendums, as for Federal elections, is compulsory.
Voters are required to write ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on a ballot paper that outlines the proposed alteration to the Constitution.
All Australian voters receive an official statement of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ cases. In 1967, there was no official ‘No’ Case.