Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 8 August 2023


Australia Asks Voters to Expand a Racial Welfare State

The referendum to give indigenous people a special ‘voice’ would only worsen disparities.

Aug. 8, 2023 5:17 pm ET

Supporters hold placards in support of the Australian Indigenous Voice referendum, in Sydney, Australia, July 2. PHOTO: BIANCA DE MARCHI/ZUMA PRESS


The social-justice debate that has been roiling our politics in recent years is hardly unique to the U.S. At an academic conference in the U.K. this year, I heard all the same references to “systemic racism,” “unconscious bias” and “white privilege” that now dot our stateside discussions. The only difference was the accents.

Turns out, these conversations are taking place not only on the other side of the Atlantic but also on the other side of the world. You can’t visit Australia these days without hearing about the Australian Indigenous Voice referendum. After Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, leader of the center-left Labor Party, was elected last year, he promised to push for a ballot initiative amending the constitution to give indigenous Australians—and only them—a special “voice to parliament.” In June a law that would alter the constitution was approved by the Parliament, triggering a nationwide vote due to be held before the end of the year.

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It’s difficult not to sympathize with the socioeconomic plight of aboriginal Australians. A 2016 report by the Australian Broadcasting Corp., the state news agency, noted that suicide rates in some indigenous communities are “among the worst in the world.” In one West Australian community 80% of the 125 suicides were indigenous people. Seventy-one percent of them were men, more than half of whom were under 30 and more than a quarter of whom were teenagers.

Aboriginal Australians are only about 3% of the country’s inhabitants yet are roughly 15% of its homicide victims and more than a quarter of its prison inmates. Writing in the current issue of Quadrant, an Australian monthly, Peter Purcell noted that in far too many aboriginal communities, domestic violence and child abuse are endemic. “Adult fighting among both men and women is common, as are clashes between families armed with machetes, crowbars and bats,” he wrote. “Daylight home invasions, vehicle theft, property damage and physical violence are the daily experience for townspeople.” In Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory that is home to the highest proportion of indigenous residents in the country, children as young as 5 can be found roaming the streets at night, “many drinking alcohol—including hand sanitizer—in soft drinks, or sniffing glue or petrol.”

The dozens of indigenous and non-indigenous Australians I spoke with during my weeklong visit weren’t indifferent to or unaware of these horrors. Still, the Voice referendum, based on current polling, is expected to fail, and some are now calling for Mr. Albanese to abandon the effort. Proponents must garner a majority of the total vote nationwide and a majority of the vote in four of the country’s six states. Earlier this year, it looked as if support would be relatively strong and bipartisan, but July surveys showed that enthusiasm among Labor and opposition voters alike had faded.

Part of the problem is the studied vagueness of the referendum’s language, which gives the impression that Mr. Albanese and his allies have something to hide. Australia already has an indigenous affairs minister, and aboriginal Australians won the right to vote in 1962. What, precisely, does enshrining an indigenous voice to Parliament in the constitution mean in practice? How can the government give a special voice to one racial group without necessarily diminishing other voices? Indian-Australians are the fastest-growing minority. Do they deserve constitutionally embedded special rights as well?

Supporters of the referendum can’t or won’t answer these questions. They say the details will be fleshed out at some future date and accuse skeptics of having ulterior motives. “While it is not true to say that every Australian who votes No in the Voice referendum is a racist,” said veteran Australian journalist Niki Savva, “you can bet your bottom dollar that every racist will vote No.”

Advocates speak of “historical injustices” and “reconciliation” with the same frequency and fervor of black and Native American activists in the U.S., but much of the harm being done to these communities is self-inflicted. In his essay, Mr. Purcell wrote that some 70% of aboriginal Australians in jail “are there for crimes of violence against their loved ones.” For many in the No camp, it’s not clear how a successful referendum would help close the gap in outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

Australia already spends billions of dollars annually on indigenous welfare programs. If a greater “voice” for the indigenous population simply translates into more government lucre for politically connected tribal elders and aboriginal elites in urban areas—which is the track record of racial preferences for minorities in countries all over the world—the result may well be wider social and economic disparities for everyday indigenous Australians. Worse, it will further subsidize antisocial behavior and thereby retard the development of attitudes, habits and skills that facilitate upward mobility.

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