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Why I am voting No to the Voice Referendum

The Voice referendum seeks to establish a body in the constitution to represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for the purpose of having a greater representation of these people in matters of legislation. The two campaigns ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ have substantial reasons for why they support or oppose this referendum. However, I believe that my position has not been fairly represented in the debate (even though the polls suggest that the referendum will fail) and so I am writing this to give a new perspective of why I will be voting ‘No’ in this Referendum.

The No campaign’s arguments are commonly divided into the conservative side and the progressive side. The conservative side argues that such a piece of legislation will be racially divisive and that there is a ‘hidden agenda’ behind the push for a Voice. The progressive side argues that such legislation amounts to a powerless advisory body that will appear like progress but will actually distract from more meaningful achievements like a treaty. The Voice is then just a way for politicians to feel good about furthering the rights of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders but really does nothing to actually change anything.

While I am much more sympathetic to the progressive arguments, I actually believe that the level of criticism the progressives have made around this whole debate hasn’t gone far enough. This is probably because many progressives have back-flipped on the issue of the referendum initially opposing it for similar reasons as Senator Lidia Thorpe, but now back the ‘Yes’ campaign simply to oppose the “racism” of the conservative arguments. This has made so-called ‘revolutionary’ groups like the Victorian Socialists extremely reactionary.

I wish to offer a much deeper critique of the entire debate and explain why both sides of the debate are still trapped in a thoroughly philosophically liberal framework about how to address the issues of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The use of the term ‘liberal’ here should not be confused with the Liberal party. Philosophical liberalism is a political philosophy that emphasises the purpose of a political community is merely the establishment of political rights and civic freedoms. Nearly all political parties in Australia are philosophically liberal but to different degrees. The Liberal party are generally classical liberals, the ALP are generally neoliberals, the Greens are egalitarian liberals, and parties like the Liberal Democrats are libertarians. These are all dominant branches of political liberalism.

There are two main problems with liberalism as a framework for this entire debate. The first is that meaningful progress can only be framed in terms of political rights, and the second is that the political community must take a position of neutrality to conceptions of ‘The Good’. Some of the progressive arguments hint at the first problem. They argue that the whole Voice is really an exercise of meaningless ‘rights talk’, but then they fall back to promoting different kinds of political rights as more meaningful such as a treaty or land sovereignty. The conservative arguments agree that the framework is about rights, but they say that rights that single out a particular race or group of people are divisive or exclusionary and that we should focus on those political rights that all can share. They both can only see meaningful progress in terms of political rights.

What if we get rid of this whole framework, and instead see progress in terms of being able to live good lives? The problem is that liberalism is committed to a sense of neutrality as to what a good life looks like. It cannot promote a particular conception of a good life as being ‘better’ than another because that would violate the civic liberty of people being able to choose what the ‘good life’ looks like for each individual. However, what if we just ditched the whole liberal framework, where would we start?

First, we should start off by saying that the purpose of a political community is for the sake of collectively pursuing the ‘good life’ or the excellence of living. Such a starting point would entail that we have a unified conception of what the good life looks like or what allows someone to live in a more excellent way. Well, we can see that there are certain goods that correspond to aspects of human life that help us to live more excellently. The first and primary ones are those that sustain our ability to live such as food, water, and shelter. Then there are those that allow us to remain healthy such as medicine and healthcare. There are those that accord with those unique characteristics of human life such as socialising, the pursuit of reason and truth, recreation, religion, personal virtue, and excellence in a particular craft, activity or profession, etc. Achieving these goods allows someone to live a more ‘excellent life’ and the purpose of a society is to collectively pursue these goods. I believe that this framework is a much better framework for addressing the issues of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

It is clear to anyone that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not achieving these goods to the same degree as other people in Australia, and the classic approach by philosophical liberals is to either throw more money at the situation or insist on providing more rights or resolving different forms of ‘institutional injustice’ against them. However, both of these methods address secondary issues that don’t truly resolve the primary problems of achieving these goods of excellent living. Giving Aboriginal communities more money doesn’t actually provide them with these foundational goods, it only provides a potential means of getting these goods. However, these means can also be used for other things that don’t contribute to an excellence of living. The liberal view of neutrality is what is causing them to focus on a neutral means of money rather than a specific focus on providing particular goods. The insistence on more and more rights to resolve ‘institutional injustice’ is really admitting that there are reasonable consequences for people not being able to live excellent lives and only seeks to address the consequences rather than the causes.

So, why does this framework lead me to vote ‘No’ at the upcoming Referendum? Surely such a syndicate body can help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people better express and represent their need for these goods. Unfortunately, this will unlikely be the case while these issues are still being framed by a liberal framework. This is not a serious body to address the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but merely an advisory board that will distract us from a more meaningful change. A change in political philosophy away from liberalism towards one that can help us live more excellent lives. All this advisory body will do is further cement liberalism as a way of “resolving” these issues. Rejecting this Voice will hopefully shift the framework away from liberalism as the solution towards a better alternative.

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