While there has been considerable discussion of the 1967 referendum that allowed the Commonwealth to make laws for Indigenous peoples and include them in the census, far less attention has been given to the more recent postal vote on marriage equality.
The 2017 postal vote — which determined that the right to marry in Australia was no longer determined by sex or gender — did not involve constitutional change, nor were its results binding. This was acutely demonstrated when two Liberal leaders, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, left the chamber rather than support their constituents when the Marriage Act was finally amended.
But there are lessons to be drawn from the campaign for the current debate on the First Nations Voice to Parliament.
The right-wing opponents of equal marriage overlap with those currently leading the No campaign, although many religious leaders who opposed same-sex marriage are now supporters of the Voice. What was less obvious in the marriage debate was opposition from the left, of the sort symbolised by independent Senator Lidia Thorpe and some Indigenous activists, who are voting against the Voice under the banner of a black sovereignty movement.
I understand the rage and despair that leads Indigenous peoples to reject the Voice as no more than another feel-good attempt to integrate them into a hostile state. I shared a similar view about same-sex marriage; like other lesbians and gay men of my generation, I was rather proud of the fact that our relationships needed the blessings of neither the state nor the church to flourish.
But whatever our views on the issue, we knew that the marriage vote was about more than simply changing the Marriage Act. The same is true of the Voice. Whatever its defects, the symbolism of a Yes vote is to support greater recognition and equality of Indigenous peoples.
This is the case made by conservatives such as Mark Speakman, New South Wales opposition leader, who said: “On balance, I think the potential rewards outweigh the potential risks.” But it is also an argument that can be made by those who feel the Voice avoids more fundamental questions of recognising Indigenous sovereignty and compensation.
The more details in a constitutional amendment, the less it can fit future situations. The current constitution includes sections such as Article 59, which gives the sovereign power to disallow any law, even after it has been passed by Parliament and signed by the governor-general.
King Charles is unlikely to act on this power, although I am certain he is aware of it. But that clause demonstrates the extent to which our constitution only works because convention and culture interpret it according to current circumstances. To insert detailed outlines of how the Voice might operate in forthcoming decades is to misunderstand the power of constitutional recognition.
The Voice provides a platform for new initiatives to the Commonwealth from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is unclear how a defeat in the referendum could make it easier for this to occur.
When the marriage postal vote was passed, it was a powerful message of support for everyone in what we now refer to as the LGBTQIA+ community, even if many of us were not interested in rushing to the altar. Many people were hurt and offended by the language used by their opponents, although the nastiness of the No campaign this time seems far more damaging. But the final vote provided huge reassurance to young people struggling to come to terms with their sexuality or gender identity.
The Yes campaign runs the danger of becoming too associated with elites, symbolised by Qantas’ high-profile support, also evident in the marriage campaign. The marriage vote was least successful in the western suburbs of Sydney. Of the 10 electorates with the highest No vote, eight were in metropolitan Sydney. And of the 10 with the highest Yes vote, five were once safe Liberal seats; now none are.
It has been claimed that supporters of marriage equality deliberately chose not to target areas with high concentrations of recent immigrants, fearing deep religious opposition. Whether true or not, it points to what should be a major concern for proponents of the Voice, namely the need to explain the history of violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples to people who may have little direct contact with mainstream media.
Surely even Indigenous leaders who have doubts about the Voice can recognise the opportunity to increase Australians’ awareness of the dark side of our history. Lining up with the most reactionary elements in the country to oppose the Voice, whatever one’s reservations, is hardly a step towards reconciliation.
This article was first published in Crikey - What the marriage equality vote can teach us about the Voice referendum
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