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Australia’s race discrimination commissioner has appealed to political leaders and the media to steer clear of making race the focus of the Voice to parliament debate, warning it will embolden racists and expose Indigenous Australians to abuse and vilification.
In an interview after an emotive debate in parliament last week, in which Opposition Leader Peter Dutton declared the Voice would “re-racialise” Australia, Commissioner Chin Tan said politicians in particular had a responsibility to ensure debate did not become a “racial bun fight”.
Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan implored political leaders and the media to avoid racialising the Voice debate.Credit: Eddie Jim
“The concern I have is when the debate degenerates into a more racialised discussion,” Tan said.
“That, for me, is always a dangerous sign. It’s always never acceptable because it leads to something else, and it gives confidence to people to embark on a journey which they ought not to.”
Tan did not directly address his comments at Dutton or his speech on the Constitution alteration bill, in which the Liberal leader denounced the Voice as something that would permanently divide the country by race and make Indigenous Australians “more equal” than non-Indigenous Australians.
But he disagreed with key tenets of Dutton’s arguments and issued a general call for a “very clear reflection, particularly by our leaders, about what they are saying and how they say it”, arguing people should “not be in danger of being attacked, vilified and stereotyped … because of who they are”.
“The referendum by itself, from my perspective, from a human rights perspective, and from the jurisprudence point of view, is not about a race issue and ought not to be,” he said. “But it will be by the way we characterise [it], it will be by the way we promote it.”
He said the “Voice in itself is not racist and it does not racialise Australia”, arguing instead the proposal was not about granting one group of people rights at the expense of another, but about elevating the rights of Indigenous people to participate in the nation’s democracy.
But Tan’s perspective is at sharp odds with that of his colleague, Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay, who has argued the proposed change “inserts race into the Australian Constitution in a way that undermines the foundational human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination” – a view which has been rejected by five of her predecessors in the role.
Despite this split, the Australian Human Rights Commission, which comprises seven commissioners, has formally endorsed the Voice to parliament as consistent with human rights principles.
Until last week, Dutton’s criticisms of the Voice had focused on the legal risks and the lack of detail about how the body would operate. His decision to frame his opposition in terms of racial inequality follows in the footsteps of the leading No campaigners Warren Mundine and CLP senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who have long made similar arguments.
Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney accused Dutton of “taking the low road” and using his speech to amplify misinformation about the Voice, while leading Voice campaigner Megan Davis urged all politicians and leaders to be “fair and decent” in the debate.
When approached for comment, Dutton’s office pointed to remarks he made last week rejecting Burney’s claims and accusing the Yes camp of “shouting at Australians [and] telling them that because they don’t support the Voice that somehow they’re racist”.
The Liberal Party’s only Indigenous senator, Kerrynne Liddle, said she was in lock-step with her leader in believing the Voice would divide the country, arguing it was impossible to leave race out of the discussion because it was about enshrining a new body in the Constitution “on the basis of a characteristic of a particular cohort”.
Liddle, an Arrente woman who opposes the Voice and is co-coordinator of a newly formed “Liberals for No” group, said Dutton was “stating a perspective that I’m entirely comfortable with”.
“I just want to be really clear: my position is Peter Dutton’s position,” Liddle said.
She blamed the Yes camp for the deteriorating tone of the national debate and said non-Indigenous people were also bearing the consequences, saying people were afraid of raising concerns about the Voice for fear of public condemnation.
“It would be a very brave person working for one of those organisations – be it part of a club, be part of a sporting group – that has come out so publicly and aggressively and said we support this…what happens to them if they raise questions?” Liddle said.
“I’ve had people tell me they feel like they’re under attack. This is not the way to conduct a discussion about a document that belongs to all Australians.”
Liddle pointed to the personal attack by Voice architect Noel Pearson earlier this month on Indigenous leader Mick Gooda, in which he labelled the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner a “bed-wetter” after he spoke of his fears the referendum could fail and called for compromise on the bill.
“We should live in a healthy democracy, and just attacking individuals because you disagree with them, is not reflective of a healthy discussion or healthy debate or in anybody’s interests,” Liddle said.
The parliamentary debate, which will continue in the lower house this week, has dovetailed with a wider discussion about the toll racial vitriol can take after veteran Indigenous journalist Stan Grant stepped down from his role as host of the ABC’s Q+A after enduring a torrent of racist abuse over his contribution to the broadcaster’s King Charles III coronation coverage.
Rhoda Roberts, a Widjabul-Wiyebal woman, and currently the elder-in-residence at public broadcaster SBS, said “high levels” of racist abuse and lateral violence had always surrounded public debate of First Nations rights and advancement, and welcomed the current spotlight on the impacts of that atmosphere on journalists and Aboriginal communities.
“Often we navigate the way through on our own, internalising a lot of the hatred and jealousies aimed at us, so you learn to have thick skin. But it’s not always enough,” she said.
The First People’s Assembly of Victoria, which supports the Voice, said last week that it was bracing for an uptick in online racial abuse as the referendum debate escalates and had blocked about 300 people who had left racist slurs on its Facebook posts.
An analysis by the Queensland University of Technology of the Voice to parliament debate on Twitter found racial abuse is occurring on both sides, but there was overwhelmingly more hate speech in tweets supporting the No side, which have twice the amount of offensive language.
Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.
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