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Voice Vote

Australians are divided over an upcoming referendum about creating a parliamentary advisory body to represent Indigenous communities

by
Nomi Kaltmann
July 14, 2023
Mark Liebler joins Traditional Owner and Uluru leader Sammy Wilson and Noel Pearson at the closing ceremony of the First Nations National Constitutional Convention, at Uluru, in Australia’s Northern Territory

Courtesy Mark Leibler

Mark Liebler joins Traditional Owner and Uluru leader Sammy Wilson and Noel Pearson at the closing ceremony of the First Nations National Constitutional Convention, at Uluru, in Australia’s Northern Territory

Courtesy Mark Leibler

At the beginning of Passover this year, both the attorney general and shadow attorney general of Australia were Jewish, which is significant for a community making up only 0.4% of the population. By Passover’s end, only one of them still had a job.

While political scandals causing resignations are common, the resignation of Shadow Attorney General Julian Leeser—a member of the opposition and the counterpart of the attorney general—was of a different and more rare kind: one based on personal morals. His party, the right-wing Liberal National Coalition, had just announced that it would force its ministers to vote “no” on Australia’s upcoming referendum to change the country’s constitution to recognize an Indigenous Voice.

The Indigenous Voice proposes to be a federal advisory body comprising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to represent the views of Indigenous communities to the Australian Parliament. Leeser, a longtime supporter of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, felt uncomfortable with his party’s position and decided to resign as a minister so he could campaign freely in favor of the referendum.

When he quit in April, Leeser told a local Jewish newspaper, “I’m resigning without rancor, but on a point of principle … What I want to be able to say to my children in the future is that your father stood up for something that he believes in.”

Leeser’s unprecedented decision to quit is indicative of the polarizing debate currently underway in Australia, where there is a reckoning on how to best address the country’s checkered history with its Indigenous community.

The trauma from colonization runs deep among Australia’s Indigenous population, and the disadvantage experienced by the community continues to be profound. Despite the Australian government spending billions of dollars each year supporting Indigenous welfare, in 2023 Aboriginal Australians still experience shorter life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, poorer overall health, and lower levels of education and employment than other Australians.

“We are privileged as Australians that our history encompasses the most ancient, enduring culture on earth. Surely, our founding document should recognize and celebrate this richness,” said Mark Leibler, a stalwart of the Australian Jewish community who is also one of the most recognized figures advocating for the addition of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. In 2015, Leibler was appointed by the Australian government to co-chair both the Expert Panel and the Referendum Council on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

“While Australians of today are not responsible for past wrongs, we are responsible for recognizing the impact of intergenerational trauma and for supporting Indigenous fellow citizens to heal from this trauma by having more of a voice in the laws in the policies that impact them,” Leibler said.

The proposal to create an Indigenous Voice to Parliament protected by its inclusion in the Australian constitution was raised as one of the key recommendations coming out of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, delivered by the First Nations groups at the First Nations National Constitutional Convention in Australia’s Northern Territory. This convention, which was supported by both major political parties in Australia, was set up to advise the government on steps toward a referendum to recognize Indigenous persons in the Australian Constitution. According to Leibler, “It flowed from the most proportionally representative consultation process ever undertaken with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians,” overseen by a national council he co-chaired.

The recommendation from this convention was that recognition should include a constitutionally guaranteed group of Indigenous people who could speak to the government on issues relevant to their community.

“Completely understandably, Indigenous Australians want the Voice to be enshrined in the constitution so that it cannot be abolished at the whim of a government, as other Indigenous bodies have been in the past,” said Leibler. Most recently, in 2005 and 2008 Aboriginal representative bodies were abolished or disbanded by the Australian Parliament, while another elected Indigenous representative body went into voluntary administration in 2019 when its funding was cut.

To make any constitutional change, Australia must hold a referendum, which requires a double majority: A majority of voters in a majority of Australian states (at least four out of six) and a majority of voters nationally must vote in favor of the proposed change (most of Australia’s population is concentrated in Melbourne and Sydney), which helps ensure that any result is properly representative of the whole country.

Since Australian Federation in 1901, there have only been eight successful referenda out of 44.

With the vote on the Voice to Parliament due to take place between October and December 2023 (the date has not yet been set), lobby groups have swung into action and millions of dollars are being poured into both the “yes” and “no” campaigns. Much emphasis of the “no” campaign has focused on the fact that all the detail about the form and function of how the Voice will work practically will be legislated by the Australian Parliament and amended by legislation, if and when required. Recent polls show that 48% of Australians support the Voice, but that a “no” vote is growing, with a recent 10% rise of voters opposed to the Voice. The fluidity of the “yes” votes shows that it remains to be seen whether the left-leaning, ruling Labor Party has the support of a majority of Australians to pass this proposed change.

Over past decades, Jewish communal roof bodies in Australia have advocated strongly for the Aboriginal community—including the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the elected national representative body of the Australian Jewish community, which on its website notes its “long and proud history of supporting the quest of Indigenous Australians for recognition, reconciliation, and justice.”

While generally, peak Jewish bodies strive to have excellent relationships with both major political parties in Australia, the upcoming referendum has put these groups in a difficult position. If they advocate a “yes” vote for the Voice, they risk wading into politically fraught waters on an increasingly politicized issue, and if they advocate “no” they risk contradicting some of their long-held positions in support of the Voice.

Peter Wertheim, co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, noted in a statement to Tablet that “last year the ECAJ, together with other peak religious representatives, signed a Joint Resolution in support of the Uluru Statement at a public event at Barangaroo in Sydney, which included a call for a First Nations Voice guaranteed by the constitution.”

Benjamin Elton, the rabbinic adviser to the ECAJ and a rabbi of Sydney’s oldest synagogue, The Great Synagogue, is well aware of the stakes involved.“It’s more appropriate for Jewish peak bodies to encourage people to have thoughtful opinions on this,” he said. He has spoken to his congregation about the Voice. “I said in a sermon, if you don’t think this Voice is the right way forward, then you have to find another way forward. We cannot let the status quo continue.”

But a referendum like this is bound to have its detractors.

David Adler is the president of the Australian Jewish Association, which describes itself as “a membership-based community organization guided by authentic Torah values, as well as center-right, conservative Australian values.”

On the issue of enshrining a specific Voice for the Indigenous community in Australia’s Constitution, Adler has reservations: “I am all for supporting the rights of disadvantaged groups, this is an important Jewish value, but dividing political influence by race is not a good thing,” he said. “The Jewish experience of centuries is that dividing by race has never been good in a society. So, from those fundamental values perspective, we have concerns about the Voice because it provides a preferential access to a mechanism of government.”

While the AJA has not advised its members how to vote, those on the AJA executive board have indicated that they will be voting “no” on the referendum. If polling is to be believed, the AJA may find itself in company with a majority of Australians, who seem to be trending toward a “no” vote.

Amid the softening of support for the Voice, another Jewish organization called Stand Up Australia has sprung to action, running a mobilization campaign to encourage people to vote “yes,” on a size and scale that is a first for Australia’s Jewish community.

Launching a coalition of Jewish organizations in Melbourne called Kol HaLev, Stand Up is running a mass persuasion campaign in support of the Voice referendum. Stand Up, with the support of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, is calling on Jewish organizations nationally to join the campaign for Jewish Voice for Yes. Stand Up is hopeful that other Australian Jewish communal organizations in addition to the JCCV will also be joining its campaign.

Stand Up has lots of familiarity in working with disadvantaged Aboriginal communities. For past 18 years, Stand Up has run Derech Eretz, a program that takes groups of young Jews to volunteer at two Aboriginal communities, Toomelah and Boggabilla, where they run programs for young students and school holiday programs for Aboriginal kids. “This is a community that has consistently been let down by government and other organizations, but we are a small Jewish organization that has built trust and understanding,” said Stand Up CEO Courtney Winter-Peters.

While Stand Up does not consider itself a partisan organization, it is not afraid to take a position on something it considers important, like the Voice.

“It’s a shame that there’s a divide politically on this,” said Winter-Peters. “But that’s just the nature of politics, everyone is entitled to their view. We just want people to engage as much as possible and to listen to First Nations people. They are the most important voices.”

Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.

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