Are Australians ‘too dumb’ or ‘too racist’ to answer this question?

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Are Australians ‘too dumb’ to vote yes in a referendum on recognition for Indigenous people in the constitution?Source:istock

There is a famous old saying that New York City will be a great place once it’s finished.

The same could be said of Australia today and we have, right now, a historic opportunity to fulfil that promise.

In this current time of crisis it is more clear than ever that Australia is undoubtedly the best place in the world to be. But it is not yet finished.

We are a brilliant country with a warm, gregarious people who have an instinct for laughter over indignation. We have a generous and egalitarian spirit that has produced world class universal health and education systems as well as a comprehensive welfare safety net that provides for students, the unemployed, single parents and the elderly.

We have a judicial system that is almost entirely free from corruption and a stable and peaceful liberal democracy in which every adult citizen can take part.

But we are not quite done.

At the core of our nationhood is a constitution that, like our nation, is laconic and unlofty.

It effectively just provides a practical framework by which we might govern ourselves and leaves the rest up to us. But it is missing one simple thing.

And that is the acknowledgment that the people who drew up that document and set the laws for governing our land were not the first people here and that those First Australians were denied any say in our establishment and operation as a nation.

Today, of course, we all know that.

But our nation’s founding statement – the cornerstone of law that determines everything from our parliament’s function to who is counted in the census – does not.

The Party Games newsletter Get your political briefing from’s political editor Samantha Maiden.

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Part of the beauty of Australian democracy – and indeed the constitution itself – is that in many ways this has not held back progress in trying to remedy this or right historical wrongs. We are governed more by “convention” – an unwritten code, an established but always evolving way of doing things that responds to the needs and understandings of the time.

This is what Dennis Denuto from The Castle rightly referred to as “the vibe” of the constitution. It gives freedom to future generations of lawmakers and voters to go with what they feel is right.

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Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt wants to include all Indigenous people in the design of a voice and the path to constitutional recognition. Picture Gary RamageSource:News Corp Australia

And what feels right now is that we finally recognise and enshrine the place of First Australians in our national framework.

This is felt across the full breadth of the political spectrum – it was supported by John Howard in 2007, Tony Abbott in 2013 and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has just this week added her voice to the chorus.

And that is just the conservatives: Needless to say it has near universal support among the progressive side of politics.

The form agreed upon in the famous Uluru Statement from the Heart was that this would be a constitutionally enshrined “Voice to Parliament” – essentially a process by which a body of Indigenous people would be consulted on laws relating to Indigenous people.

The proposals being nutted out now are simple and sensible.

Such a body would have no veto power over legislation, nor would it have executive power to run programs itself.

It would not be a “third chamber of parliament”, as Malcolm Turnbull wrongly characterised it, nor would it be an additional government agency or layer of bureaucracy.

But there is a fear among many grassroots Indigenous campaigners that the academic and political elites charged with establishing the Voice will simply try to push it through parliament without going to a referendum and having it enshrined in the constitution.

The push for a purely parliamentary vote appears to be based on the assumption that the Voice is too important to be left to the whims of the Australian people.

In other words, a fear from those at the top that if it went to a referendum Australians would be too dumb, too mean or too racist to answer the question correctly.

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Noel Pearson says Australia doesn’t make sense without recognition of its Indigenous people.Source:News Corp Australia

This is, frankly, horses**t. Similar concerns were raised by those opposing a plebiscite on same sex marriage and yet Australians turned out in their droves to overwhelmingly support it.

Moreover when the last referendum was conducted on Indigenous issues, the historic 1967 vote on including Aboriginal people in the census and allowing the federal parliament to make laws for them, 94 per cent of the adult population went to the ballot box and more than 90 per cent voted yes.

Likewise recent polling conducted last year by proponents for a referendum indicates strong support among the broader public.

Yet despite all this there seems to remain a cynical and view among the political insiders that Australians are redneck racist bogans who can’t be trusted with a vote. Why else would they not want one?

And if a Voice to Parliament is made through a simple act of parliament it can of course be unmade by a simple act of parliament, should any future government see some advantage in it.

If the Voice is too important to be voted on by the Australian people then it is too important not to be voted on by the Australian people.

Indeed, if there is no faith in the Australian people then the whole purpose is lost.

But don’t take my word for it, take that of the ever hard-headed and clear-eyed Noel Pearson, who says a referendum is literally vital for our country.

“Australia doesn’t make sense without recognition. Australia is incomplete without recognition. How could there be an Australia without its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Indigenous peoples? As long as its Indigenous peoples remain unrecognised then Australia is an absurdity. A nation missing its most vital heart.”

Australia is a beautiful place, a kind place and a decent place. And it will be a great place – once it’s finished.

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