I have been thinking of the failure of the Voice Referendum. Coincidently I was reading a New York Times article by Thomas B. Edsall titled “The Liberal Agenda of the 1960s has Reached a Fork in the Road”. It posed the question: Are liberal democracies at a stalemate in the pursuit of equity within their societies?
The basis for his article is two recent US Supreme Court decisions. The first was the overturning of Roe v Wade by the Dobbs V Jackson Women’s Health Organization regarding the right to abortion. This decision sparked outrage. Community discussion for and against, was vocal and passionate.
The second was the Students for Fair Admission Inc. v President and Fellows of Harvard College, which struck down the right to enforce affirmative action based on race. The affirmative action response in the broader community was muted and the opposition was academic or accepting of the ruling.
Edsall proposes that there were now two distinct concepts of equity: one the equity of opportunity and the other, equity of outcomes. Equality of opportunity is where societal mechanisms and institutions are used to give a foundation for all citizens to achieve equality through talent, hard work or fortuitous circumstances. The foundations of society did not prohibit success.
On the other hand, equality of outcome is where institutions, corporations and governments place rules on equality. Advancement is regulated to improve specific gender, racial or disadvantaged sections of society.
It struck me that there may be parallel issues with the Voice proposal. Was the Voice perceived by many Australians as equity of outcome with one group being given unfair access over others?
If this is correct, did the “Yes” campaign fail to fully understand or give enough importance to this perception. Did it underestimate how Australians would react to an Indigenous group, no matter how deserving, getting access not only to the representative body (Parliament) but also to government at executive level.
The “No” campaign understood this perception with prominent Indigenous leaders outlining their personal struggle and how they had, through their own drive and talent, achieved a certain level of recognition and status. The implication was that all Indigenous people could do the same, through more equity of opportunity policies and implementation.
How could the ‘Yes” campaign have countered the perception? Would it have been better to have framed the argument in terms of achieving a comfortable balance of equity outcome as against equity opportunity?
The “Yes” campaign was in trouble from the start because of four words – “and the executive government” – in the proposal. This phrase allowed all manner of misinformation and falsehoods to be spread by those who viewed the Voice proposal as going too far towards equity of outcome, i.e. giving one group an unfair advantage.
The proposal could have been advising Parliament alone and not giving direct access to executive authority. Once the Voice was established, Parliament would then have had the power to allow access as needed. This subtly was lost in the harshness of the debate.
We know the referendum failed to pass not only the majority states threshold but also the popular vote majority. We are now not at a crossroad as a liberal democracy but working towards equity of opportunity. However, will this allow individual talent and drive to shine? Is the current balance enough to move us to being a more equitable society?
The referendum vote is not just the rejection of the Voice proposal but a vote to maintain the balance between equity of outcome and opportunity. However, the current balance is not improving the lives of many Indigenous peoples or others for that matter.
If we move any further down the equity of opportunity path with more inequality, fierce competition, and conflict to access resources we run the risk of becoming a cruel and calculating society that crushes the most disadvantaged.
An alternative is equity of outcomes without stifling competitiveness, creativity or cohesion. We should seek to strike a balance that brings society together and that will always require some form of equity outcome interventions.
These interventions make us what we are, a liberal democracy.
I’m not sure I have the answers but I suspect that a proposal for any group to gain similar access would have failed in the way the proposal was framed and prosecuted. It appears that so many people mistook efforts to raise the level of equity as an unfair shift in the balance of society.
Daniel J Mc Diarmid