aboriginal flag
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Last month’s furore over the NSW government’s plans to permanently fly the Aboriginal flag on the Sydney Harbour Bridge seemed like run-of-the-mill culture war stuff. But it also provides a preview of what to expect around the federal government’s Indigenous Voice referendum.

As part of last month’s NSW state budget, money was earmarked to install a third flagpole on the Sydney Harbour Bridge following a campaign by Kamilaro yinarr Cheree Toka. While many celebrated the announcement, the reaction against it was loud and swift. 

Predictably, the decision to give the flag of Australia’s Indigenous people the same prominence as the Australian national flag and the (largely forgettable) NSW state flag evoked charges of “woke” and “virtue signalling” across talkback radio, in print and on social media from the usual suspects and audiences. But it wasn’t just them. 

The $25 million price tag — the cost of erecting an enormous structure on one of Australia’s most important pieces of architecture — fed a lot of the backlash. Tribal Warrior Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Shane Phillips labelled the proposal a “smokescreen” that was intended to divide. Wiradjuri and Badu Island woman Lynda-June Coe told the ABC that she understood people objecting to spending millions on a flag rather than being “injected into other areas that our mob have been crying out for a long time”.

Almost as soon as it was announced, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet began to walk back the original announcement before eventually deciding to simply replace the bridge’s NSW flag with the Aboriginal flag. This pleased the announcement’s supporters while taking the wind out of the sails of its opponents. 

It’s all but inevitable that a referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament will bring out the same culture warriors. But unlike the flag issue, a Voice isn’t something you can implement with a clever political fix.

Referendums are costly. The same-sex marriage postal vote cost the government $122 million — and that’s before you consider the enormous cost paid by the LGBTIQA+ community, whose members were subjected to a long and vitriolic debate about their basic rights.

The cost will be disingenuously presented as a false dichotomy: “Why are we paying for a Voice to Parliament when we could still improve the welfare of Indigenous Australians?” a columnist or politician will ponder, despite having never shown interest in improving the welfare of Indigenous Australians in the past, and ignoring the fact that, as an incredibly well-off nation, we have the means to do both if we want.

Despite the call for a First Nations Voice coming out of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Indigenous Australians are not homogenous and there will naturally be some who oppose it. Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe wants to see a treaty prior to a Voice (although the Greens say they will not oppose Labor’s efforts to launch a referendum), while Coalition Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price says there are other more important issues. Despite the deliberative and thoughtful process led by Indigenous leaders, fringe voices will be elevated to “both sides” of the debate.

Then there’s the awful, toxic stuff we’ll get from those who take bad faith interpretations of what is happening. All the wonky debate about implementation will be subsumed by months of accusations that Indigenous Australians are receiving preferential treatment and that it’s actually racist against white Australians to do this. This is the perfect grist for the culture war mill. 

The point of this isn’t to convince you that the Indigenous Voice isn’t worthwhile. It is. We should listen to Indigenous Australians whose careful consultation process led them to this point. 

It is important, though, to understand how the public debate around the Voice to Parliament is likely to play out — both to help the stewards of this reform to make their case and to steel the voters against people who are disingenuously opposing it.