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Voice to Parliament: the brains behind the No campaigns

Voice to Parliament: the brains behind the No campaigns

Just who are the key people behind the campaigns against an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, and what are their arguments?

Senators Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Lidia Thorpe (Images: AAP)

According to a survey conducted for the Nine papers and reported yesterday, support for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament has dropped from 58% to 53% over the past month. It’s a boost for the two major No campaigns, which had consolidated a week earlier, though some of the shine might have been taken off by the revelation they had misidentified Millwarparra man Stewart Lingiari as land rights activist Vincent Lingiari’s grandson in their advertising.

Following on from our survey of the groups advocating a Yes vote, here is our rundown of some of the key figures opposing an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Australians for Unity

Until their merger as Australians for Unity on May 11, the two main groups opposing a Voice (at least on the conservative side, more on that later) were Recognise a Better Way led by Nyunggai Warren Mundine, and Fair Australia, most prominently associated with opposition Indigenous Australians spokesperson Jacinta Nampijinpa Price.

Mundine has travelled a long way in politics and in life — not least in his movement from support for a Voice to fierce opposition. The ninth of 11 children in a devoted Catholic and Labor-voting family, he worked his way from Dubbo City Council in the mid-1990s to National Labor Party president in 2006. Since letting his membership of the party lapse in 2012 after a series of preselection snubs, to his current position opposing the ALP’s most ambitious policy, the shift has not been sudden.

As early as 2004, Mundine joined John Howard’s National Indigenous Council, and criticised his then-party’s “politically correct” approach to Aboriginal policy. When the Coalition returned to government in 2013, Mundine was appointed chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council by “kindred spirit” Tony Abbott. He ran for the Liberal Party in the seat of Gilmore in 2019, but still Parliament eluded him, and he opted against nominating for the late Jim Molan’s Senate seat in 2023.

Price, a Warlpiri/Celtic woman and Country Liberal Party senator, has been a go-to on Indigenous issues for the conservative media for many years now — most notably in her detailing, while an Alice Springs town councillor, of her experiences of domestic violence, her contention that Indigenous culture can be used as a shield for abusers in communities like hers, and her regular campaigns in defence of Australia Day.

In her alignment with the right wing, Price has followed a similar path to her mother, Bess, a minister in Adam Giles’ Country Liberal government in the Northern Territory who expressed strong support for the Howard government’s Northern Territory intervention.

Indeed, Price’s recent visit to Alice Springs with Opposition Leader Peter Dutton — in which the pair made claims of “rampant child abuse” and the area effectively being a “failed state” — was met with strong criticisms from locals, furious at, among other things, Price’s “discrediting the Arrernte country of Alice Springs”, something they argued she had no right to do as a Warlpiri woman.

Then there is Gary Johns. Where Johns, former Labor MP and secretary of Recognise a Better Way, falls on this issue will be no surprise to those who have followed his work since he left Parliament in 1996. Within a year of losing his seat, he’d become a senior fellow at conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, and he was president of another conservative think tank, the Bennelong Society, dedicated to Indigenous Australian affairs.

It is one of the many conservative think tanks championed by hard-right businessman Ray Evans, which helped shape decades of debate around Indigenous affairs (as well as climate change and industrial relations). In the past decade, Johns has been a prolific author on Indigenous affairs for hardline conservative publisher Connor Court with titles like Aboriginal Self-determination: The Whiteman’s Dream (2011), Recognise What? (2014) and No Contraception, No Dole: Tackling Intergenerational Welfare. The Turnbull government made Johns head of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

The Black sovereignty movement

As Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist Amy McQuire wrote last month, while the media has happily given time to the conservative No campaigners, they do not represent the totality of opposition to — or at the very least scepticism about — the Voice:

The Black conservative No campaign reeks of hypocrisy and self-interest, and the most egregious part of it is that it undermines a very sophisticated No campaign from other Blackfellas who are approaching the issue from a different viewpoint. Many Blackfellas I have spoken to are still concerned that the Voice may not lead to change or a challenging of the status quo. There are concerns about the racist rhetoric inevitably drummed up in a referendum year, and concerns about what a Voice design could look like. There are legitimate concerns about when and how we can ask questions and whether a Voice will be truly representative.

Some of the most explicit hostility to the Voice has come at this year’s Invasion Day rallies, held to mark January 26. Several speakers in Melbourne and Sydney, such as Meriki Onus, Lizzy Jarrett and Gary Foley, have urged a No vote (“Beware of Blak bourgeoisie trying to sell you a referendum, trying to sell you a shonky proposition called the Voice,” Foley told the crowd in Melbourne).

Lidia Thorpe, a Djab Wurrung, Gunnai and Gunditjmara woman and independent senator, has been the most prominent Voice critic representing the idea of Black sovereignty — the power over the lands that make up Australia, which was never ceded by Indigenous people.

Thorpe was initially elected by the Greens in 2020, taking up the Victorian Senate spot vacated by former party leader Richard Di Natale (she had previously held the state seat of Northcote between the 2017 byelection and the “Danslide” in 2018). She returned to office in May 2022. By February 2023, she had split with the party over differences on the Voice.

“This country has a strong grassroots Black sovereign movement, full of staunch and committed warriors, and I want to represent that movement fully in this Parliament,” she said, announcing her resignation.

“It has become clear to me that I can’t do that from within the Greens.

“There is a Black sovereign movement out there that no one wants to listen to, so I will be their voice.”

Other figures Thorpe has identified among the Black sovereignty movement include Chelsea Watego, a Mununjali Yugambeh and South Sea Islander woman, Professor of Indigenous Health at Queensland University of Technology and author of Another Day in the Colony; pro vice chancellor of Aboriginal leadership and strategy at the University of South Australia Irene Watson, who belongs to the Tanganekald, Meintangk and Boandik peoples and has written that the Voice offers “no hope and no future for First Nations”; and Gunai-Kurnai and Gunditjmara activist and author of Black and Blue Ronnie Gorrie.

Charlie Lewis published this article in Crikey
Tips and Murmurs Editor @theshufflediary
Charlie Lewis pens Crikey’s Tips and Murmurs column and also writes on industrial relations, politics and culture. He previously worked across government and unions and was a researcher on RN’s Daily Planet. He currently co-hosts Spin Cycle on Triple R radio.

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