Recent analyses of public opinion In the United States have confirmed the significance of racial resentment for evaluations of Barack Obama. The report of the committee on the constitutional recognition of indigenous people has revived discussion of the lessons of the 1967 referendum. Unfortunately this discussion has ignored the significance of racial resentment in Australian politics.Recent Australian history demonstrates that the 1967 referendum would have been defeated if put to voters now.
The ‘no’ vote at this referendum was 9.23% was small but significant. The ‘no’ vote was highest in rural and remote areas with a large indigenous population. It was over 18% in Moore, Canning and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, Leichardt & Kennedy in Queensland and Gwydir in New South Wales. The far right campaigned against the referendum, in particular the League of Rights. David Kemp, Monash political scientist and later Liberal MP and Minister under Howard, explained the ‘no’ vote:
The intensity of racial feeling is related to the extent of contact between the races and…the proposed constitutional amendment was identified as a proposal favourable to Aborigines.
Kemp identified this rural racism as a component of a conservatism that could potentially join forces with a general reaction against educated elites. The late 1960s were a time in which conservatives began to consider the utility of race as political tool. Once Labor had been the most racist party in Australian politics, as shown by its obsessive support of White Australia. But as the Coalition floundered in the early 1970s some conservatives suggested that Labor could be targeted as the party of non-white immigration. In the end the Whitlam government proved was able to bring about its own demise a race campaign was not required.
The hostility to indigenous claims apparent in the 1967 ‘No’ vote was then associated with the extreme fringe of conservatism, but in later decades opposition to indigenous claims would enter the conservative mainstream. In the decades aboriginal people came from the fringes of national debates to the centre, most Australians may have voted ‘Yes’ in a mood of general if passing benevolence towards a people they had little if any personal contact with. As aboriginal people made became significant political actors it became to mobilize public opinion against them, the campaign against national land rights legislation as proposed by the Hawke government was an example of this. It was a template for the recent campaign against the mining tax, and both campaigns recruited the Western Australian Labor Party. In a majoritarian democracy there are limits to what minority groups can achieve. Thus there is a logic in aboriginal people (and other minorities such as asylum-seekers today, Communists in the 1950s) pursuing their interest through the courts. Courts are more remote from public opinion. It is certainly true that the extent to which courts can act independently of parliament is limited but they have a real if limited degree of autonomy. The Mabo and Wik decisions demonstrated this. The extension of the property rights of indigenous people would not have occurred if it had been left to parliament. Would a system of dedicated electorates for indigenous people make a difference? Certainly in New Zealand it has weakened the influence of the far right within mainstream conservatism.
Opposition to the assertiveness of indigenous people contributed to the far right’s electoral breakthrough with Pauline Hanson and One Nation. The far right exercised a strong appeal to many more mainstream conservatives. At the 1998 Queensland election the Liberals and Nationals directed preferences to Hanson’s party ahead of the ALP. If the right had polled slightly better at this election the outcome would have been a Coalition government supported in power by One nation who would have exercised substantial influence. In the late 1960s the far anti-aboriginal right had been a fringe element in conservative politics but by the late 1990s the far right was a major player in conservative politics. We can compare the rise of One nation and its political respectability in the late 1990s to the contemporary upsurge of anti-Islam far right parties in Europe. The decision of the Howard government to amend the Native Title Act to weaken indigenous property rights in the aftermath of the Wik judgment reflected the influence of the far right, and the sympathy felt for some aspects of its program by John Howard. In the end the legislation passed Parliament with the support of independent Senator Brian Harradine. At the time Harradine and his defenders argued it was necessary to avoid an election fought on race. Certainly the Howard government believed it could win an election on the issues. What occurred was the anti-aboriginal right won without a fight, it was an impressive achievement, the moderate right that had supported Land rights in 1976 was defeated, Harradine himself encapsulated that shift. The conservative triumph impacted on the increasingly cautious approach to native title taken by the courts.
In the decades after the 1998 aboriginal issues moved of the national agenda. Conservatives were content with their 1998 victory whilst One Nation failed to follow up on their political breakthrough. Many conservatives became more relaxed about indigenous claims. Many on the broader left had hoped that we now lived in The Age of Mabo (the title of a long ago Deakin Australian Studies unit) that indigenous claims presaged radical challenge to the nation-state. Yet indigenous communities could not undertake this challenge on their own, any more than socialism in one country was possible after the defeat of the European revolutions. Many indigenous communities lapsed into despair and hopelessness characteristic of colonial populations. For many on the old anti-aboriginal rights the problems of some indigenous communities were viewed with delight whilst the crisis served to demobilize some who supported indigenous claims.
The report of the committee on constitutional recognition however revived the cause of the anti-aboriginal right. The suggestion that the Constitution include a prohibition on racial discrimination together with a power for the Commonwealth to legislate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, has been met with hostility on the moderate right such as Liberal Senator George Brandis. Their argument is that indigenous people should trust in the good intentions of the non-indigenous population (a similar faith is apparent in the recent claim of moderate US Republican Chris Christie that the civil rights struggle could been resolved by putting African-American claims to a referendum). Gerald Henderson hints that it would be unfortunate to have a referendum for constitutional recognition of the indigenous Australians to fail, but does not acknowledge that the failure would be because as in 1998 conservatives would have successfully mobilised around a racial banner. The ‘moderate’ right in Australia now defers to the far right on key aspects of indigenous policy they are unwilling to challenge their allies further to the right. No enemies on the right.