Our missing values 

The defeat of the Indigenous Voice referendum was a very rude wake up call. I, and so many others, supported the establishment of the Voice and thought that basic decency would prevail, even in the face of constantly changing media reports about the likely outcome. 

For those outside of Australia, the briefest of recaps: the proposal was to amend our constitution such as to establish an advisory body of First Nations people that would provide advice to Parliament on issues relating to First Nations people.  The ‘provides advice’ bit is quite crucial. This body would have no substantive legal powers. It could not challenge a decision by Government to act in a certain way; only advise the Government how it should act in relevant issues (and, presumably, announce that it had advised a certain way, potentially contrary to Government’s ultimate decision). 

I completely accept the view that this was very little, very late. The continued treatment of First Nations people in this country is a deep and abiding shame. We are one of the few nations with no treaty with the traditional owners of the lands we have colonised. And I even accept the view that it would do little to meaningfully challenge the pervasive effects of institutional racism in this country, at least by itself. 

It was, however, a step in the right direction. And the first step in the right direction in far too long. It was overwhelmingly supported by First Nations people (with estimates ranging from over 50% support, to up to as high as 80-90% of First Nations people in favour.)

And yet the referendum was overwhelmingly defeated. Amending the Constitution requires a double majority, that is a majority of voters in a majority of states. And the Voice was defeated at both stages: All States said No, and a majority of voters also said No. It was a dreadful, painful result. There is, thankfully, some solace to be had in that over 6,000,000 Australians made the right decision, a fair decision. 1Interestingly, and perhaps grounds for future hope, the number of Australians voting Yes was almost a million higher than the number of votes received by any one political party in our most recent Federal election.

The No campaign predictably relied on the very worst of our common humanity: our greed, our ignorance, our fear, our misguided relationship with the idea of ‘fairness’, and yes, sadly, our racism. Nothing is more emblematic of just how deeply despicable the no campaign was than their craven slogan of “Don’t Know? Say No.” The success of the No campaign has left me and many others reeling. 

Many others, First Nations voices included, have analysed this issue and tried to understand what went wrong and how we might be able to overcome this set back, both on a practical level, and also on a deeper more fundamental level.  Rather than a broad analysis, I wanted to focus on one aspect that I find deeply troubling and I suspect underpins a lot of both the success of the No campaign and more generally the success of anti-democratic politicians and movements. 

We no longer talk about values. Values no longer form a substantial part of our public and political debate. We have permitted, through abandoning the ground the idea of values to be co-opted by fringe conservative politicians who rabbit on about ‘family values,’ their sad masturbatory fantasies that fetishise a world with even more oppression than that which we face today, or indeed by corporations who pledge themselves to abstract and unenforceable things like ‘respect, integrity, excellence’. Bit by bit the word value has lost currency and that has had dreadful consequences.

The chief of these is an ever increasing shift towards short term thinking, which logically follows from abandoning values in our discourse. If we’re not discussing our values in a regular way, it is so much harder to articulate a vision for where we want to get as a society, as a peoples, as a country. Instead, we have established a closed feedback cycle where we think short term, which encourages politicians to think only in the short term, which feeds back to our thinking and so the race to the bottom goes. 

If, instead, we had a culture of rich and ongoing conversations that start with our values, our thinking would no longer be centred just in the short term and we would have an ability to not only articulate what a better, fairer world looks like, but actually begin to move towards that goal. And to be more precise, a world that is better and fairer for everyone, not just a select few. Yet again the words of MLK reach throughout time with their power: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” 

By giving up on values we give bad actors the perfect vector to corrupt and distort public debate, policy, and elections. And make no mistake, bad actors are exploiting this gap and, moreso, getting more skillful at doing so. The shameless tactics deployed during the Voice referendum are ample proof. This ends up damaging our society in a myriad of ways, as seen in ever growing concerns around the future of Western liberal democracies. 

The defeat of the Voice, the political malaise we live in, a sense of a world on the verge of catastrophe; these are all symptoms of a world that has forgotten the value of values. The decline in public commitment to, and defence of, values, has created a readily exploited issue in modern society. After all, if you do not have a conscious sense of what your values are, and are not participating in discourse about values, it becomes far too easy to be persuaded to vote no, to vote for some despicable aspirant dictator, and to only imagine the impact of decisions in a very narrow, self regarding, and short term way. Values are the things that ground us against the worst parts of our nature.

I want you to keep the ideas of values in your head over the coming weeks and months, especially when discussing big issues and decisions. Be curious about what values are at play, both in your own thinking about issues and when engaging with others. And remain alert to how failing to include values in our discussion and decisions about serious issues can lead to truly awful results. 


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    Interestingly, and perhaps grounds for future hope, the number of Australians voting Yes was almost a million higher than the number of votes received by any one political party in our most recent Federal election.

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