Power Equipment Australasia

OPINION The Power of No: Lessons for inclusive change The blast radius from Australia’s ‘No’ vote on the Voice is still reverberating around the world, complete with prognostications on the impending doom of the First Nations people - even with a 70,000year head start. US-based CNN proclaimed Aussies had struck down a referendum that would ‘inflict lasting damage on First Nations people and suspend any hopes of modernising the nation’s founding document’1. Saudi Arabia’s Arab News left no doubt that the results of the referendum were a major setback to the country’s efforts for reconciliation with its First Peoples2. In Australia, The Guardian led with, ‘Rejecting the voice shows Australia is still in denial, its history of forgetting a festering wrong’,3 while The Age was clear with their headline, ‘No shame in voting No to an ill-judged referendum’.4 Putting the constitutional viability of the Voice to one side, what is quietly revealing is the decision to use a referendum as the preferred mechanism for change. To put the use of the referendum and its results into context, prior to the Voice there had been 44 referendums in Australian history. Only eight of all referendums have been approved since Australia became a Commonwealth in 1901. The last First Nations referendum was approved in 1967 with more than 90 per cent of the vote. The results of that referendum not only changed the Constitution and gave the Commonwealth Parliament the power to make laws specific to Aboriginal people wherever they lived, but it also mandated the inclusion of First Nations people in the national census5. As a legislative process, constitutional changes require passage in both houses of parliament, the majority of voters in four of six Australian states, and a majority of Australian voters (50 per cent plus one). Changing or making new laws, on the other hand, requires only an act of Parliament. If history is our guide, the results of the Voice had a low probability of approval even before a single vote was cast. Not unsurprisingly, on October 14, 2023 when Australians voted in a mandatory referendum to change the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, the referendum did not pass.6 AUSTRALIA’S TWO SPEED CHANGE PROCESS If the results of referendums are considered a fait accompli, how does Australia change in response to natural phenomenon, history and events, and the evolution of inclusive sentiment, public need or discourse? Australia’s legislative record suggests that when elected officials want to evolve, they neither ask for permission nor forgiveness, and they don’t use a referendum as their preferred method for meaningful change. No isn’t contemplated in the face of power. After winning the 1983 general election in a landslide, Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating led the introduction of the superannuation guarantee scheme – a world class mandatory retirement income system that is today worth nearly three trillion dollars.7 Over nine years, Hawke’s government put into place a series of social safety nets in response to the stagflation of the 1970s. Along the way, Hawke introduced Medicare, increases to low-income family support, and tax cuts culminating with superannuation. While Hawke’s eventual successor Paul Keating implemented the super scheme, Hawke is credited with pushing through the legislation that represents the worker capital of nearly 15 million Australians. On 28 April, 1996, Martin Bryant shot and killed 35 people and wounded 23 at Port Arthur, a popular tourist town in Tasmania.8 It is most often described as the worst massacre in modern Australian history. Twelve days after the Port Arthur massacre, Prime Minister John Howard announced the National Firearms Agreement, a scheme to unify gun laws across Australia which included federally funded gun buybacks, voluntary surrender and gun amnesty. The scheme, which deployed a levy on taxpayers, collected and destroyed more than a million firearms which at the time represented a third of Australia’s national firearms stock. Beginning in 2008 with the National Disability Agreement and followed by a National Disability Strategy, the Australian Government committed to and passed the NDIS Bill by the Federal Parliament in 2011. In 2013, Prime Minister Julia Gillard launched the NDIS.9 The NDIS followed years of discussions about problems with Australia’s existing disability support system design, the need for change, and plans for new models of disability maintenance and support. The NDIS was created as a world-first approach to disability support. Philosophically and legislatively, the NDIS puts people with disability at the centre of decision-making through inclusive principles of reasonable and necessary support, individual agency, choice and control. In a departure from referendums following a tumultuous legal and legislative process, Prime Minister Turnbull announced a national survey designed to gauge support for legalising same-sex marriage in Australia.10 Much like other Western democratic countries, the social inclusion and value of marriage equality had garnered momentum and prompted the need for change. The plebiscite, which had not been employed for nearly 100 years, was unlike compulsory participation in election voting and referendums. As a national voluntary exercise, the plebiscite asked the question, “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” While the survey returned a majority “Yes” responses, had a majority returned a “No” result, the Government would not have allowed a debate or vote legalising same-sex marriage. As a result of the majority of the volunteer vote in the affirmative and passage in Given Australia’s response to the Voice referendum, Dr Wesley Payne McClendon highlights three lessons for inclusive change in this second of an exclusive three-part series on diversity. 26 | POWER EQUIPMENT AUSTRALASIA | NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 2023