4.15. What are some of the challenges to a free and open discussion about the issues?
History has shown that it is always difficult to conduct a public debate about a proposed amendment to the Constitution. There are a number of reasons for this, some of which appear to apply to the present case.
The perceived obstacles range widely from biases in some sections of the community to the ways that the media, including social media, currently inhibit or can overwhelm considered and respectful dialogue.
There are allegations from both sides. Former Liberal Party leader John Hewson argues that some current Coalition leaders are deliberately trying to spread confusion, are ‘muddying the waters’, rather than participating in genuine debate. He asserts that an inherent racism lies behind this strategy. Similarly, Chaney and Carne argue that there is still a strong assimilationist attitude within the Australian population that denies the difference of First Nations peoples and imagines that they will eventually ‘die out’, despite all evidence so far to the contrary.
There is evidence within the community of misunderstanding in relation to the concepts of equality and difference, which affect both sides to the debate. This misunderstanding can in part be due to ‘human rights’ tending to be discoursed in universal and undifferentiated terms. Chesterman quotes Justice Edelman saying that the idea of citizenship as an undifferentiated category:
reflects a human inclination toward homogeneity which Hume described as the ‘narrowness of soul’ … It also misunderstands the concept of equality before the law. To treat differences as though they were alike is not equality. It is a denial of community.
On the other hand, it has been argued variously that migrant and refugee communities should either oppose the Voice or be included in it. Jacubowicz writes that such communities will need to be addressed directly if their distrust of government or sense of their own need for a voice is not to prevail over their potential recognition of the ethical claim to recognition of First Nations peoples.
The role of social media, fake news, and disinformation as potential forces that may weigh significantly in the referendum needs to be recognised. Waleed Aly, reflecting on the broader problem, expresses his concern that the public may find finely nuanced arguments challenging or difficult to understand, a problem that he feels may particularly disadvantage the proponents of the Voice, in view of its simplicity and understated nature. In the current era, he argues, discourse thrives on promoting conflict and division.
Nick Bryant also notes the current combative, confrontational journalistic culture which does not allow for or encourage nuance or honesty from spokespersons as potentially positive values. Coper goes further to argue that social media is the place least suited to thinking through the issues: ‘Social media was never intended to be the place where we formed our opinions about critical issues of importance, it was designed to be a viral advertising platform’.
All of these factors pose challenges to a free, unfettered discussion in which the strongest arguments, and those best supported by evidence, are able to prevail.