Australia will lose respect among its Pacific neighbours in the “inconceivable” scenario that the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum fails, according to a Vanuatu MP.
“Respect for Australia in the Pacific will be elevated by a positive Yes vote,” former Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu wrote on X.
“It is almost inconceivable to us that this may not happen, but that possibility fills us with dread. A No vote will be a blow to our relationship, especially perceptions of Australia in our general public.”
But Regenvanu’s intervention met with fierce criticism, with many urging him to ‘stay out of Australia’s politics’.
“Just imagine what Australians think of Vanuatu’s politics,” wrote author Crispin Rovere.
“Clean up your own scandal-ridden politics before you criticise ours,” added another.
However, others expressed support for his position.
“The Voice referendum is being very closely watched in the Pacific,” said writer Grant Wyeth.
“A no vote will be hugely damaging to our relationships in the region. Trust is not just government to government, it is people to people.”
His comments echo those made by former Liberal foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop who told a Yes campaign event in August that a No result would send a ‘very negative message’ to the rest of the world about Australia.
“I know that Australia’s international reputation can be affected by a No vote,” she said.
“I have no doubt that it will be sending a very negative message about the openness and the empathy and the respect and responsibility that the Australian people have for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.”
Others have also argued it will be hard for Australia to explain a No vote to allies in the Pacific – as well as China.
“It would be tough to explain a ‘No’ globally, especially so in the Pacific and other postcolonial nations,’ wrote policy expert Hugh Piper for the Lowy Institue earlier this year.
“Australia could also expect the likes of China to use a ‘No’ vote to deflect criticisms about its own human rights record – a tactic it has used before. “
It comes amid growing warnings from foreign policy experts that a No vote would harm Australia’s standing on the world stage, as polls show the October 14 referendum is on track for defeat.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong has championed a so-called “First Nations foreign policy”, appointing Justin Mohamed as the country’s first Ambassador for First Nations People earlier this year.
“First Nations peoples were this land’s first diplomats and traders,” Wong told the National Press Club in April.
“Elevating First Nations perspectives will strengthen our connections across the world and in our region, especially across the Blue Pacific. The potential power of those connections has been neglected for too long, and it has been to our own detriment, when we ought to bring everything we have to the table.”
Wong said a First Nations foreign policy would help Australia “build on common ground with people around the world” and give the country a strategic advantage in the face of the “grave” challenge posed by China.
“This matters because our foreign policy must be an accurate and authentic reflection of our values and interests — of who we are and what we want,” Wong said. “And it matters because our national power, more than anything else, comes from our people.”
Paul Holland, Indo-Pacific Fellow in Indigenous Foreign Policy at the Perth USAsia Centre think tank, has highlighted the importance of the referendum result on Australia’s standing in the region.
According to Holland, a Yes vote would support the government’s First Nations foreign policy agenda, while a No vote “could undermine Australia’s international legitimacy and soft diplomacy at a critical time for Australia’s Indo-Pacific relationships”.
“The combination of the Voice and First Nations foreign policy has the potential to deliver tangible and practical outcomes, including in areas like trade,” Mr Holland said in an analysis brief last month.
“For example, the Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand Indigenous Collaboration Agreement, established in February 2020, focuses on agency, culture, wellbeing and economic outcomes, including business, trade and procurement policy.”
First Nations foreign policy “also has the potential to help Australia respond positively to its current strategic circumstances”.
“With U.S leadership in the Indo-Pacific waning and challenged by China, traditional and regional alliances are key to Australia’s future security and prosperity,” Holland said.
On the flip side, a No vote would have serious consequences.
“Australia’s history and legacy with its Indigenous population is closely monitored by our neighbours in the Indo-Pacific,” Holland said.
“And it is one area where Australian governments of all persuasions have continually underdelivered. For example, only four of nineteen Closing the Gap targets are on track in 2023.”
The “clearest risk” of a No vote would be to “Australia’s position in the region as a leading advocate for human rights, and its efforts to work with partner countries to uphold Australian values of fairness and equality”.
“Because the Voice referendum is a question of domestic politics, many countries in the region will be reticent to engage publicly on the issue,” Holland said.
“But Australia should operate with a high degree of assurance that the progress of the referendum will be reported to capitals, near and far.”
China, which has repeatedly attacked Australia’s human rights record on Indigenous affairs, will likely seize on a No vote.
Last year, China’s representative to the United Nations told a Human Rights Council side event that Australia, the US and Canada must “reflect seriously on their wrongdoings, immediately amend laws and change policies that violate Indigenous peoples’ rights, investigate the crimes and hold the perpetrators accountable”.
“They should uproot the pernicious legacies of colonialism, eradicate systemic racism and discrimination to ensure the equality and rights of the Indigenous peoples,” Jiang Duan said.
“Australia has in history pursued the notorious ‘White Australia policy’, under which 100,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly taken away from their families, causing lifetime harm and trauma to the ‘stolen generation’. Serious violations of Indigenous peoples’ rights by the United States, Canada and Australia are not just something of the past, but a matter of chronic and systemic racism that continues to this day.”
Representatives from Venezuela, North Korea and Russia also attended the UN event to criticise the treatment of Indigenous people in the U.S, Canada and Australia.
A No vote could also potentially put Australia at odds with its closest allies such as Canada and New Zealand, who are “doing more to engage their Indigenous populations”, Holland said.
“It is not only the outcome of the vote which will be monitored internationally,” he said. “The conduct of the campaign and increased prevalence of racism will also impact Australia’s international reputation.”
Sean Kelly, a former adviser to Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, said last month that a No vote would “haunt our national conscience, and so it should”.
“We might suspect the result — a defeat of the proposition seems likely — but this is very different from understanding what that will feel like,” Kelly wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald.
“A friend told me she thought many would be shocked, that night, by the images they will see of Indigenous people crying. It might not be until it is voted down that most non-Indigenous people will understand what this means to most Indigenous people. It will not be until we have done it that we realise what we have done. Many, perhaps most, will not realise even then.”
Writing for The Lowy Institute earlier this year, Hugh Piper, programme lead at the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue, said that the referendum was a “pivotal moment for global perceptions of Australia” and diplomats must get “ready to explain to the world if Australia votes No”.
“Consider the ongoing reputational effects for the United States and United Kingdom from events in 2016 which have both had continuing consequences for the respective country’s international standing and the capacity for influence,” Piper said.
“Donald Trump’s election and Brexit have, rightly or wrongly, become popular bellwethers of Anglo-American decline. A ‘No’ vote could similarly anchor an underlying perception that Australia is a fundamentally ugly and regressive nation, despite what its people and government might say.”
And former BBC correspondent Nick Bryant has argued the main takeaways of a No vote for international viewers would be “that modern Australia could not fully break free from its racist past, and that the country had failed a definitive national test”.
“A Yes vote would help quash any lingering vestiges of the stereotype that Australia is a redneck nation,” he wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald in December. “A No vote could be devastating, and seen as proof that the country is a racial rogue nation.”
But James Curran, a professor of modern history at the University of Sydney, has dismissed Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s warning to parliament in February that Australia’s international reputation was at stake in the referendum.
“Is the world waiting to condemn Australia in the event of a failed referendum on the Voice?” Prof Curran wrote in The Australian Financial Review. “Would China, given its appalling treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, capitalise on a failed referendum? Its press probably would.”
Prof Curran pointed out Indonesia had its own problems in West Irian and Aceh, its legacy in East Timor and the displacement Indigenous peoples in East Kalimantan.
And in India, there was “ongoing persecution of Muslims in Kashmir”.
“The point is that in the case of these countries, the hypocrisy would deflate any criticism,” he said. “That’s not an argument for or against the proposed referendum — it is to stress that the prime minister is going to have to do much better than hold ‘world opinion’ over voters’ heads,” he said.