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Australia’s constitutional referendum, the Israel-Palestine War and British imperialism

“How long do we have to wait for change?” – Eastern Arrernte women, Ltyentye Apurte.

“When will this nightmare end?” – A Palestinian boy in Gaza.

Since Federation, referenda to change the constitution have rarely been successful. On Saturday 13th October 2023, 4 in 10 Australians voted ‘Yes’ to the Voice to Parliament Referendum, with 6 in 10 voting ‘No’. What was the referendum actually about, though?

The Voice to Parliament, as the name suggests, was to give a ‘voice’ to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Indigenous peoples) in Australian parliamentary discourse. It was intended to provide independent advice to the Parliament and Government on Indigenous issues, and was to be representative of Indigenous peoples. As proposed, it did not challenge the status quo of property ownership in Australia or seek to change the objective condition of Indigenous peoples through compensation, restitution, or any other process. Indeed, the focus of the referendum was on identity and cultural politics.

Reactions from the world’s news media have been varied, but there is a sense of failure and regret that has shifted towards talking about colonialism. The New York Times compared the tactics of the ‘No’ campaign to “Trump-style misinformation”. The Wall Street Journal stated that the “rejection of the constitutional amendment reflected deep divisions over how best to address the legacy of colonialism and improve the lives of the nation’s first inhabitants”. The United Nations had urged Australians to vote ‘Yes’ to “pave the way to overcome the colonial legacy of systemic discrimination and inequalities” that had undermined the ability of Indigenous peoples to realise their rights to development and self-determination. However, we in Australia seem not to have discussed colonialism- why?

A point that the news media (and the UN) failed to explain was that colonialism is not simply a legacy or metaphor that describes a thing of the past, rather it is something that endures and an activity that persists. Colonialism is a system that has transcended into new forms of rule and conquest by dispossession, deceit and misinformation of its own, where history is ignored, fabricated or selectively recited to appeal to specific political demographics at the expense of Indigenous people. It is for this reason that the question of colonialism was hardly raised during the referendum campaign.

Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said that voting ‘Yes’ was the ‘right thing to do’ as it was on the ‘right side of history’, adding that it was what Aboriginal people wanted. Liberal opposition leader Peter Dutton said the ‘No’ result was ‘good for Australia’. In reality,  domestic issues such as cost of living pressures and the housing crisis and then the reignition of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, revealed that colonialism was the last thing on people’s minds. Understanding the complexities of the Voice to Parliament referendum and of the Israel-Palestine War requires delving into some history of colonialism, resistance and efforts towards inclusiveness.

With a month left until referendum day, polls showed that there were millions of ‘soft’ and ‘undecided’ voters with no idea which way they would vote or what the referendum was actually about. On both sides of the non-debate, the ‘message’ that the government was championing was lost to a propaganda war over what was ‘right’ and what was ‘wrong’ for the national identity, over the meaning of ‘sovereignty’ and over our purpose. The 1967 Referendum, in comparison, was clear – it was about making laws for Aboriginal people and to include them into the Census.

While the role of misinformation and fearmongering by sections of the ‘No’ campaign and media could be considered a factor in the outcome of the referendum, it would be a mistake to think that this alone was the reason for the result.

When Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies tried to ban the Communist Party by referendum in 1951 during the height of the Cold War, activists led by the leader of the Labor Party at the time, “Doc” Evatt, took up the colossal task of campaigning for the ‘No’ vote with the support of only 12% of the population. According to the Australian historian Humphrey McQueen, the successful ‘No’ campaign involved a long process of extensive door knocking, debates, common unpleasantries even attacks. Numerous activists from different political stripes including Young Liberals worked together, students, unions, professionals. Can we say that the ‘Yes’ campaign for the 2023 referendum was as inspiring? Upon reflection, perhaps we can say that the referendum that took place on the 13th was not the one the world had expected.

Australia is opposed to colonialism in theory, but in practice, it is a settler colonial nation that relies on the power structures and class relations introduced by European settlers. We are not prepared to challenge the mineral companies and special interests, including some of Australia’s largest companies and institutions that supported the ‘Yes’ campaign. What does it mean, then, to be heard in what has been a continuous struggle between colonialism and Indigenous people?

Colonialism has a long history, and we have been taught that the period of decolonisation which took place during and after the Second World War ended colonialism. But this period coincided with last-ditch efforts by European powers to save their ‘possessions’. France and later the US, for instance, were defeated in French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) as were the Netherlands in the Dutch East Indies.

The Arab-Israeli War that followed the departure of the British from Palestine is remembered by the Arab world as the ‘Nakba’ (or the ‘Catastrophe’), as it saw the permanent displacement of many Palestinian Arabs from Palestine. To Israel, it is called the War of Independence. Either way, it ended in 1949 with Israel’s victory, with the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians by incoming European settlers, and by division of Palestinian territory into three parts: the State of Israel, the West Bank (annexed by Jordan), and the Gaza Strip (captured and administered by Egypt). Since then, through wars with neighbouring Arab states and illegal settlements, Israel has continued to dispossess Palestinians of their land with an enduring occupation. This is the latest phase of European settler colonialism.

It is noteworthy that free settler societies such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and the United States- all offshoots of British colonialism- have been among Israel’s strongest supporters and feel a connection with the state, though that is changing.

The Australian historian and founder of settler colonial studies Patrick Wolfe referred to the importance of the ‘logic of the elimination of the native’ in settler colonialism. In other words, you cannot create a new settler society or settler nation-state from a settler colonial perspective, if there is an Indigenous population present. There have been interesting debates in the British literary journals like the Times Literary Supplement, as to whether Britain should finally recognise the genocidal character of British colonisation.

Prominent intellectuals such as the Jewish-American political scientist Norman Finkelstein and the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé concur. While we may not approve of 19th century British imperialism, Pappé explains that the West supports similar policies today, except on the basis that Israeli ‘democracy’ must be sustained for the ‘Indigenous’ (European Jewish immigrants) population. In Australia, however, very few would argue that Europeans were its first inhabitants.

Anti-colonial resistance has long existed. In other words, the dispossessed and the colonised do tend to resist and fight back. Finkelstein argues that the Palestinians have exhausted all options including non-violence. To end the brutal and inhumane blockade of Gaza, in 2018 Palestinian activists launched the Great March of Return. According to a United Nations report, Israeli forces responded by targeting medical personnel, journalists and people with physical disabilities.

The United Nations classifies Israel as an occupier state over the Palestinian territories. The mass media termed ‘Israel-Hamas War’ cannot be separated from the Israeli domination of Gaza. According to one of Israel’s leading sociologists Baruch Kimmerling, Gaza is the largest concentration camp ever to exist. Britain’s conservative Prime Minister David Cameron echoed this by describing Gaza as an ‘open air prison’. The recent actions in Israel are part of a new process of decolonisation, in places such as  Niger, Bharkina Faso, Mali (former French colonies) that are being described as ‘coups’ in the Western media.

In The Wretched of the Earth (1961), the Afro-Caribbean postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon argued that colonial rule is maintained through violence, racism and repression. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, a disciple of Gandhi, presented counterviolence as a kind of therapy for dehumanised natives as did Fanon- who defined decolonisation as a violent process without exception.

There are signs that Western public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is shifting despite the media’s current focus on Israel-Hamas violence. The targeted killing of the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces in 2022 was extensively reported in mainstream news media outlets in the United States, such as CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. Compared to 10 to 20 years ago, liberal opinion is now more supportive of Palestinian rights. The Global South, which makes up 90% of the world, is largely supportive of the Palestinian cause.

Geopolitically, there is a shift in the balance of power as the Western powers (primarily the US and NATO) are under challenge by rival powers Russia and China- the most powerful members of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa- plus Iran and Saudi Arabia from 1 January 2024) countries- who are leading the charge for a multi-polar world order. China and Russia have urged dialogue and an immediate cease-fire to end the Israel-Palestine War. Beijing argues that Israel’s bombing campaign has gone “beyond the scope of self-defence” and that it “should stop collective punishment of the people of Gaza”. Moscow has offered to mediate between Israel, the Palestinians, groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran and major Arab powers.

John Mearsheimer, a leading international relations theorist of Realism and co-author of The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy argues that eliminating Hamas will not end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it is a political problem, one that could spread dangerously. Hamas would simply be replaced by something else. This is further complicated by reports that if the war drags on there is not enough ammunition stockpiles to support multiple US backed wars (Israel, Ukraine, and possibly Taiwan in future).

It has long been agreed by the international community that a two-state solution is the way to to end the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Theoretically, the United States has supported this. In practice, however, Israel is a European colony with U.S. backing. Washington has sent warships to the Mediterranean ahead of Israel’s expected invasion of Gaza.

The point is that Colonialism – old, new, or unusual – is very much alive, but under challenge as the world shapes up to a new process of difficult struggle and quite possibly major armed conflict. The West, however, is actively siding with colonialism, not anti-colonialism. If we reflect on the 2023 referendum, most Australians decided that they were not going to vote in favour of something that achieved nothing but a moment of catharsis for white middle-class people. Those who voted No were not dumb, nor were those who voted for ‘Brexit’ or those who may vote again for Trump. The people of the world and Indigenous communities want a way out of this mess. Political and economic elites favour wars for profit and politics that do not threaten their power and privilege. Even in South Africa, where a truth and reconciliation commission was setup and reparations were paid to the victims of Apartheid, it has not eliminated the catastrophic effects of British settler colonialism.

The 2023 referendum may go down in history as the worlds’ first referendum on identity politics, which was entertained by both sides in Australian politics, but rejected by the Australian people. Yes- we must seek a new way forward to address the enduring problem of colonialism and imperialism, and by doing so, we need to discard empty gestures and do something substantive.