Golden poplars reflecting in the glassy, still Snowy River. The Dalgety Bridge is in the background.

We have nothing to fear

Dalgety Bridge across the Snowy River

Fear not the Voice — the danger is in the fear.

Voters are being asked to decide a referendum to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by adding an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to parliament to the country's constitution.

There is an — energetic — part of our community loudly urging us to vote no to this proposal. But why? Why wouldn't everyone want to recognise the original custodians of this country by giving them a say in how they are treated by Australia's national government?

Various reasons are offered. The Voice doesn’t go far enough and much more needs to be done is a big one. A Voice is no use when there’s no ear to listen is a pointed — and probably fair — objection. Indigenous Australians don’t deserve any special voice and any such voice shouldn’t be in the constitution are less generous objections.

And there is certainly room for discussion about at least some of these arguments. But the merit of the arguments doesn’t account for the loudness of some elements of the opposition, or its official slogan: If you don’t know, vote No.

The simplest explanation for the more strident opposition is a belief that we should be very afraid of the proposal. Afraid that we'll permanently break the constitution; afraid that as a country we'll be forced to do things we don't like, don't want, or can't afford; afraid that we'll be unfairly privileging one small group of people; as well as the more general fears of people who are different and of change itself.

Fear is a deep emotion that wells from a primordial protective instinct. We all know hurt — and prefer to avoid it. But while fear can be powerful its power can be destructive as easily as it can be protective. Particularly in politics, the legitimacy of a call to fear needs close examination because often the danger posed by being afraid is greater than the thing we’re being told we should be afraid of. Sometimes, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously warned: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Roosevelt was drawing attention to the danger posed by the paralysing fear of doing hard things to overcome the Great Depression. For us, the question is whether the fear of voting Yes is the real danger when we think of the referendum. I think it is.

Firstly, fear is easy. We all know the fear of loss. We’ve all experienced fear of pain. So promoting the possibility of pain and loss if we vote Yes readily taps in to fears that we know intimately. But the fact that fear is so easy to generate should give us pause. We should be doubly careful when politicians are encouraging the fear. Linking the Voice with feelings of fear damages people’s perception of the Voice by association — without needing to provide real reasons for voting no.

Now, it is true that a referendum to change the nation’s constitution is a momentous occasion. And momentous can be legitimately scary. Is that sufficient reason to be afraid of the Voice? Or is there more reason to be cautious about the fear of the Voice that is being so strongly and widely encouraged?

I'd suggest that if the momentousness of the change is a concern, the best thing to do is to inform yourself about the proposed change. This is where the No campaign’s slogan — If you don’t know, vote No — is a problem. Caution about constitutional change is normal and sensible but shouldn’t be the end of it. If someone is telling you it is all you need you should ask why. It would be better if any initial concern led us to find out what the momentous change actually meant — so we can get a better sense for whether or not the change really is something to fear.

This is important because not knowing about something can itself heighten fear through a dynamic where ignorance promotes suspicion and suspicion generates fear. This is how learning about a big change can reduce fear. Knowing more about something might not make the fear go away but it will help us know whether or not the fear we are told we should feel is truly warranted.

This is where the main message from the No campaign is one of the strongest reasons to distrust the strenuous assertion that we should be afraid of the Voice to parliament. That message, encapsulated in the tag line If you don’t know, vote No, tells us that it is just fine to ignore what the referendum is actually proposing. The result — promoting fear while encouraging a lack of curiosity and understanding of the actual referendum question — is a potent mix. And it is where the real danger lies.

When the main argument against a proposal is that it’s going to hurt AND that it is too hard to understand, that argument itself is what you should be most worried about.  If someone is telling you that fear is enough, you should be concerned about what else they don’t want you to know.

In the case of this referendum, what they don’t want you to know might just be that having an Indigenous Voice to parliament in the constitution is actually a pretty good idea. Whether you think that's true or not shouldn't be based on a call to be afraid. After all, momentous can also be amazing.

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