YES for the Voice: A Chinese-Australian’s Perspective

Chek Ling (林忠质)

1984 was a seminal year for me. Not George Orwell’s, but our own Geoffrey Blainey’s 1984. In that year my childhood imaginations of God’s own country got blown up by Blainey’s year-long anti-Asian campaign. He was then the pre-eminent historian of Australia. And now 60 years after I came to Oz, I wonder if the NO case for the Voice referendum is a lab-incubated 2023 mutation of the Yellow Peril virus first released in C19 terra nullius.

Much water has flowed under the bridge. In 1973 Gough Whitlam, to the discomfort of many who had imbibed their mother’s milk of White Australia, buried the White Australia Policy. And then in 1984 Blainey seized his chance.  The sudden influx of Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1976 had badly upset the traditional white inhabitants in run-down suburbs where the refugees had swiftly descended, and taken over!  Ah, if White Australia was no more, perhaps a man of Blainey’s stature could stem the tide of time and at least preserve the British culture. He launched his campaign. Stop the flow of Asian immigrants, lest they water down that “crimson thread” to which Henry Parkes had drunk a toast whilst campaigning for “A United Australia” at the 1890 Federal Convention in Melbourne.

At Federation in 1901 the dream of a White Australia was enshrined in the Constitution. The original inhabitants were not mentioned: God had ordained that they would die out, terra nullius thus made sacred. The Chinese would fade away, as the cunning Dictation Test would ensure: the Yellow Peril thus avoided for good.  And the Kanakas, prototype of today’s temporary-visa hired hands, to be deported en masse: OUT!

It was the time. Race was everything, with White on top of the totem pole of humanity.  And our founding fathers certainly did not want the Chinese to be included in our constitution.

It is clear that once that decision to exclude the Chinese was made, the reasons soon followed and mutated.

The Chinese will swamp us. There are so many of them in China! 

The Chinese are heathens.  They bring diseases (though not Covid yet!).  They have bad habits.

And above all, they are a threat to our unprotected women.

All huge, huge anxieties incubated from selected fragments of truth.

And thus the fear of The Yellow Peril was enshrined in our Constitution.

As a latter-day Chinese Australian I see a parallel in the Ten Reasons crafted by the NO case for the Voice Referendum.

In 1992, just 20 years after Gough Whitlam had buried the White Australia Policy, the High Court handed down its Mabo judgement. It exploded the lie of terra nullius:  an existential blow to the sanctity of our-purity-of-race Constitution.

The White Australia Policy is no more, but the Yellow Peril virus has mutated, periodically flaring up:  evoking nostalgia for the crimson thread in 1984; channelling Howard’s culture war; fuelling Pauline Hanson’s rise and rise; gestating Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion; and of late stirring up the drums of AUKUS to ward off the China threat.

Terra nullius likewise is no more, but the rearguard soldiers on.

Since the Mabo judgment cannot be upset, the rearguard must make sure that the Constitution is protected from any consequential flow-on. Thus Keating’s Native Title Act had to be nobbled at all costs.  For if we had simply acknowledge that the original inhabitants were here and did have their own systems of government, that would have been just bearable; but to allow them to claim their ancestral lands legally was a step too far.    

Thus Tim Fisher, then Deputy Prime Minister, warned that everyone’s backyard was under threat from Native Title claims.  Yet no-one I know has lost their backyard!  But it paved the way for John Howard in 1997 to emasculate Keating’s Native Title Act with his Ten Point Plan, largely to appease the mining lobby. Aye, just like the beat-up fears of the Yellow Peril that led to the White Australia Policy being enshrined in our Constitution! 

So it is with the Voice Referendum. The vanguard has conceded that a simple acknowledgement of the original inhabitants in the Constitution would be acceptable, but to allow the same people to sit, retrospectively as it were, at the table when the Constitution was wrought into shape, was just too much.  What’s gunner happen next?  All the inheritors of the crimson thread being told that they are no longer citizens of this “most successful multicultural nation in the world”? 

It is the same existential anxiety that in 1997 drove the new Coalition government to nobble the Native Title Act.

I wonder if all of this is incubating in the mind of Peter Dutton, handed the poisoned chalice of a Liberal Party shorn of MPs attractive to the younger and/or better educated voters, owing to a purge that began with Howard and got put into overdrive with Morrison. Dutton needs a miracle.  Perhaps the NO subterfuge could turn the tide for him, just as the Tampa-inspired national security ruse had done for Howard! 

No wonder then that the NO narrative bears all the hallmarks of the Yellow Peril hysteria:  Risky; Unknown; Divisive; Permanent.

There is a thin shaft of light.

The NO case is all over the place:  the Dutton NO; the Lydia NO; and the Mundine NO.  A cacophony.  All they care about is to blow up the government. Guy Fawkes is probably chuckling in his grave.  

But the YES mob has been too timid. A generous invitation for us to walk together! Oi, oi, oi!   It’s a spoonful of oil, over a tempestuous sea.

They need to take the strategic risk of making a clean breast of it all.  They need a downpour on the gunpowder of the NO vanguard.

Somehow they have to be upfront about the original sin of our Constitution. Terra nullius was a lie. And 230 years of dispossession has left a horrific outcome.  At the very least we should made opportune restitutions to redress the injuries inflicted upon the original inhabitants of this land.

We took their land

We deprived them of food

We gave them diseases

We poisoned their water holes

We raped the women

We abducted their children into detention centres

We turned the children into domestic servants

And foot-soldiers for our cattle barons

We perpetuated the cycle

In honour of God’s blessing upon our civilisation

In terra nullius

Our conscience finally pricked



Native Title

Many good intentions

Billions spent

But Close the Gap

From White perspectives on high

Has failed

The least we can do now is to give our first peoples an inalienable voice at the table to propose what they need to heal the wounds and to rebuild their hopes.

Author: Chek Ling

Born in Sarawak to parents from Foochow, China.  Got to Oz in 1962 on an unexpected Colombo Plan scholarship, to study electrical engineering.  Never left.

Have been an activist in the Chinese community since Blainey’s 1984.