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The real issue at this year’s indigenous voice referendum is a question of principle: Will we abandon the egalitarian nature of Australian democracy?

Will we, in other words, join the crackpots of history by introducing into our Constitution the concept of racial preference that lies at the core of this referendum?

Or will we defend the ideals of liberal democracy that emerged in revolutionary America and France?

We are being asked to give one racial group – and their descendants for all time – constitutionally guaranteed additional influence over all areas of public policy. If you tick the right race box you would gain political influence exceeding that enjoyed by everyone else.

The proponents of the yes case see things differently.

Some have argued that the voice would be merely symbolic; a benign way of showing solidarity with Indigenous people by giving them a say on matters that affect them. Others have described it as a path to empowerment.

But that’s not the real story. This referendum is not about reconciliation. Nor is it about symbolism and being nice. It is about establishing a new institution of state that would permanently change our system of government.

It would require us to abandon equality of citizenship by giving constitutional standing to a race-based entity that could go beyond indigenous affairs and involve itself in all policy debates.

The proponents of the voice say it is the solution to years of policy failures on Indigenous affairs. They say it is justified because parliament can already make special laws on indigenous matters and this will merely allow Indigenous people to have a say on those laws.

But if closing the gap on disadvantage and making better laws on Indigenous affairs were the true goal, why has the constitutional provision been drafted in a way that would permit this entity to dissipate its efforts across the entire range of federal public policy?

Why did the proponents of this change decline to confine the voice to matters that only affect Indigenous people, or even primarily affect Indigenous people?

Without such limits, this looks like an attempt to establish a shadow government that would be free to develop policies on everything. Those policies would be framed as advice but, according to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, it would be a brave government that ignored its advice.

Governments would find themselves making trade-offs, not just with the Opposition and various groupings in the Senate, but with members of the voice.

Because it would have an unlimited jurisdiction and a narrow, race-based constituency, it is entirely foreseeable that government policy on key issues could be skewed away from the broader national interest in order to appease the voice or gain its support.

All groups in society, including Indigenous communities, have interests that need to be balanced. Giving constitutional standing and public funding to any community group would rig the process of balancing conflicting interests and allocating resources, which is the core business of government.

This debate has become confused, mainly because of the lack of community-wide consultation. The blame rests with the government which has not provided detailed and independent legal analysis on the proposed change.

It also chose to break with tradition by failing to prepare pamphlets with official arguments for and against the voice.

That is bad enough. But it has even tried to stifle debate by implying that those with concerns about this proposal are racists.

On November 25 last year, just before the abandonment of the traditional information pamphlet became official, Pat Dodson, the government’s special envoy on reconciliation, told a panel discussion on the voice in Melbourne: “The government is not interested in supporting any racist campaigns, which will have an impact on the question of the pamphlet.”

Voting no is not racist. We are being asked to abandon the great principle of equality of citizenship – the same principle that was forcefully expressed by American revolutionaries Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin who considered it self-evident that we are all created equal.

Revolutionary France, under Jefferson’s influence, embraced this idea in its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It is also present in the first sentence of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

If the referendum succeeds, everyone would still have the same right to vote and to seek to influence public policy. But Indigenous citizens would have something extra. They would be represented not only by their members of parliament but by a lobby group with constitutional standing, public funding and its own bureaucracy.

Those who quibble about whether this would create an extra right for Indigenous people have missed the point. The reality, regardless of how it is termed, would be that Indigenous citizens would have greater constitutional standing than others.

This would put an end to the idea that all Australians have an equal say on how this nation is governed. It would kill reconciliation by fostering resentment against the beneficiaries of such an unfair and unprincipled system.

Australian democracy might not be perfect. But it is the result of a great multicultural project, drawing on the doctrine of equal treatment and the experience of all peoples represented in parliament.

This referendum should be rejected – primarily because it is wrong in principle but also because the proponents have failed to provide the community with enough information to make a fully informed decision.

They have forgotten that the Constitution draws its legitimacy from the entire community – not from politicians and insiders.

Chris Merritt is vice-president of the Rule of Law Institute of Australia