Originally published in the Australian

I’m all in favour of recognising indigenous people in our constitution but not if it means making a race based body part of our parliament and not if it means changing our system of government. The problem with entrenching in the constitution an indigenous voice to the parliament is not just that it makes race an element in who can vote and who can stand for election, but also that it unavoidably changes the way our government works; because a particular group will have an unspecified say, over unspecified topics, with unspecified ramifications.

Good on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for wanting to do the right thing by Aboriginal people. We all do. We all lament the ugly fact that indigenous people, on average, die younger and live worse than the rest of us. But it’s no mystery why this is so. People with much worse educational outcomes, with much lower prospects for employment, and living far away from the services most Australians take for granted are always going to have shorter, poorer lives than those in better circumstances, regardless of race.

With Aboriginal people, perhaps the “torment of powerlessness”, as the PM puts it, might have made things worse. But a voice to the parliament would not actually be power – unless it turns out to be much more than just an advisory body. Close consultation with indigenous people, sometimes through legislated (and elected) bodies like ATSIC and sometimes through executive action such as the indigenous advisory council that I appointed as PM, has been happening for decades. If this body really is, in the PM’s words, to “end 121 years of commonwealth governments arrogantly believing they know enough to impose their own solutions on Aboriginal people” it’s obviously going to have something approaching a veto over decisions the parliament might otherwise make.

It seems almost impolite to contrast the PM’s high-minded statement with the government’s current attempt to abolish the cashless debit card (without any obvious consultation with the affected communities) and despite the objections of at least some indigenous leaders. What would happen, for instance, if a future incoming government wanted to abolish a similar measure (such as the Basics Card, a Howard government initiative that the Rudd-Gillard government actually improved and extended)? What if it had a clear election mandate to do so? Presumably, it would still have to consult with the voice; where presumably, some members would echo Jacinta Price and support the retention of a measure designed to reduce the misuse of welfare money; while others would echo Lydia Thorpe and attack any restrictions at all as colonialist oppression. How would this additional mechanism improve the final outcome or, indeed, add anything to the eleven indigenous voices that are already present in the parliament? What it would certainly do, though, is make the legislative process more complicated and invite judicial interventions on how much weight might be given to the view of the voice versus that of the parliament; and on what “matters” might (or might not) be “relating” to indigenous peoples.

The fundamental issue at the heart of all this is the degree of separation of Australia’s indigenous people from the wider Australian community.

I’ve always liked what I take to be Noel Pearson’s concept of orbits: that an indigenous person from Cape York, say, might be living in Cairns, Brisbane or London without losing a connectedness to country. This means, though, being able to operate seamlessly in different cultures and requires a good education in English as well as (for Hope Vale people) immersion in Guugu Yimithirr learning. The problem in almost every remote settlement is that many people end up lost between two worlds; with the kids hardly going to school and the adults hardly going to work because of “culture”; with different standards being applied out of deference to local sensitivities.

Take the glowing report in Saturday’s Australian about the new Gumatj school in East Arnhem Land that’s bi-lingual so Yolngu kids can complete Year 12 locally rather than having to board in Darwin. “Early signs are promising” the report said. “75 per cent of enrolled students have an attendance record of over 90 per cent”. Even though this is almost certainly an improvement, it wouldn’t be acceptable in any normal Australian school and it shouldn’t be acceptable just because this is Yolngu country. And how useful is an education mainly in Yolngu anyway, other than for people with scant interest in living anywhere else?  

Everything about the proposed voice drips with entrenching separatism as an atonement for dispossession even though indigenous people can never expect to achieve Australian outcomes without also embracing Australian standards. Likewise the constant pressure for acknowledgment of country, as if the rest of us have no claim; and the growing reference to “First Nations”, as if the 700 clans of pre-settlement Australia resembled modern states. Inevitably, any referendum campaign will seek to exploit guilt about the past to overcome anxieties about the future; even though nothing this generation does now can alter the past but it certainly could prejudice our future. Then there’s the coming bid to rewrite history (via “truth telling”) and for even more division (via “treaty”) that will be great for lawyers and activists but not for living conditions in remote Australia.

In the 15 years since 2007 when both sides of politics committed to it, the constitutional change sought has gone way beyond recognition. It’s now about transforming governance, at least in so far as it relates to Aboriginal people, even though the constitution necessarily belongs to all of us, not just to some of us. That’s why the proposal that I was attracted to, while PM, was to amend the preamble to provide that our “one indivisible federal commonwealth under the crown” had “an indigenous heritage, a British foundation, and an immigrant character”; because it’s unarguably true, has something for everyone, would recognise indigeneity as one of the three pillars on which our country has built, yet wouldn’t create a lawyer’s picnic.

As Senator Price, who described herself as “an empowered Warlpiri Celtic Australian woman” said in her first speech last week: “This government has yet to demonstrate how this proposed voice will deliver practical outcomes and unite, rather than drive a wedge further between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia….It’s time to stop feeding into a narrative that promotes racial divide…(and to) pay… respects to our elders of all backgrounds who came together through hard work…to forge an Australia we can all be proud of”. Amen to that. In any event, these issues should be debated and determined in a national parliament that has no obligation, legal or even just moral, to defer to a race based body. Constitutional change is for keeps in a way nothing else is. The last thing we should do is allow goodwill to cloud judgment and to be morally bullied into becoming a country that’s more divided and less well governed.