Originally published in The Daily Telegraph
Goodwill towards Aboriginal people has never been greater and there is all-but-universal support for recognising indigenous people in the constitution. But this proposal for a constitutionally entrenched indigenous voice to the government and to the parliament is way beyond recognition. It’s a special body for some, but not all, based on how long your ancestors have been in Australia.
Is that what we really want in our constitution: two classes of Australian based on race? That’s why the coming referendum is almost sure to be the most important issue our country faces next year and why it deserves far more debate in detail than it’s so far had.
Actually, indigenous people already have a voice. It’s called the Australian parliament which now has eleven indigenous MPs, a record number, all of whom have been chosen and elected in the normal way, because Australian voters have become so lacking in prejudice and are now so appreciative of the qualities of indigenous people as to disproportionately put them into our national parliament.
Although our country has never tried harder to give minorities a fair go, indigenous people especially, that’s not enough for the Albanese government. Hence this push for a separate and special indigenous body, over and above the indigenous MPs already in the parliament, the national indigenous “coalition of peaks”, and all the Aboriginal land councils that already cover the whole country and represent the traditional owners in whom authority used to rest.
This can’t be because Aboriginal people currently lack a voice. Many indigenous people speak out powerfully and effectively in our public life. Nor is it because Aboriginal people currently aren’t being listened to. As the now almost ubiquitous acknowledgements of country, routine presence of the Aboriginal flag alongside the National Flag, and angst over Australia Day show, officialdom takes some indigenous concerns very seriously indeed.
This new voice, that the government wants to put to a referendum in the second half of next year, is not about listening more closely to indigenous views or about finally recognising in our constitution that Aboriginal people were here first. It’s about introducing a kind of co-governance where nothing can be done for 100 per cent of the people without taking into account the concerns of that 4 per cent, some of whose ancestors came before 1788.
As the Prime Minister himself has said, only a very “brave” government could ignore the voice’s representations. That’s why, should this voice be approved at a referendum, it would constitute something approaching a “third chamber of the parliament” as Malcolm Turnbull said when it was first proposed.
In fact, the government has two distinct and contradictory positions on the voice: one, pitched to the wider Australian community, is that the voice is really no big deal and that not to support it would be disrespectful to indigenous people, and perhaps even racist; the other, pitched to indigenous leaders and its own activist supporters, is that the voice would start to redress the shame of dispossession and might help to close the education, employment and life expectancy gap between indigenous people and the wider Australian community.
Paradoxically, in one of its first decisions, the same government that’s pushing this new voice totally ignored all the indigenous voices pleading with it not to scrap the cashless debit card and not to end the alcohol bans in remote Australia which were helping to keep vulnerable women and children safe.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the indigenous voices that this government heeds are largely urban activist ones that want to change the date of Australia Day, re-write history, conclude treaties between the Commonwealth and groups of its own citizens, and press for reparations; as opposed to those in remote areas whose focus is on practical problem solving like getting indigenous kids to school and adults to work and keeping communities safe.
Unless the government plans to release a lot more detail: about exactly who could stand and who could vote for this new body; exactly what will and what won’t be within its scope; how much its members might be paid and its deliberations resourced; and how it’s going to be possible to avoid extensive litigation about whether its representations have adequately been considered and responded to – and that’s a lot to think through – people will be expected to vote essentially on the “vibe”. And that’s hardly a safe way to make potentially far-reaching changes to the way we are governed.
If this really was likely to produce hitherto unknown solutions to all the scandalous problems afflicting remote Australia and if this really was likely to generate a hitherto unprecedented united resolve to make a difference, it might just be worth the risk. But instead of the belated appreciation that lasting change for the better happens person-by-person, institution-by-institution and community-by-community and is akin to slow boring through hard wood, this new body is likely to reinforce separatism and the quest for instant solutions; that’s when it’s not acting as an echo chamber for grievances or a gravy train for activists.
That’s why I hope you will join people like Senator Jacinta Price, a proud Celtic, Warlpiri Australian woman: not just to oppose this unnecessary voice which would be wrong in principle and bad in practice; but in finding better ways to recognise Aboriginal people in our constitution and to have the original Australians participate more fully in the great life that all of us should have.