Originally Published in The Sydney Morning Herald
Especially on something as sensitive as the recognition of Indigenous people in the Constitution, it’s a big mistake to sponsor a referendum proposal that might fail. Had the prime minister confined his proposed change, formally announced on Wednesday, to an overdue recognition of Australia’s Indigenous heritage, it would almost certainly have been carried by acclamation, as the 1967 referendum was. Sadly for the people who could be shattered by the result, what the PM is actually proposing is the biggest change to our Constitution we’ve ever been asked to make.
It’s to Australians’ credit that almost none of us want to let Aboriginal people down – as many will feel let down if this referendum fails. But constitutional change is too important to pass on the vibe. The Constitution belongs to all of us, not just to some of us, and any constitutional change should have something for everyone. In a country with “no hierarchy of descent” and “no privilege of origin” – to use Bob Hawke’s immortal words from our Bicentennial – it’s simply wrong to give just some of us a special say over how our government works based on ancestry.
Behind the elegant words of the Uluru Statement is an attempt to retro-fit Aboriginal sovereignty, as if the settlement of Australia was a grievous injustice. “Voice, Treaty, Truth”, the activists’ mantra, is meant to ensure that governments can do nothing much at all without the say-so of Indigenous people, with long-term ramifications for the way all of us live, as Western Australia’s deeply problematic recent land laws show.
Because the proposed constitutionally entrenched Indigenous Voice won’t just be to the parliament, prior to the making of laws under the so-called “race” power, but will be to the executive government too on anything “relating to” Indigenous people, it’s essentially a Voice to everyone on everything. Because a constitutionally guaranteed right to speak implies a constitutionally guaranteed obligation to hear, on any significant government action, the Voice will need to be given adequate notice, adequate information, adequate time and resources to respond, and then adequate consideration by the relevant governmental decision-maker.
It would take a “brave” government to ignore the Voice, as the PM said at the Garma Festival when beginning his campaign for it. Malcolm Turnbull grasped this too, when he initially opposed the Voice as a “third chamber of the parliament”. And it was certainly the understanding of the distinguished constitutional law experts Nicholas Aroney and Peter Gerangelos when they told the parliamentary inquiry into it that the Voice would be a “fourth arm” of government, along with the legislative, executive and judicial ones.
The most potent argument in favour of the Voice is that it’s what Aboriginal people want, and that it would be churlish not to give it to them, after two centuries of having to share the Australian landmass with millions of newcomers. But it’s actually far from clear what Aboriginal people want.
Polling conducted earlier this year for Passing the Message Stick, a pro-Voice entity, showed 24 per cent of First Nations people would vote no, while 42 per cent had heard very little or knew nothing about it. That left about a third who would vote yes. Even if the “don’t knows” largely broke in favour of the Voice, that’s still a substantial number of Aboriginal people who presumably reject being pigeonholed on the basis of ancestry and would prefer to avoid perpetuating victim status in a country that, whatever might once have been the case, is now the least racist and most colour-blind on earth.
Why wouldn’t an arm of government selected on the basis of ancestry not constitute a local version of the House of Lords, especially as it’s deliberately constructed to give people of a particular ancestry an extra say over the government of everyone? How could a constitutionally entrenched arm of government, comprising solely people who identify as a particular race, and chosen solely by people who identify as a particular race, not entrench race in the Constitution, no matter how benign the intent in terms of addressing past disadvantage?
There’s no plausible reason to think that establishing a special Indigenous Voice would remedy the crisis in remote Australia where there’s little expectation that Aboriginal kids will go to school, that adults will work, or that the ordinary law of the land should apply, in communities with little or no real economic base. It’s hard to imagine how a Voice could add to the advice already coming from a plethora of existing consultation mechanisms. Almost certainly, the Voice’s advice would be more of the same, especially more money; plus re-thinking Australia Day, renaming cities and towns, and more cultural sensitivity training to give “First Nations” their due.
The failure of the current referendum shouldn’t be the disaster for reconciliation that many people understandably fear. It could actually be a golden opportunity to end the separatism that’s at the heart of Aboriginal disadvantage and allow Australians to go forward together as one equal people with an Indigenous heritage, a British foundation and an immigrant character. Indeed, acknowledging that in the Constitution, in preference to this divisive Voice, would be something in which we could all take pride.