Originally published in The Australian
Whichever way today’s vote goes, the result has to be accepted as a valid expression of the will of the Australian people. If the voice gets up, its critics will have to grit their teeth, accept that voters have endorsed it and do their best to ensure it does more good than harm, even though it will give some people more weight based on their ancestry. If the voice goes down, that won’t mean Australians are racist or have rejected Indigenous people. It simply would be that most voters agreed with Bob Hawke: Australia should remain a country with “no hierarchy of descent” and “no privilege of origin”.
Anyone expecting swift change in the plight of Indigenous Australians is bound to be disappointed, regardless of the fate of the voice. While there certainly is disadvantage in our cities and larger towns, the vast discrepancies in health and wellbeing that concern us and that have been cited as the main justification for the voice are largely generated in the remote places where about 25 per cent of Aboriginal people live. These communities are hard to reach via the kind of health, education and employment initiatives governments typically propose because they usually lack the economic base needed for a culture of self-reliance and personal responsibility to develop.
They’re often former mission stations where different local clans, many with a history of hostility, would gather for food and help when the seasons were poor and which gradually developed into permanent settlements.
Once, residents kept busy tending gardens, raising cattle, maintaining dwellings, making clothes and furniture, and helping in school. After the 1970s, when the government took over, these semi-subsistence economies largely crumbled into welfare villages, with outsiders providing most of the relevant services and local people often lapsing into the individual and family dysfunction that normally accompanies routine idleness regardless of race or culture. “Sit-down money”, as the elders started calling it, as Noel Pearson used to say, is “the poison that’s killing our community”.
Several years ago, as a way to encourage local people to lift their horizons, Pearson started talking about what he called “orbits”. His thinking was that someone from Hope Vale on Cape York, for instance, after imbibing from family and elders the local Guugu Yimithirr culture, plus getting a good primary education in English, then a good secondary education in Cooktown or at boarding school in Cairns, might end up living and working anywhere in the world while always having a connection with country, perhaps nourished by frequent visits home. It was a brave attempt to reconcile “connectedness to country” with breaking the cycle of dependence that’s all but unavoidable for people living permanently somewhere without a real economy.
For decades, though, notwithstanding Pearson’s insights on welfare issues, the thrust of policy has been to foster culture via outstation movements, which may have separated people from the dysfunction of larger remote settlements yet also increased their gulf with mainstream Australia.
If the voice were to succeed, it’s all but certain the response to continuing community dysfunction would be more of the same – more spending, government programs and cultural separatism – because the voice is just a logical extension of the self-determination cum separatist thinking that has driven Indigenous policy for decades.
Presumably, the hope of people like Pearson is that even more “partnership” between local people and government can be made to engender the “right to take responsibility” he used to call for; and that the outcome would indeed be that his people were empowered to live effectively in two worlds, as inculturated Aboriginal people and as mainstream Australians, as he used to want in the years when we worked together on the issues of Cape York.
Underpinning this, though, is the conviction that standard democracy can’t work for Aboriginal people because they number scarcely four in every 100 Australians, hence their need for a special and disproportionate voice if they are to have the honour they deserve as the first Australians.
If the voice is to fail, there should be a significant reset on the grounds that the separatism that has informed Indigenous policy for decades has finally been subjected to public scrutiny and rejected, including by a substantial percentage of Aboriginal people.
As Warren Mundine, the former Labor Party national president and chairman of my Indigenous advisory council when I was prime minister, has told audiences during this campaign: the best way to have a good life is to go to school, get a job, start a business if you can, buy a home if you can, be a contributor to your community and start a family if possible, so a decent and improving personal and civic cycle can continue. For generations, albeit sometimes obstructed by “protection” regimes applying before the mid-1960s, this has been his family’s story.
This is what every immigrant community instinctively has understood, regardless of whether government policy has been assimilation or multiculturalism, and why immigrant communities have flourished mightily in this country, none more so than the Jews who have succeeded spectacularly in being leaders in multiple fields without losing their distinctiveness as a people. All the Indigenous leaders of this campaign, on both sides, who mostly no longer live permanently on country, are witnesses to the fact it’s possible to be successful, well-respected Australians without losing their Indigenous identity.
For Aboriginal people to succeed in the modern world, no differently than for others, what’s needed first is a good education and then the realistic opportunity to go to places where talent and hard work can flourish, without the humbugging that often causes people in remote communities to abandon even what limited employment is available. Yet a good primary education is always going to be a rare accomplishment in a remote community with high teacher turnover, low expectations about school attendance, few real jobs for local people to aim for and not many role models to aspire to beyond teacher’s aide, artist, cultural ranger, Aboriginal health worker and sports star.
I recall the respected matriarch of a prominent Cape York family, a teacher’s aide for 30 years, who was proud of her daughter’s achievements as a touring member of Bangarra Dance Theatre but worried about her return home on the grounds that there was “nothing for her here”. Yet for decades it has been doctrine that people should be fostered to “live on country” and to keep “culture” even though that’s rarely compatible with the educational, employment and health attainments most Australians take for granted. The objective has been to preserve difference, on the one hand, and to create equality, on the other. Is it any wonder that it has failed?
There are many things that should change if the voice is defeated. If voters have rejected a constitutionally entrenched national voice, it would be an impertinence to legislate one, even at a local or regional level. Equally, if the voice is rejected, it would be an impertinence to proceed with any of the other elements in the voice, treaty, truth log of claims contained in the Uluru statement; and the government should forthwith abandon the Makarrata (or treaty-making) commission to which it already has committed $6m.
Most of those intending to vote No to the voice are effectively voting Yes to national unity and constitutional equality. This should mean a big rethink for elite-driven virtue-signalling, like the acknowledgments of country from every speaker on an official podium (as if the land belongs only to some of us, not to all of us); the co-equal flying of the Aboriginal flag with the national one (as if the flag of some of us should rate equally with the flag of all of us); plus the ABC and Qantas-driven tendency to join Indigenous placenames with standard ones as if the past two centuries have to be atoned for. Far from a rejection of Aboriginal people, a big No vote would affirm Australians’ wish to go forward together as one equal people.
Regardless of what happens to the voice, Aboriginal people should be free to make their own choices in life. That means more effort to give people in remote Australia the good education they need to have the same prospects as everyone else. If they subsequently choose to live in places with no economic base, so be it; but there should be no expectation that they should, and no expectation the gap will quickly close if they do.