The Voice – try and understand it

That’s the problem when the media over-simplifies complex issues and frames them as four-word headlines. Perhaps it was an ill-conceived monicker from the start. Then there’s that popular song by John Farnham which has assumed anthem-like status – “You’re the Voice, try and understand it.”

Whatever they want to call it, allowing Australia’s first people to have a say in how they are governed is surely in the national interest. As we prepare in 2023 to change Australia’s constitution to ensure black fellas have a say, it seems absurd that anyone would oppose the idea.

It’s not that long ago we had a ‘White Australia’ policy and successive governments since have struggled to deal with indigenous people in an equitable way. Our recent past is littered with stories of neglect, mismanagement and outright racism.  The voluminous Black Deaths in Custody report finalised in 1991 made 339 recommendations, few of which have been implemented.

Most involved procedures for black persons in custody, liaison with Aboriginal groups and police education. There have been 540 black deaths in custody since the report was concluded. In 2021-2022 there were 24 indigenous deaths in custody, well above the long-term average.

In the 1980s and 1990s indigenous songwriters Kev Carmody and Archie Roach and indigenous bands like Yothu Yindi gave voice to the many grievances of Aboriginal people. A few academics kept kicking over the issues so many others tried hard to bury. The trenchant criticism of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu is one example of how badly the “No” vote wants to supress any re-interpretation of white fella history. 

We’re not the only nation to marginalise and mistreat our indigenous peoples. But per capita we stand out in the crowd. We may have got past the nanny state stupidity of the Stolen Children era, but in more recent times (2007) John Howard introduced the Intervention to once again interfere in the rights of Indigenous people to manage their own affairs. Nevertheless, Howard went to the 2007 election promising to hold a referendum on constitutional recognition.

Kevin Rudd won that election and in February 2008 delivered an apology in Federal Parliament for the mistreatment of Indigenous Australians. In the speech he committed to closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage and made a statement of recognition.

In 2008, six ambitious targets were set to address the disadvantage faced by Indigenous Australians in life expectancy, child mortality, education and employment. While some of these targets have been met, Indigenous people still have a lower life expectancy than non-indigenous.

Since then, there has been bi-partisan support for advances like the 2013 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill.

Two years later,Liberal MP Ken Wyatt tabled a report, with support from the Government, Labor and the Greens, on progress towards a referendum on Indigenous recognition in the constitution. Then followed a summit with 40 of the nation’s most influential Indigenous representatives. A Referendum Council formed at that time travelled to 12 different locations around Australia and met with over 1,200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives. The meetings resulted in a consensus document on constitutional recognition, the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Now, after 16 years of lead-up work, the Labor Government led by Anthony Albanese has started work on its key election promise to give Aboriginal people a seat at the table.

On April 5, after months of fence-sitting, Opposition leader Peter Dutton said that the Liberal party would not support what he described as “the Prime Minister’s Canberra Voice”. (Can’t you just hear the dog whistle. Ed.)

The sticking point is the Coalition wants to remove the clause that says indigenous people can make direct representations to executive government.

Mr Dutton’s statement makes it clear that while the Liberals are saying ‘yes’ to constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, it is only on their terms. The Coalition’s policy proposes that constitutional recognition be split from practical outcomes. The Liberals would instead legislate to establish local and regional Voices.

The Liberals, marginalised in Parliament and seemingly cast out into the political wilderness, are in no position to promise the Aboriginal people anything. Already, five Liberal MPs are advocating a conscience vote and there have been key defections, including this week’s shock resignation from the Liberal’s shadow cabinet by Shadow Attorney-General Julian Leeser.

Leeser, who was also Shadow minister for Aboriginal Affairs, revealed on Tuesday he was quitting the front bench to concentrate on the ‘Yes’ vote. This compounded the Liberals’ woes, after losing the safe Liberal seat of Aston to Labor in a by-election on April 1. Then followed the resignation of former MP Ken Wyatt, stating that he was quitting the party because of his opposition to the party’s position on the Voice.

It is worth recounting that Nationals MP Andrew Gee resigned in November 2022 when the Nats said they would oppose the Voice. Gee, now an Independent, cited his intention to back the Voice.

Meanwhile, Tasmania’s Liberal Premier Jeremy Rockliff has said he will support Anthony Albanese’s Voice proposal, as will Tasmanian Liberal Bridget Archer. While Mr Dutton’s statement binds his front benchers to follow the party line, back benchers are free to vote as they see fit.

Putting all that aside, what do Indigenous people think about the Voice, or did we forget to ask them? Since ‘Invasion Day’ in January, some indigenous people have made it clear that Labor’s Voice does not go far enough. Some disagree with the Uluru Statement from the Heart and there has been a mixed response to former Greens senator Lidia Thorpe’s opposition to the Voice. While Peter Dutton “wants a fight” as acting PM Penny Wong said this week, elder statesman Noel Pearson calmly says his people will  “take the high road”.

But can any one document (framed by constitutional lawyers) speak for the diverse wishes of 250 separate Aboriginal clans or tribes?

Academic Kelly Menzel writes that Indigenous people have been burned before in past attempts and campaigns to have Indigenous people included in the Constitution.

One example is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC)), an Indigenous national advisory body to the Australian government. ATSIC had limited executive powers and was abolished by the Howard government in 2004 . At the time, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner William Jonas condemned the the move, stating the government:

“Seeks to ensure that the government will only have to deal with Indigenous peoples on its own terms and without any reference to the aspirations and goals of Indigenous peoples.”

Prof Menzel, Associate Dean Education, Gnibi College, Southern Cross University, says indigenous people need better clarity around what the Voice actually means.

“What we have seen happen to (Lidia Thorpe) in speaking out about the Voice has made it difficult for mob to write and speak publicly on it if they oppose it.

“We risk being dismissed or attacked by both non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples.”

The constitutional referendum, to be held between October and December, needs a majority of yes votes in a majority of States and Territories. Polls so far indicate the ‘Yes’ lobby needs to do a lot of work in Western Australia and Queensland.

The more serious issue is that of the 44 referendums held in Australia’s history, only eight were passed. All of those had bipartisan support.

I assume I’m preaching to the converted here, but it behoves us all to at the very least understand what the constitution is and how it works.

(Ironically, when I was teaching in the early 70’s, the only students to study Citizenship Education were those deemed to be ‘too dumb’ to learn Geography. Ed)

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