JOHN R. SABINE. A Separate Voice to Government: not the brightest of ideas

Feb 20, 2020

How many sound reasons does one need before concluding that something in indeed a bad idea? Perhaps even just nonsense.

According to recent news from Canberra ‘Minister Wyatt will establish a Senior Advisory Group to co-design options for a model that will ensure that Indigenous Australians are heard at all levels of government – local, state and federal.’ There is so much problematic about this proposal, often called a “separate voice”, has no-one thought through the Law of Unintended Consequences with regards to its implementation?

Any one of these problems would constitute a significant reason for doubt – collectively the evidence is overwhelming. Primarily, of course, if our indigenous cousins want a separate voice to government, then that must mean they want to be considered separate from the rest of us. But how separate do they want to be? Do they want two Australias? What we have already, plus something separate for them?

We all, individually and collectively, currently have a voice to government. We can vote in whom we like, turf out whom we don’t like. We have a whole range of lobby groups, pushing a whole range of ideas. We can write to, or otherwise contact, our own member. Social media provides us with a plethora of ways to start a campaign in favour of something we want. Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders can already do the same. Since they can use any of these routes in seeking a voice, why do they want a ‘separate’ voice?

Do they imagine that such a voice will alleviate in any way the harsh third-world conditions under which so many of them currently labour? Forget it. “Closing the Gap” hasn’t. All of the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the great national apology to the so-called stolen generation hasn’t. Years of inept government policy and its accompanying billions of dollars spent hasn’t. No treaty, no reconciliation, nor any inclusion in whatever new wording in the Constitution will. The whole unmitigated mess needs a radical new think, not a separate voice.

And can you imagine what a legal goldmine any separate-voice proposal will create? Three lodes instantly appear. First up, what territory would such a voice cover? ‘Laws affecting indigenous people’ seems to be the catch-cry. But every law or government decision could possible impact on indigenous people, however indirectly or remotely. How long is a piece of string, how big is a paddock? Enter the lawyers. Someone will have to decide what is and what isn’t covered by some separate-voice legislation or regulation. Probably on every separate occasion there is a challenge. And there will be many challenges.

So governments will need to listen to this voice. But will they take any notice? Do they have to? What happens when someone says they haven’t and that they should have? More lucrative grist for the legal mill.

Yet there is probably another, and vast, legal El Dorado available before those questions can be answered? Who will be able to contribute to this voice and who not? Who is separate enough to qualify? Will anyone who has even a fraction of indigenous heritage be eligible to raise their voice? Will we need more of this terrible ‘Certificate of Aboriginality’ business? Is a member of the city-dwelling, highly-paid aboriginal elite any more qualified to speak up than some poor indigene eking out a meagre existence on some remote homeland? No wonder our legal brethren are already salivating.

No Minister, we need much more positive thinking than just some vague, catch-all ‘co-design options for a model’ for a separate voice to government. Surely 21st century Australia has the wit to lift so many of our indigenous brothers and sisters out of poverty? But do we have the will? More talk-talk about a separate voice is not the answer. More money is not the answer. More intelligence is.

John R. Sabine is into his third career: first as a scientist and academic, then an agricultural and environmental consultant/entrepreneur and now a “Scholar-at-Large” (thinker, writer, speaker, actor). See 

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