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

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

  1. Charles, David, Marcello, Rex,

    All very true, but you miss my point completely. I am not ignorant of past aboriginal history, I am not unaware of current aboriginal disadvantage, and I do have ideas for a comprehensive way forward, but in my article I was simply arguing that “a separate voice” is not an intelligent way forward. It might be a lovely symbolic gesture, but is it going to solve any current, on the ground, real-life practical problem for any of our indigenous citizens?

  2. Rex Graham says:

    This article is long on critique and very short on laying out a plausible way forward.
    We are left with “More money is not the answer. More intelligence is”.
    Gee, thanks!
    Problem solved! apparently.

  3. Marcello Milani says:

    Hi John,

    I have no doubt your intentions are good. And the road to Hell needs paving. Constantly, these days, since government services such as road works are now privatised. (Or “public/private partnerships” as we call it these days.)

    I agree with you that we need to find new and innovative solutions for our First Nations people. I do not agree with your ideas regarding this issue, however.

    It seems to me that your main failure is assuming that we need to decide between one or two Australias, ie, “Inclusive Australia” and “Inclusive Australia + Aboriginal Australia”. But this fails to recognise the reality of the nation in which we are living.

    From the time of “settlement” or “colonisation” there has always been at least two “Australias”. In fact at the time of arrival of the First Fleet we could easily make three (or more) Australias. But let’s keep it simple. In order of importance for us whitefellas at the time:

    1. The Screws – administrators and soldiers of the penal colony;
    2. The Convicts – unwilling inhabitants of the penal colony; and
    3. The Locals – the original inhabitants of this land.

    We really don’t have time for a full recitation of the atrocities that occurred as this “great nation of ours” was “settled” (an interestingly appropriate term given the actual history) and the indigenous people were “dispersed”. However, it is quite reasonable to say that the “commonwealth” that we enjoy was taken for no recompense at the expense of the people who were already here and against explicit instructions from “the Mother Country”.

    I’m not sure if you’ve experienced a home invasion. I have. It’s extremely disconcerting, to put it very mildly. Especially when you thought you were on friendly terms with, and have actively helped, those doing the invading. The mind truly boggles.

    And so we segue to the modern day, where neo-liberalism holds sway …

    Again, keeping it very simple, and in seeming order of importance we could identify a number of Australias:

    1. Rich Australia – multinational and local business, finance, other rentiers and the people who earn stupid money as their representatives, eg, boards, legal, lobby, etc;
    2. Middle Australia – the ever-declining middle class;
    3. Poor Australia – the people who actually do the work which enables the above two categories to get rich, or who have fallen by the wayside due to an ever decreasing amount of spending on public services, and caring for the disadvantaged in our society;
    4. Immigrants – how dare they come and take the jobs we won’t do;
    5. Asylum seekers – only more important than the Locals for their political utility, though just as poorly treated; and
    6. The Locals – the original inhabitants of this land.

    This is obviously a very basic breakdown. I’m trying to cover a lot of ground quickly.

    Right now we are governed by a “Coalition” of two parties who cannot seem to agree on anything other than the need to retain power and to continue the use of coal-fired power. Even now the internal toxicity stops the Government from acting sensibly on one of the greatest threats to face our species.

    And yet, the Uluru Statement calling for an Indigenous voice to Parliament was agreed by 250 indigenous representatives. After major debate. Here are two links you might like to look at:

    THIS is a call to true unity and healing for our nation. It is not a call for division. To call it such is disingenuous at best.

    All of the wealth that has been generated for rich white people (and even poor white people) in this country has been at the expense of it’s original inhabitants. And the theft continues. As do the colonial and patronising attitudes which keep them in both physical and societal poverty.

    Anyway, John, it seems to me, on the basis of the above article and your website, that your approach to the issue of a Voice to Parliament may be based in many common misconceptions. Perhaps considered “common sense” by some. Not by me.

    I hope you take some time to explore these issues more fully.

    Best wishes,
    Marcello Milani

  4. David Maxwell Gray says:

    John Sabine: your essay contains “not the brightest of ideas”, given its display of wilful ignorance of the fraught history of indigenous peoples in Australia, and of the difficulties of a minority group which is approximately only 3% of the population in getting any satisfactory outcome in the Australian Federal democratic system.

    Their position is quite different from all other minority groups which ceded many of their rights by implicitly agreeing to our terms when they migrated here to Australia: the indigenous peoples did not cede any rights, they were brutally defeated in the frontier wars, and their land taken. Of course they resisted, but it was force and colonial brutality and the taking of their livelihoods (water-sources and land) they resisted.

    Our indigenous brothers and sisters just happen to have a clear sovereign claim to land rights, as our High Court conceded in the Wik case. Our constitution deals grossly inadequately with them given they are previous owners and occupiers of the land we as colonialists took by force without compensation.

    The Uluru Statement of the Heart is their legitimate expression of what they see as a workable minimum claim of the Australian people, to recognise their situation. It happens to have an international precedent in Finland, where their indigenous people have the right to comment on national legislation affecting them before it is enacted.

    In the absence of the proposed “Voice”, the aspirations and needs of the 3% of the national electorate they comprise would most likely be completely ignored, as it indeed mostly has been to date, in terms of practical effects.

    We should be proud of our indigenous people: they help define, through their extraordinarily long history here, and their wonderful culture, what it means to be Australian. We should walk with them as brothers and sisters into a new, non-colonial Australia, proud of our unique blended culture, disposing of our inappropriate sense of cultural superiority, but with mutual respect for them, and for other minorities.

    By conferring dignity upon our indigenous brothers and sisters, through giving them a meaningful voice which recognises their amazing history as an ancient and successful branch of all of us as humans, do we non-indigenous also confer dignity upon ourselves. Without this, we non-indigenous have a dark shameful past, which cannot be assuaged by pretending it does not exist. Neither indigenous nor non-indigenous can truly be healthy, or at peace with ourselves.

  5. Charles Lowe says:

    Hang on – this is very confusing!

    On the one hand, John, you argue that ‘authority’ must have legal application. On the other, you state that establishing such First Nations’ authority will create two Australias. You place yourself in a Catch 22.

    So let me help try and sort this out, huh?

    As I understand it, First Nations peoples claim a ‘special’ voice in our governance on the basis that they have occupied this land for at least 65,000 years (as contrastable with white settlement of some 232 years).

    Secondly, First Nations people have denied they seek a ‘third Parliamentary chamber’.
    I agree with their denial. They seek a body simply as autonomous as the abolished ATSIC – a body sufficiently politically credible as to represent a ‘First Nations perspective’ to Parliament.

    Thirdly, that would mean that a resurrected ATSIC would have to sort out what is a defensible First Nations’ perspective on a wide and deep range of issues. Fine. That’s a normal political function. Performed by bodies from ACOSS to the Minerals Council of Australia.

    Fourthly, our Constitution needs to recognise a ‘primacy’ of First Nations’ perspective – a primacy which places the onus of exception upon non-First Nations peoples.

    Fifthly, thereby ensuring that any conflicts will be immediately referable to the High C0urt for resolution.

    You know – if I (as the merest bush lawyer) can elucidate this thesis – why cannot our politically representative Rhodes Scholars do likewise – and then emplace it?

  6. Yes, Peter, but if a ‘voice’ has no ‘legal authority’, what authority does it have? Unless someone has to do something such a voice would be useless. Of symbolic value, certainly, but in practice of no real use. Yes again, we need to listen to our indigenous citizens, but much more than that. We have to give them a real place at the decision-making table. Subsidiarity in action, not just in words. But not before we have all worked out whether we want one Australia or two.

  7. Peter Johnstone says:

    John, you seem to assume that a ‘voice’ would have legal authority. The proposal for a voice to Parliament is merely a means of ensuring that Parliament is aware of the unique needs of our indigenous peoples, needs to which you refer. Clearly there are wicked problems to address which is exactly why we need new approaches supported by indigenous people themselves. As the Prime Minister commented recently on the failings of the ‘Close the Gap’ program, and as noted by his predecessors, it is time to start listening to our indigenous people themselves in addressing the shameful gaps. That is nothing more than applying the very basic governance principle of subsidiarity: decisions should always be taken as close as possible to the people affected by them. We owe our indigenous people who remain greatly disadvantaged, an historic fact inadequately studied in our schools.

    • Yes, Peter, but if a ‘voice’ has no ‘legal authority’, what authority does it have? Unless someone has to do something such a voice would be useless. Of symbolic value, certainly, but in practice of no real use. Yes again, we need to listen to our indigenous citizens, but much more than that. We have to give them a real place at the decision-making table. Subsidiarity in action, not just in words. But not before we have all worked out whether we want one Australia or two.

  8. Lesley Tucker says:

    I really enjoyed reading your contribution to P,s &I,s as you express the concerns that a lot have but don’t speak of as it seen as not being “politically correct”. It has influence in many different fields, education, health, housing etc
    I hope between us all we can rise to the challenge and with intelligence and good will find a way

  9. Evan Hadkins says:

    Recognising difference isn’t prejudice.

    If ill will is the problem and it is to be fixed by good will, what is the process for doing this?

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