The voice implies a change of heart

Aug 16, 2022
The Sails of the Sydney Opera House lit up with an Aboriginal Design
Image: iStock

The Government’s proposal for a referendum on a Voice is a bold idea whose time has come. But it is being asked to carry a lot of weight – weight that might easily sink it.

Its proponents have laboured long and hard to craft the proposal. They have had to deal with argument and debate from within their primary constituency – First Nations people – while also anticipating and neutralising entirely predictable opposition from groups within the non-Aboriginal body politics. The attempt to calm fears means that the proposal is itself innocuous and incapable of being the legal underpinning of any fundamental change of rights. But its psychological and emotional effect could be enormous – and not only among Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders. It also has some capacity to galvanise millions of other citizens sick and tired of the reflex hostility in some, mostly older quarters, to recognising the special status of the first Australians, the disadvantage they have suffered and continue to suffer, and the opportunity for a recommitment to closing the chasm.

Other than a commitment to finding a way of giving indigenous Australians a voice to be heard in parliament when matters directly affecting them are being discussed, it doesn’t directly promise much. It does not, for example, guarantee that the voice will be listened to. Or that its advice will be followed. No doubt the voice will be heard with respect, and probably some ceremony. But no one knows better than the owners of that voice that the history of settlement, colonisation, institutionalisation and pauperisation of the first Australians has seen many noble sentiments, umpteen sincere promises, and, at the crunch, a million reasons, not necessarily financial ones, why Indigenous Australians cannot, or should not, be allowed to have what they want.

Depending on the flavour of the moment, it has always been Mother knows best. Or father knows best. The children – the wards as many of their parents were once called – were best advised to shut up and listen. In recent years, more of the actual children have been incarcerated or removed from families by the welfare system than ever occurred during the much deplored and apologised-for “stolen children” days.

Proponents of the Voice – Indigenous and non-indigenous – seem to assume that constitutional passage will cause a revolution in the management and delivery of policy and programs. But one of the obstacles is that many of those involved in the control and management of service delivery relish their power and will not lightly surrender it. The Basic Services card, restricting Aboriginal access to cash, may now be abolished, but not at the suggestion of the division in the Prime Minister’s department responsible for services to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. The client-hating administrators in Social Security and Centrelink have not reduced their suspicion of people on welfare, and their addiction to “breaching.”

Most Australians want to move to a new era of mutual respect, partnership in reducing disadvantage, and respect for Aboriginal culture and tradition

Professors Marcia Langton and Tom Calma have drawn up new models of Aboriginal government operating at local, regional and national levels, and tiers by which Aboriginal ideas and opinion can come up from below and be put before the legislature and executive government. They are options, not decisions already made. But their existence gives the lie to objections that the proposal is premature for lacking detail, or not having been thought out. A constitution is a ticket not a destination. It would be a future parliament that would decide on the nature and shape of the Voice. With an active Indigenous body politic, even at the individual community or suburban level, it can never be assumed that there will be one opinion only, or that principle and goodwill, rather than short-term considerations, will govern every exchange.

It is by no means clear that the processes of the Voice will see direct haggling or politicking over appropriations, over appointments or even practical policies. If that is the direction many want, it will be the federal parliament, after the referendum, which will decide the form and the powers involved. That decision will follow ordinary systems of parliamentary debate, without the Voice, as such, having a vote at all. The form of the Voice and its powers would be in ordinary legislation, open to amendment or repeal. It will have no special power because the idea of it has constitutional status. Nor will it – can it – involve a veto over other parliamentary legislation.

The Voice, if it comes, will not be the first “voice” coming from representative elected committees. There is a long history of pretending to listen to aboriginal voices. It might not even be the most efficient or effective one. The first national voice, for example was the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, set up about 50 years ago. It was “consultative” but operated like a parliament and took its duties seriously. Then there was the National Aboriginal Council, similarly consultative and often struggling to be heard. The Aboriginal Development Commission responded to an Aboriginal board and had extensive service-delivery functions.

These were subsumed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. It was simultaneously a parliament of sorts, operating at local, regional and national level, and responsible for appropriating a large budget for services. It had an executive arm to direct responsibility, again at local, regional and national level, for the provision of services to Aboriginal communities. It did not put Indigenous Australians in charge of how much money, overall, went into Indigenous affairs. But they decided how much of the cake they did get went to different areas, services or programs. That involved choices.

The competition for crumbs from the cake made it intensely political and exposed big governance gaps, often aggravated by personality politics. These conflicts were able to be exploited by government when advice was not welcome. ATSIC was in due course disbanded, policies and programs fell back into control by government departments and the advisory committees that displaced it were appointed, not elected.

John Howard was singularly deaf to Aboriginal opinion. He was particularly resistant to pressure to do things he regarded as being primarily symbolic, coming from the left of politics. The people nominated to his committees were generally conservatives. Many were themselves alienated from communities. Their words adopted the coercive critique and blaming of Indigenous Australians and were rarely noticeably representative of Aboriginal opinion.

This reached an initial peak with the Northern Territory intervention of 2007, and the subsequent deliberate stripping of power, money and influence over most local, national and regional Aboriginal institutions and community organisations. Government and control of Indigenous communities passed to non-Aboriginal “experts” deliberately chosen for having no previous background or experience in managing Aboriginal colonies.

No one listened much to past Voices

Consultation became “conversations” and interminable meetings resolving nothing, as well as “engagement.” Consultation had once meant, in theory, “we will listen to you.” Engagement came to mean “you will listen to us while we tell you what we have decided.” White consultants received millions from black budgets for certifying that the passive and dispirited audiences were fully on board.

The proportion of indigenous budgets passing directly to the white provider industry, now increasingly outsourced, increased without any discernible improvement in service delivery. Less than 20 per cent of the budget ever reached the hands of the objects of this benevolent administration. As with foreign aid, most money never came to a community at all. Most of what did arrive left the community after a single transaction. It became routine for government to miss “closing the gap” targets.

Strictly, progress towards a voice, and a response to the Uluru statement from the heart has been a bipartisan project, even if the current leader of the opposition has yet to adopt the Albanese proposal. But it is Labor which has taken the initiative — for which it deserves considerable credit, the more so because moving matters on is under the control of Linda Burney, an indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians, and Pat Dodson, now Special envoy for reconciliation and implementation of the Uluru statement.

But even well-intentioned Labor actions on Aboriginal affairs have failed, in part from a marked tendency to have all policy eggs in one basket at any time. During the early 1980s, for example, Labor decided that all its policies could be summed up under three words: national land rights. During the first years of the Hawke government, minister Clive Holding worked tirelessly to achieve this, but it was torpedoed, particularly by then West Australian premier, Brian Bourke. Hawke was reluctant to invest his authority and popularity in the struggle with popular opinion. When the policy was abandoned, several years had been lost because of the dropped focus on service delivery, and ministerial reluctance to set targets.

The critique of the next minister, Gerry Hand, was that consultation needed to be upgraded, and Aborigines allowed to be in charge of service delivery. Negotiations and bargaining about the shape of ATSIC took years, again causing major neglect of core business. The next flavour of the month – reconciliation — was a worthy cause but a distraction from decline on the ground. Then came Mabo, native title, and the Redfern statement. All embraced worthy aspirations, but there was little development of policy, improvement in the statistics or change to material disadvantage.

The key topics in Indigenous affairs under Howard borrowed little from Labor slogans. Aboriginal deaths in custody and reports on stolen children, as well as responses to the High Court’s judgment in Wik, dominated the headlines, never more so than with demands that Howard say sorry on behalf of government and white Australians for abuses of the past. ATSIC was abolished — a voice silenced. The Northern Territory intervention involved the dismantling of much of the machinery of administration, a new coercive regime in which no one was listening to indigenous voices, in part because the government had decided that Aboriginal men were sexually abusing their children and their wives. In Northern Territory communities, welfare benefits, including aged pensions, came under controls to reduce access to cash for gambling and drinking, and humbugging of women’s cash.

Rudd has made the history books with his Sorry statement and his dedication of government to closing the gap. But he made minimal changes to the coercive intervention regime. When leading Aboriginal figures were asked to evaluate the intervention, the report was doctored before release. Ministers were not very interested in Voices, because the messages were generally unwelcome. They believed in evidence that confirmed their opinions and used anecdotes to reject unwelcome news.

Tony Abbott promised a referendum on constitutional recognition, but progress slowed as it became clear that there was no guarantee of any changes being adopted. Under Malcolm Turnbull the cause progressed to the wisdom and the poetry of the Uluru statement. But hopes raised by his generally liberal approach to such matters were dashed as Turnbull abruptly ruled out any voice as such by falsely labelling it “a third chamber of parliament.”

Morally, the Voice must be adopted by both Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians

Now the Voice team must face two separate constituencies. A substantial minority of Indigenous Australians – generally the poorer and least connected even to the indigenous body politic — are deeply suspicious, fearing it could compromise demands for recognition of sovereignty over land. Or they think the Voice a matter of pure symbolism, unlikely to reflect their powerless views and unlikely to do anything to change their disadvantage, even against other Aboriginal groups. These include people who need reassurance about the potency of constitutional recognition of First Nations people and of their special right to be heard. Whether they come on board, the proponents need to galvanise and mobilise Aboriginal opinion on the proposal.

But passage of the proposal is in the hands of the Australian electorate. Pauline Hanson and others, including Northern Territory Indigenous senator, Jacinta Price, are developing lines of argument that the proposal would divide Australians, and create special classes of citizens, and that there’s no need, because Aborigines are not really disenfranchised.

For Hanson and many of her supporters, Aborigines are not disadvantaged. They have already too many special rights and privileges. They claim that apparently harmless words may create inadvertently or by secret design new rights and powers, overriding ordinary laws.

Most of these arguments are nonsense, but the anxieties they excite are emotional ones, not easily able to be proven wrong by mere logic. Particularly in these days of conspiracy theories, appeals to fears that white Australia is being “diluted” by multiculturalism and Asian invasions, and crude populism. It goes without saying that there are coalition extremists not frightened of pandering to such qualms and apprehensions.

It is commonly said that constitutional change does not happen in Australia if there is a significant community group in opposition. Hanson and other opportunists could well amount to such opposition. Voters are also said to be reluctant to invest any new powers in government. Moreover, no one wants a referendum on the voice to be defeated; one could expect that government would drop or defer its schedule if the opinion polls were negative.

Tactically, proponents could further dilute the Voice proposal until it was not capable of frightening anyone. It is already well watered down. The risk of doing that is to have a proposal that is next to meaningless, even in symbolism, and about which no one can get excited.

Against that, some will point out that the 1967 referendum which saw the federal government picking up a role in indigenous affairs was overwhelmingly adopted by the electorate, opposed only in some rural areas, including, I am sorry to say, the area where I grew up. There is no doubting hostility to or antagonism about Indigenous Australians in some quarters, and in some age groups. But younger Australians (and many more older Australians than are numbered among the Hansonites) are impatient for change in Aboriginal affairs, tired of seeing politicians pandering to racism and division, and eager for a new deal and a sense of partnership with our most disadvantaged fellow citizens.

Must we cater to the lowest common denominator? Must we tiptoe away from what is right because some populists will object? Is the challenge of convincing Australians to be abandoned at the first whiff of uncertainty in an opinion poll? It is a matter, in short, where politicians must lead and not follow. Argue, promote and defend, not hide in the shadows. Where they must appeal both to reason and to the heart, rather than to greed, selfishness and fear of the unknown. The question is whether our leaders are up to the task.

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