Voice needs a serious rattle of spears

Jun 27, 2023
Sunrise in Australia; a dramatic contrast of red and black behind the gold disc of the sun; the image is reminiscent of the iconic Australian Aboriginal flag.

The biggest risk to the success of the referendum on Aboriginal recognition is the Albanese government’s lack of resolution. It has strongly promoted the voice, successfully in parliament, but far less effectively within the broader community. There is a serious prospect that the various proponents of the No case will win by default, mostly because the Yes campaign has not started and does not seem organised.

Timing is important in political campaigns, and it may well be the Yes managers want to husband their resources for the end of the campaign – when people are preparing to vote. But the panic action of promising to legislate to shut down the Voice regarding the date of Australia Day, is leaving the impression that there are nitwits — and senior ones at that – in the cockpit.

Perhaps they think that they can dispose of misinformation and mount a compelling case at a time when No campaigners are tired, have run down their advertising and travel budgets and have lost momentum. The problem is that so far, the momentum seems in one direction. If the Yes campaign does not get going soon, and become ready to match fire with fire – they will not slow the slide.

A few months ago, opinion polls suggested that the referendum would probably succeed comfortably in every state and territory. This was despite opposition coming from some key conservative groups, from angry old white men, and an Aboriginal minority who could not see the point, given that very little in the way of extended rights or recognition was actually on offer.

Some Aboriginal Yes campaigners have patiently responded to alarmist claims coming from the No camp, including from the Liberal Opposition. But patience, reasoning and facts are not necessarily potent when the tenor of opposition is emotional, focused on the viscera rather than the brain, and intended to create doubt, fear and suspicion of the motives of government and Yes activists. The polls now suggest the No vote is rising, the Yes vote is slipping, and that many in the middle who had been inclined to vote for the measure are now reconsidering their position.

The Voice debate is for the public square and Twitter not for drawing rooms.

The task of holding on to the support of decent people of goodwill wanting to vote for a positive, hope-filled measure they have been constantly assured would not change a single right is one thing. The task of retrieving people now in some doubt about the legal, social, economic and cultural effect of a form of words is not a mere matter of soothing words from Attorneys-General, Solicitors-General, past and present judges and other community leaders on both side of the political divide. In populist politics designed to excite division and doubt, the very base of the appeal involves the discounting of experts, insiders, the “elites” and those urging others to make some sacrifice on behalf of all.

This is not a referendum which will be won by reason – even if one might hope that reason is involved. It will not be won by venerable folk – white or black – during televised debates. The side which wins will be the one that has stirred up community passions. It will be won by the side which has best crafted words to reflect back to voters what they think of being Australian, and what positive citizenship means, whether to us as individuals, to families, to people in our own communities and in society at large.

The debate embraces our sense of the past and of the present. But it is particularly about our future. One side thinks that a Yes vote can be a punctuation point in Australian history and politics and community relations. A moment from which things can change for the better. By no means necessarily from the mere words of the constitutional amendment, but as a reflection of the community’s coming together that it represents.

The ultimate bullshit claim: that the most disadvantaged will be put in a position of special advantage.

For others any such fine resolutions start from the wrong base and are probably doomed to failure, no matter how sincere the intention. For some this is based on an argument that the amendment will advantage one small class of Australians, with ill-effects for everyone else. Those asserting this have struggled to show just how any citizen, white or black, would be legally, socially, culturally or economically disadvantaged by this supposed conferral of an advantage on a small group. They have laboured to show any detriment now or in the future from the words which will go into the constitution or the parliamentary legislation establishing the Voice that would follow it. The disadvantage from which Aboriginal Australians suffer – whether in health, in education, in employment, in discrimination and from the legal system — may be a fact. But the supposed advantage conferred on Aborigines, or the detriment on non-Aboriginal Australians – is not, in the debate, a fact as such. It is a feeling. A vibe. A sense that some new rule or principle of uncertain effect is being created and that this could cause predictable imbalance in an almost perfect system.

The closest thing to a physical new “right” being created by the referendum is the idea that Aborigines will get some new right of access to government and the parliament that no one else has. That they will get some special mechanism that no other group has by which their voice can be heard and taken into account. It would be a good thing if Australian governments and politicians listened to Aboriginal and Islander opinion, whether at national, regional, local or family levels. But every Australian has a right to make representations to government. An individual can have her two-bob’s worth. A family group, a church congregation or a darts team can put forward collective views about any matter at all. So can a business, an industry, or a trade union. Many such bodies have professional lobbyists hard at work putting claims on government.

The right of any citizen or group of citizens “to petition the King” – which is to say the executive government – and the parliament was explicitly stated in the 1689 Bill of Rights. The parliament said these had always been rights of every subject of the King, but that it was necessary to say it this time because the King had been denying it.

The referendum could thus confer on the original Australians a right they have had since 1788. Along with every other Australian. It would also give them a structure and a means by which Aboriginal views and opinions, or appreciation of the problems they have been encountering, could be gathered, discussed and eventually articulated in advice to ministers and politicians.

No campaigners say that this would inevitably lead to a huge, unproductive and expensive bureaucracy, presumably largely Indigenous – to service the new structure. But many of the long-term problems in many Aboriginal communities have been caused by the failure of outsiders to properly consult with and take account of the views of local Aboriginal people. Experience, particularly the experience of the past 15 years since the Intervention, after which governments, Labor or Liberal, did little to consult or pay heed to Aboriginal opinion have demonstrated the financial, social, and economic costs of that. Indeed, the Labor government which ended a decade ago decided to drop the word “consultation” in Indigenous policy. That might have implied that minister Jenny Macklin would listen to anything she was not predisposed to hear. The new and continuing word became “engagement” by which the victims were rounded up and told – often in multiple languages — what would be done to them. A two-way conversation, or a negotiation, was rarely on offer.

Aborigines are often blamed for the failure of programs and policies when they have not been properly involved in the planning, design, organisation, structure, delivery or review of them. Government and bureaucrats always know best, apparently, but are rarely accountable for failure. Or, even, still anywhere around to witness the anger, frustration and sense of hopelessness when their bright ideas fail. Somewhere else is ‘benefiting’ from their failure to learn by experience, the lack of documentation of programs that work and ones that fail, and the persistence of the belief that if some system of coercion or punishment of Aborigines is not working, one should double the dose. And blame the recipients.

The Voice, and constitutional recognition of the Indigenous population here at the time of European settlement, is no panacea for the problems of bringing all Indigenous Australians into the political, social and economic mainstream. But it could be the start of a new approach. An approach on which all Australians could embark with mutual goodwill and determination to make permanent change. Even for those who do not want to get enthusiastically involved, the changes on offer and the hope of a new relationship do not threaten to make anyone worse off, to lose any rights or property, or to suffer some new hardship.

Another source of potential alarm turns on the idea that government, or politicians will be obliged to take any Voice advice into account. It won’t. Perhaps more’s the pity. Voice representations will have no special status beyond those made by a lobbyist for an oil company or miner, from a busybody with views about how others should live, or anyone else putting forward their views on what our society should do. Nor could the work of government be disrupted if its advice was withheld or its content unwelcome. Of course, the fact that governments were not listening to the Voice might be embarrassing or come at some political cost. But that is just as it always is in politics, and, in Australian politics, the ultimate business of rationing scarce goods will remain with elected politicians.

I often think it a great pity that many proposals for change go through only after there has been so much compromise that little real progress has in fact occurred. Politicians in favour of the measures often go out of their way to emphasise that the measure lacks teeth, or capacity to change rights, even when it seems obvious, as it does with some measures in Aboriginal affairs, that a legal change of status is essential. Even after matters involving election promises or mandates, temporisers, cowards and half-hearted reformers often consciously water down legislation in a doomed search for consensus. Witness, for example, the National Anti-Corruption Commission, restricted in its capacity to hold public hearings.

This mild inadequate measure will hardly open any floodgates, even symbolically.

Similarly, any measure has its doomsayers saying it goes too far, that it is the thin end of the wedge, and that soon the heavens will fall, and the floodgates will open, as they did when the British government banned chimney-sweeping for six-year-olds. All too often the consequence is impressive sounding words allowing a few people to feel good, without any actual action. This was the fate of the apology to the stolen generations and to deaths in custody. I can hardly think of a legislative measure of the past 25 years that will be remembered with any enthusiasm two generations from now. There are, of course, bipartisan atrocities such as the treatment of boatpeople, the effective abandonment of action against climate change, and the running down of education, higher education and social infrastructure, but most of the evil of those was in executive action rather than a serious shift in the national mood, reflected in legislation. Naturally Indigenous issues probably lead the way in securing legislative change without making any difference, symbolism without action, and retreat in the name of advance. It would be nice to think that the reforming Albanese government was now reversing things, but nothing done in its first year makes up yet for what happened under Jenny Macklin a decade ago.

So far most of the load of taking the Voice proposals to referendum has been assumed by a primarily Indigenous working group. That group has generally shown better political instincts and remained calm in adversity than a campaign by non-Aboriginal worthies, including politicians. But it is not a burden for Aboriginal leadership only. It has now become a matter for all Australians, and leaders in all fields can be pressed for their contribution and participation, as well as engagement in the debate.

That civic responsibility to participate in the debate, on whatever side, embraces not only taking responsibility for what one says, but for calling out nonsense, non-sequitur and misinformation where one hears it. There are players pandering to division and polarisation of the community, often in the process seriously demeaning, insulting and diminishing fellow Australians. They should be called out and held to account, made responsible for what they say or do. There have already been too many words excused as having been said in the heat of the moment, or not intended to be interpreted as some have seemed to interpret it. The rewriting of history – always an artform in Indigenous affairs – is now as focused on the present times as on the past. I do not doubt the sincerity of some of the doubters. But I still assert that many of their feelings are being manipulated by people and groups with long and continuing hostility to Aborigines, and their interests. These are people who have always meant them ill, and who mean or want to continue doing so. Such a pity the giving of a Voice to those who have been ignored will not shut those voices up.

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