Progressing the Voice

A lot of things have been changed by the results of the recent election.

All of a sudden the Queensland Labor Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk has taken umbrage at her Environmental Department’s stalling tactics with regard to the Adani Mine approvals. It seems she has belatedly concluded that Queenslanders generally might have different opinions to those that inhabit Jackie Trad’s electorate.

And miraculously, Kristina Kenneally, who has previously been one of the more vocal critics of the Government’s Operation Sovereign Borders has been surprisingly elevated into the position of Labor’s shadow minister for Home Affairs. Kenneally, previously a vocal sceptic, has suddenly been converted to a supporter of boat tow-backs and off-shore detention!

But the government also seems to have had a change of heart. Fittingly, Scott Morrison has elevated Ken Wyatt to be the Minister for Indigenous Affairs. Wyatt becomes the first indigenous person to hold this portfolio. Whilst this would seem an appropriate appointment, it is likely to reignite controversy over a referendum to provide a separate voice for indigenous people to provide advice to the parliament on indigenous issues. (Some commentators also suggest that a body so constituted is also likely to be empowered to conduct public enquiries, undertake research and monitor the performance of government departments charged with promoting indigenous affairs. Such broad ranging powers would inevitably prove problematic for the government.)

Previously the Turnbull government had established a bipartisan Referendum Council to establish a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous advisory body — known as a “voice to parliament”. The culmination of the Council’s work came from the historic gathering of hundreds of Indigenous delegates at the Uluru Convention last year.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart was presented to government and it called for a new representative body to act as the indigenous voice to parliament. But the idea was rejected. Then Prime Minster, Malcolm Turnbull’s view was it would become a “third chamber of parliament” and never gain the support of the public.


Ken Wyatt was one of the dual chairs of the Referendum Council. Despite the government’s rejection of the recommendations of the Uluru Statement he has continued to work on draft legislation to set up a so-called Makarrata Commission to act as the indigenous voice to parliament. Presumably he has some encouragement from Scott Morrison to do so.


But I, (and I assume many others) have concerns about promoting this special voice for indigenous people. My misgivings are many, but let me concentrate on three of them, viz.:


  • Who will the voice represent?
  • What will stop other minorities demanding equal access?
  • What tangible benefits are likely to accrue to indigenous people from this initiative?


An elephants in the room of indigenous activism is simply who is entitled to be classified as indigenous? In some cases people are inclined to want to self-identify as indigenous without much concern about their particular genetic inheritance. In other cases various groups of elders seem to be gatekeepers to indigenous identity but the criteria to be met to claim indigeneity seem rather arbitrary. But the first hurdle to overcome in establishing an indigenous voice is who might be entitled to be involved in selecting the representatives and then on whose behalf indeed should the voice speak. I would suggest that indigenous Australians don’t have a great history on reaching consensus on politically difficult issues. I’d be very surprised if there was easy agreement on this factor but it is absolutely crucial to the success of this initiative.

Oft times it seems that many would like to assume an indigenous status because it brings some sort of privilege to those who so identify.

I hope I don’t get too philosophical here, but I start with the presumption that no one is special. The characteristics that most of us lean on to differentiate us from each other (which is in itself is often counter-productive) are largely race, nationality, gender and religion and in general these are characteristics that none of us chose.

I have committed some considerable effort in my career trying to help indigenous people. Why have I done that? It does not have much influence on me that those I want to help are indigenous.  My main motivation is to help those who are needy. And we know that indigenous people are disproportionately likely to be subject to domestic violence and sexual abuse, suffer higher levels of ill-health and incarceration, not to complete schooling and to be unemployed. Then anyone with a sense of altruism will be attracted to the indigenous community to try and help. The great dilemma for those wanting to help is what to do that doesn’t reinforce the debilitating sense of victimhood that so many indigenous people have assumed. Mired in this sense of victimhood, many won’t accept that indigenous people themselves have any responsibility in addressing these issues.

Now there are undoubtedly other groups in the community that have taken on the mantle of victimhood. Whilst they don’t suffer in any way the disadvantages that some indigenous people do, yielding a special status to indigenous people will encourage other carriers of victimhood status to demand the same concessions. Identity politics isn’t built on reason and evidence but on emotion and a sense of entitlement. And once we make exception in our constitution for indigenous people it will be difficult to stop others from doing so. Essentially such a voice is a divisive factor, not a uniting one. Once we take action to confer special privileges on one class of Australians, it makes it harder to not be further divisive and confer such privileges on others who might also argue for such concessions.

Thus I suspect it would be a step in the right direction if we could convince indigenous people that underneath everything else, they like the rest of us, are not particularly special. Their much vaunted culture, much of which has been reconstructed and embellished, really has no particular greater significance than any other traditional culture. We do indigenous people no real service by pretending otherwise.

Moreover if we could remove this sense of victimhood and contrived specialness it might help indigenous people understand they are at first human beings like the rest of us. And like the rest of us, they have an obligation to care for their young, feed them and clothe them, keep them off the streets at night, and get them to school. They need to protect the safety of their women and children, and seek out employment so that they might be self-reliant and have some purpose to live for. Now I am not suggesting that such a transition is easy, but in the long term it is essential if we are going to “close the gap”.

But there is good evidence that contradicting the indigenous victimhood mantra is possible. A significant number of indigenous people have done just this and taken an equal place in Australian society with the rest of us, fulfilling all the obligations I have outlined.

Now, because of this, we are seeing many more indigenous people graduating from universities and taking on responsible roles in Australian society. And consequently there are growing numbers of indigenous people being elected to Federal and State Parliaments where they have the opportunity to influence government policies in a democratic fashion like the rest of us.

But this does not seem to be enough for the indigenous activists. They want to be afforded special status and have their victimhood rewarded accordingly.

Most of us have long enough memories to be able to recall the disaster of a previous attempt at promoting an indigenous voice. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was established by the Hawke Labor Government in 1989. ATSIC comprised elected representatives from indigenous communities. The operation of ATSIC was mired by concerns about poor governance, nepotism and corruption. By March 2004, both the government and the opposition had come to the conclusion that ATSIC should be abolished. A bill to abolish ATSIC was taken to parliament by the then Howard Coalition Government and was subsequently passed through both houses of parliament in March 2005. The history of ATSIC will certainly make many people cautious about establishing another indigenous “voice”.

But finally what is the likely effect of creating such a voice? I have two main concerns.

Firstly it seems to me that the voice is most likely to be a symbolic gesture that makes no difference to the on-ground practical issues in indigenous communities of domestic violence, youth suicide, high levels of incarceration, low rates of school attendance, pervasive alcohol and drug addiction and so forth.

But on the other hand such a body might choose to find many issues brought to the federal parliament as having indigenous impact. That would then mean the parliament would be besieged with submissions which would make decision making even harder than it already is. Bearing in mind that the government doesn’t have a majority in the Senate (and it is unlikely that the Labor party would either, if it won government,) so getting legislation passed through the Senate is already difficult. The indigenous voice could well make legislating even more problematic. Although the voice is not supposed to be able to be involved in legislative decision making, it could still be very influential. Much of the government’s electoral agenda has been stalled in the Senate which will continue to pose a major roadblock. The influence of such an indigenous voice would only make it more difficult to legislate.

However we know that Australians are innately conservative. (The recent election result proves we are more conservative than might seem in the public debate.) We also know that referenda propositions seldom gain sufficient support to have them passed. I believe that a referendum to change the constitution to embed an indigenous voice is controversial enough to ensure such a change is most unlikely.

If Scott Morrison has ambitions to do so, then I think he is deluded. More so, in tasking Ken Wyatt to achieve such an objective, in rugby league parlance, he has delivered him a hospital pass. The initiative will undoubtedly raise expectation amongst indigenous activists. To give him his due, Wyatt has (wisely) been circumspect about quick results. But it leaves the government in a no-win situation. If it takes a radical position the referendum will surely be lost. On the other hand if the proposition is watered down such that a referendum might succeed, the results will not satisfy many of our indigenous population. Morrison, as much as I admire him, seems to have left Wyatt in a most invidious position.