Ideology and the Voice

I grew up in a regional country town with quite a large indigenous community. In each of my primary school classes there were quite a few indigenous children. In general they were quietly spoken and well-behaved. While I can’t remember any of them being high achievers academically, I do remember that some had exquisite handwriting always topping the class for their copybook exercises. And of course they were good at sport. In all the cricket and rugby league sides I participated in they were well-represented.  One who comes to mind was a tear-away fast bowler who scared the pants off opposition cricket sides. And on the cricket field many had good arms and could throw the ball in from the longest boundaries when my puny throws would only get two thirds of the way back to the keeper.

But then I graduated to high school and seemingly without my even realising it there were few indigenous students among my peers.

Where did they all go? Amongst the boys that I knew some were employed by the local council, others in the railway and a few made their way into the local pastoral industry. But most seemed to be happy to escape school as early as they legally could and gravitate into unskilled manual work.

About this time I gave my first public speech. It was some speaking competition judged by a local service club. I chose to speak about the perils of racism. I must confess I was more inspired by the activities of those struggling for equality in the USA than Charles Perkins who was beginning to make his name as an activist in Australia at the same time. At the end of my speech the adjudicator, trying to be kind, I think, called me “an angry young man”. But I wasn’t really an angry young man. I was merely an opinionated, know-it-all teenager full of idealistic ideas, as many of us were at that age.

After graduation, as my career progressed I employed many indigenous people and offered annual cadetships to indigenous youth. Later on I became the chair of an indigenous school.

For a time I lived in Far North Queensland and captained a social cricket side. Unconventionally we tended to play during the winter after the rains had abated and through spring. We had our own rather unique cricket field. Most of the half dozen sides we regularly played had indigenous members. But one in particular was entirely indigenous. It hailed from Kennedy and comprised of workers from the forestry plantations and sawmill located there. When they visited us they would turn up in a community bus with partners and children, to play social cricket, share a barbecue lunch and a few beers along the way. The captain of their side was a foreman with the Department of Forestry. On a day they were visiting I went to greet the bus as it arrived. The captain exited the bus first.

“Gidday, Eddie,” I greeted him. “How are you?”

“I can tell you Ted, I am sure glad to get out of that bus.”

“Why, Eddie – what’s wrong?”

He replied with a twinkle in his eye, “Well, it sure was dark in there!”

I laughed and of course we went on to have most convivial day. It was a pleasure to deal with these people who were so comfortable in their own skins and not the least defensive about their race.

Now I give you this history not to convince you I am an expert on indigenous affairs but merely to try to illustrate that I have been sympathetic to the indigenous cause all my life. I will readily admit I have little first-hand experience of remote indigenous communities where the greatest dysfunction seems to occur.

I suspect I am like a lot of Australians who are sympathetic to the indigenous cause but frustrated by our seeming inability to make a difference on the ground where it matters. I am tired of the debate about indigenous people continuing to be highjacked by the activists who perpetually preach indigenous victimhood. I am also tired of seeing exorbitant amounts of taxpayers funds being frittered away while delivering few tangible benefits and unduly focussing on virtue signalling and pointless symbolic gestures.

I have provided that context in order to return again to the vexed question of the indigenous “Voice” to parliament.

The Prime Minister, at the recent Garma Festival, released a text of a possible constitutional amendment that would put the Voice in place. Whilst I applaud the Prime Minister for attempting to bring some more clarity to the debate his text leaves some fundamental questions unanswered. In particular it leaves unanswered questions about:

  • How the proposed institution would be constituted,
  • Who it would represent, and particularly
  • How it might be amended or even abolished if it proved to be ineffective.

It is difficult to believe that a Voice will be able to find an indigenous consensus to express a unified point of view to the parliament. After all, the original indigenous population comprised a myriad of tribes with different languages, cultural mores and beliefs. As Warren Mundine points out indigenous bodies have largely sought to speak for their own “country” and have seldom sought to pretend they could speak for others. This necessarily mitigates against consensus.

The fear of many is that the Voice will be dominated by black activists to the exclusion of “grass roots” representatives.

Henry Ergas, in a recent article drawing on the work of American political scientist Jane Mansbridge, expressed concern about institutionalising the Voice in the constitution. He wrote:

…..any special forms of representation are solely justified as a temporary measure which ought to be repealed once structural conditions improve – that is once the original under-representation has been corrected. They should therefore be kept as flexible as possible.

Mansbridge advises:

…. {that such representative bodies be formed by} by voluntary adoption rather than by legislation, and by legislation rather than by constitutional mandate.

But the Labor government is seeking to embed this exceptional measure permanently into our constitution.

This is wrong on many fronts including:

  • It assumes that indigenous disadvantage will always be a permanent feature of Australian society, and
  • It ignores the fact that indigenous representation in the Australian parliament is already proportionate to indigenous numbers in the population at large.

Now Malcolm Turnbull was a woeful Prime Minister but he did know a bit about constitutional law. His concern was that the Voice would become a third chamber in the Australian parliament.

Anthony Albanese has been quick to assure us that the Voice would not have any decision making powers but would only be an advisory forum. But then he went on to say that it would be a “brave government” that went against the recommendations of the Voice. This exemplifies the fact that the Voice might not have any direct power but it would certainly have some coercive power. Or. as intimated by Albanese, it would more than likely at least have the power of veto.

Ex Prime Minister Tony Abbott, is more qualified than most of the political class to speak on indigenous issues having regularly spent time in remote indigenous communities helping where he could. He also insisted that when Prime Minister his cabinet spend a week each year with him in such communities so that they might be more familiar with the issues facing the more disadvantaged.

Writing on the voice proposal Abbott says:

Everything about the proposed voice drips with entrenching separatism as an atonement for dispossession even though indigenous people can never expect to achieve Australian outcomes without also embracing Australian standards.

And further:

Inevitably, any referendum campaign will seek to exploit guilt about the past to overcome anxieties about the future, even though nothing this generation does now can alter the past but it certainly could prejudice the future.

Then finally:

Constitutional change is for keeps in a way nothing else is. The last thing we should do is allow goodwill to cloud judgment and to be morally bullied into becoming a country that’s more divided and less well governed.

But probably the biggest concern conservative voters have about the proposed referendum to ensconce the Voice into the constitution is the lack of detail about the proposal. In the last referendum that sought to make Australia a republic which was defeated critics have suggested that the proposition put to the public was too complex. They have argued that the question put to the public should have merely been did Australians want to move to a republic and if that referendum succeeded then give them options about what model of a republic would gain acceptance.

In the matter of the Voice the federal government has decided that it should take a similar approach. It proposes it will put a very basic proposition to voters and if that succeeds the government will implement the Voice proposal at its own discretion. However it is not suggesting that if the referendum gets up it will go back to the public for further approval but will implement it at the government’s discretion.

Unfortunately most of us don’t trust the government to implement the Voice in a way that is acceptable to us. Consequently, before we vote on the Voice proposal many want to know the details of implementation. Some of those reservations were articulated earlier in this essay. Surely if a race-based Voice is ensconced into our constitution were it will be beyond normal political processes to amend or abolish it, we are entitled to demand more detail of its composition, powers and implementation processes.

Journalist Janet Albrechtson writes:

The Voice is a body without precedent or process. It is a complete blank slate. Indeed it is a blank slate because no nobody, no government has settled all its details.

Yet we are told if we don’t agree to insert this body permanently into the heart of our body politic we are impolite, ignorant and ideological.

Researcher and indigenous commentator, Anthony Dillon, (and a man of generous spirit) tells me that he doesn’t believe either those advocating for the Voice or those opposed to it are generally motivated by racism. This statement, which on reflection I largely agree with, gave me pause to contemplate what is the basis of the antagonism between the two sides of the argument. It didn’t take me long to conclude that the principal point of contention is actually ideology.

Let us take it as a given then that both the proponents of the Voice and those opposing the Voice are largely motivated to want to improve the situation of disadvantaged indigenous people. The question to ask then is want is the most effective way of doing this?

The left, by and large, believe that societal problems, such as this one, can only be solved by intervention by a patriarchal, well-meaning, all-knowing government.

Liberals on the other hand believe that all individuals have personal agency such that they can choose to take charge of their own lives. Consequently the state has no business distinguishing one citizen from another by race, biological history (including gender) or any other distinction based on such arbitrary constructs.

The consistent message I get from the Liberals that oppose the Voice ( like Jacinta Price, Warren Mundine, Anthony Dillon and others) is that it contains the message that somehow indigenous Australians are fundamentally different from other Australians. It reinforces the blatantly wrong notion of identity politics that the accidental attributes we have from the circumstances of our birth somehow are more important than the common attributes of our humanity.

Jacinta Price in her maiden speech to parliament rightly stated that (mirroring Martin Luther King) rather than being recognised for her indigenous heritage she would prefer to be recognised for “the content of her character”!

The Voice as proposed by the Left seems to want to ensure that indigenous victimhood will forever be promoted and only a patronising government will ever ameliorate the historical suffering of the indigenous population.

9 Replies to “Ideology and the Voice”

  1. Jacinta Price in today’s Australian was brilliant. Might be worth a postscript to your commentary. Regards. Peter

    1. My problem with the article in The Australian is that this is not Senator Price’s remit. This sort of article normally comes and should come from the relevant individual in the party.

      The Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians is Mr. Julian Leeser MP, and her article was definitely treading on his toes. Perhaps she cleared it with him first. One sincerely hopes so because there are enough people on the other side out to destroy her without creating enemies in her own ranks.

      I know she is new and has a great deal to learn. The Canberra political soup is not the Alice Springs Council, but Senator Price is there to represent all Territorians on all issues and not to play second-guess on the Shadow Minister. I know that is the horse she has been riding for some years and that it got her a great deal of media exposure and no doubt selection as the Senate candidate, but that is not what her job is now. Not that any of it matters if Price consulted with Leeser and had his approval for the article.

  2. Another excellent article Ted.

    you said: Jacinta Price in her maiden speech to parliament rightly stated that (mirroring Martin Luther King) rather than being recognised for her indigenous heritage she would prefer to be recognised for “the content of her character”!

    And that is something she has said a number of times over the years, which raises the begging question – why on earth then did she choose to dress up for her admission to the Senate with a bandana on her head and a feather in her hair? Surely the Aboriginal motif in her dress was enough, although that too suggests she was not looking to be recognised for her character.

    And the Nulla Nulla ceremony was totally off-key. The Nulla Nulla or waddy is a war club, used to beat out the brains of an enemy, or indeed, in traditional societies any woman stupid enough to think she had a right to an opinion, let alone a voice. So, in receiving this instrument from her Warlpiri representatives, Senator Price was sending a message, heard more loudly no doubt by other NT Aboriginal communities but also by Territorians without aboriginal ancestry, that, despite being elected to the Australian Parliament which thereby gave her a right to speak for all Territorians, she needed permission from her Warlpiri mob.

    The Nulla Nulla performance was most definitely about being ‘recognised’ for indigenous heritage and not her character. Actions speak louder than words and these actions were very loud in their speaking and disappointing to boot.

    As has been the brawl with FitzSimons. If Senator Price did not do her due diligence and find out who and what he was before accepting the invitation then she has no-one to blame but herself. Having read the transcript it was clear Fitz was out to ‘get her’ as expected, and asked some really brutal questions, none of which were surprising. And Senator Price gave strong responses and held her ground so quite why she felt a need to attack him later, playing political ‘princess’ is a question. It fed into his agenda and damaged hers.

  3. It’s a sad indictment of our current divisive political and cultural landscape the very notion that we need constitutional change to address indigenous disadvantage. Surely we have the means to do this already (assuming of course there exists a genuine bipartisan will to do it). Failed referenda do nothing to advance the cause.

  4. I was recently talking to a friend who is well into his 70’s and he recalled a story of a fishing trip he took many years ago. Their fishing boat stopped at a small remote island somewhere off north Queensland or in the Torres Straight and inhabited by a small number of indigenous people, including one who was well educated and had travelled the world, and then chose to return to a simple (and idyllic?) life. Through conversation, this local man explained to my friend why issues relating to indigenous Australians had continually failed to achieve the desired improvements.
    “Because you treat us differently to other Australians”.
    Sadly, it seems to me that this proposed referendum on ‘the voice’ is perpetuating the view expressed many years ago by this wise gentleman.

  5. Thank you Ted, for a very interesting article.
    Roslyn Ross, I disagree with you. At a time when an Indigenous Voice to Parliament is being considered it is very important that all Indigenous MP’s in the Commonwealth Parliament stand up and be counted as such. It is now apparent that there is a a strong Indigenous Voice in Parliament already in proportion to the general population. That this is so, does not derogate from their position as Commonwealth parliamentarians, but rather affirms Indigenous identity among MP’s who can speak as a Voice already .

    Jacinta Price did not play “political princess”. Outright rudeness from any interviewer is unwarranted. FitzSimons and his princess wife who, because of injudicious public comments has caused a criminal trial to be postponed, should observe courtesy in public debate and realise that commentary should be fair and unbiased.

    1. My assumption, although I could be wrong, was that Jacinta’s indigenous paraphernalia was a tribute to her Warlpiri mother Bess. I wouldn’t criticise her for that.

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