Has Albo Lost His Voice?

One of the more important debates we are going to have this year is about the Voice referendum.

The discussions about the Voice have already become very vitriolic and partisan.

My friend and astute commentator on indigenous affairs, Anthony Dillon, deplores the fact that the debate on the voice has become so polarised that contrary opinions are dismissed without proper consideration, and he is surely right that this trend is preventing a considered, reasoned debate on this vexed issue.

But let us begin by exploring what justification there is for the Voice.

Proponents argue that providing a representative indigenous group to make representations to parliament on matters directly affecting indigenous people will somehow result in better outcomes for indigenous Australians. Many of these proponents suggest that this will expedite “closing the gap”.

Underpinning the Voice is the notion that indigenous people, because their ancestors inhabited what came to be known as Australia before European settlement, deserve some special treatment not accessible to the rest of Australian citizens. In a similar vein, many argue indigenous people were victims of European mistreatment and racism and although such mistreatment and racism no longer exists in any meaningful way, today’s generation of indigenous people need special treatment because they are still suffering this historical trauma. They argue that this is the root cause of indigenous dysfunction which results in poorer economic, health and educational outcomes and underpins the disproportionate representation (particularly of youth) in our jails.

It is interesting to see how this debate has developed.

In the beginning the stated objective was to ensure the original inhabitants of our land were given due recognition in our constitution. I suspect by far the majority of Australians and both sides of politics were comfortable enough with this ambition.

But seeing this as an opportunity to press for more political influence for indigenous people, activists quickly upped the ante and pressed for more than a reconciliarity reference to prior indigenous occupation of our continent. They were able to influence the Referendum Council to achieve these ends.

With bipartisan political support, then Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull in 2015 appointed a Referendum Council comprised of prominent indigenous people to advise the government on how to progress a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution.

The Council was essentially tasked with providing advice on how the Constitution might be modified to give recognition to indigenous people . After extensive consultation with indigenous leaders the Council’s work culminated with the release of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. But by this time the Council had gone beyond its remit and instead of merely modifying the Constitution in order to recognise indigenous people  it was calling for the Constitution to be modified to provide a mechanism to allow indigenous people privileged access to Parliament. This mechanism was titled the indigenous voice to parliament (referred to as “the Voice” in this essay).

Malcolm Turnbull, himself a constitutional lawyer, rejected the notion of the Voice, claiming it could become a “third chamber of parliament”. However the notion was embraced by those on the left and Anthony Albanese in his election campaigning at the last Federal election promised that if he won government a referendum on the issue would be held in his first term as Prime Minister. He has recently declared his intention to hold an election in the second half of this year.

The Referendum Working Group has agreed to a set of principles that the Government says it intends to use to formulate the constitutional change to implement the Voice.

According to the federal Minister for Indigenous affairs, Liinda Burney, based on the Referendum Working Groups report:

The voice will be a representative body that provides independent advice to parliament and government.

It will be chosen by First Nation people, be gender balanced and include young people.

It will be accountable and transparent.

The voice will not administer funding. It will not deliver programs. It will not have a veto power.

Many of the people I know oppose the Voice. This includes indigenous people and people with vast experience in remote communities. These are people with a genuine concern for the welfare of indigenous people.

Their objections fall, as far as I can determine, into four main categories as follows.

  1. Those that fall into the first category object to the notion of the Voice in principle. They argue that there is no place in our constitution for anything that makes distinction between people on the basis of race. Rather than bringing the diverse elements of the Australian peoples together, such an amendment provides a mechanism to divide us. This position has been taken by the National Party partly informed by the astute indigenous senator, Jacinta Price. And as the wise commentator on indigenous affairs, Anthony Dillon is wont to frequently remind us, too often indigenous activists seem to want to emphasise the little that divides us by race rather than the multitude of things we have in common as human beings.
  2. This category is related to the first. There is a body of opinion that suggests unless the amendment to the constitution is very clear and specific, future High Court interpretations might lead to unintended outcomes. These first two categories result in many asking the very reasonable question, “Is it really necessary to rely on constitutional change to achieve the desired changes in indigenous welfare?”
  3. The third category goes to the efficacy of the Voice. What guarantee do we have that the Voice will not prove to be just another expensive, ineffectual, tokenistic sop to indigenous victimhood. I will return to this shortly.
  4. Finally, many are wary of endorsing the proposed constitutional change because the Government has provided little detail about its proposed change. It keeps referring to the report by the Referendum Working Group as the substantive document underpinning its approach, but that report is not definitive in its recommendations and offers options rather than recommendations in some key areas. The Liberal Party has withheld support for the Voice pending more clarification of detail by the Government. (But one might cynically conclude this position avoids it from taking a position that might offend some of its more progressive members who are concerned by the inroads of the Teals and others have made on their inner city seats!) Prime Minister Albanese has accused Peter Dutton of “a cheap culture war stunt”. But, as we will see shortly, the Prime Minister does his cause no favours by refusing to provide the details that people are crying out for.

These, I believe are the principle objections to embedding the Voice in our constitution.

The case for the Voice seems rather subjective and emotive. It seems to comprise two components.

There seems to be a belief that the Voice is going to somehow solve the problem of indigenous dysfunction and help magically in our efforts to “close the gap”. Anthony Dillon (whom I referred to earlier) has stated that he would vote in favour of the Voice if its proponents could substantiate that claim, but to date they have been unable to do so. Dillon believes the Voice offers nothing that can not be achieved using existing mechanisms. But of course implementing the Voice is bound to be expensive and result in the creation of another Canberra bureaucracy. The Government has yet to outline indicative costs for the proposal.

Secondly the propagation of the case for the Voice relies heavily on virtue signalling and erroneous claims of racism. Typical of this was a recent letter to the editor published in The Australian newspaper, which read:

I am certain every decent Australian with a conscience, compassion and empathy will vote “yes” in the referendum.

Now that is a display of just breathtaking arrogance. As I explained above, many of those I know who oppose the Voice are not only sympathetic to the indigenous cause but also have a great understanding of indigenous communities, indigenous politics and what is likely to work on the ground. I doubt if the letter writer has even visited a remote indigenous community let alone even lived in one. Whereas many of those that I know who oppose the Voice have had extensive experience in remote communities and are unconvinced that the Voice proposal will have any positive impact in those communities.

I know I will be probably pilloried by the activists but I believe that the indigenous problem can’t be solved by extending more rights to indigenous people. The only long term solution is for more indigenous people to accept responsibility.

There are many successful indigenous people in Australia. They have taken their place in mainstream society as responsible citizens and parents. Where indigenous dysfunction prevails indigenous people have avoided those responsibilities and unfortunately in some places there have been a generation or two who haven.t been exposed to such role models.

But coming back to the Voice issue there seems to be three dominant schools of thought, viz.

  1. Those of the left who seem convinced of indigenous victimhood and believe that supporting the Voice will somehow ameliorate the “hurt” felt by indigenous people.
  2. Those of the right who believe on principle the Voice must be rejected because it enshrines racial division in the constitution.
  3. A lot of people who could be persuaded to vote for the Voice if it could be established that the Voice would make a real difference to indigenous dysfunction.

Prime Minister Albanese seems to believe that just by telling people there is a supposed moral imperative to support the Voice that people will blithely follow along. This is not the case. Those doubts are amplified as more respected, competent people speak up against the Voice.

It is unlikely that the first two categories of voters are going to change their minds. Hence if the Government is to gain sufficient support to carry the referendum they need to convince the third category of voters of the efficacy of the Voice. The Prime Minister has shown little interest in doing this leaving much of the detail of the proposed Voice unexplained. He can’t get the referendum up by leaving those that are undecided in the dark.

18 Replies to “Has Albo Lost His Voice?”

  1. Thank you Ted. Calm and considered as always.
    I agree the original intention of recognition has been highjacked by activistis.
    And when it comes to objections, I fit into all four of your categories.
    As an Australian, I get one vote at the referendum. And currently I have not been told what I am voting for. Hard to vote “yes” at this stage.

  2. Thanks Ted. Nice an concise as usual. I haven’t made up my mind yet. But I saw Linda Burney on Insiders last year. Advocating for the voice she pointed to the fact that some remote communities didn’t even have clean water. But this to me goes to the heart of the problem. How will the Voice fix this and other areas of disadvantage? And what is stopping her fixing this problem now?

    1. Thanks, Pete. Good to hear from you. Anthony Dillon, who knows more about indigenous affairs than most people, shares the same reservation. My fear is that we will end up with another bloated Canberra bureaucracy with no tangible benefits on the ground. I’m going to give it a miss!

  3. Hi Ted
    As a betting man, I do not think there is much chance that this referendum will be successful, particulary given your sound logic. The middle ground of voters who are undecided and lacking information will be a large block and will naturally vote No. Thankyou for your analysis.

    However, if I was to put a cynical political hat on, I also believe that the smart thinkers in the Government ranks also do not what this to be successful. In essence, the Government strategy could be to honour an Albanese election promise, put it to the Australian people via a referendum, let it fail and then say to Australians that this ” No to the Voice” is the will of the people of Australia and we have done everything possible to improve issues for indigenous people. In this scenario Prime Minister Albanese also saves face.

    1. Thanks Brad – I always enjoy your insights,
      You may be right about Albanese’s ulterior motive, but I suspect not He is now making noises about legislating the Voice if the referendum fails. So much for respecting the views of the Australian people!

  4. Hi Ted

    An excellent article as always. I fall into category 3 of course, thanks to you, Anthony and Dave. I won’t vote in the affirmative because I believe it’s unnecessary and divisive.

    The problem is the city dwelling soy latte sippers who, because most of them are well educated, believe their opinion is more valid and more reasonable than that of the blue collar folk, especially if said folk live in rural or regional areas.

    1. Thank you Joy,

      I certainly agree with your last paragraph.

      I definitely get better information on indigenous affairs from your e-mil group than I can get elsewhere!

  5. It could be called paternalistic, but what was effective with NZ’s Māori was boarding schools specifically for the best and brightest. Most students did very well in life and became role models.
    To be selected was considered an honour. Could that work here, Ted?

    1. Of course, Di. Noel Pearson has long advocated sending children from remote communities to boarding school for their education. Then if they wish they can return with qualifications to improve their communities.
      The Australian Indigenous Education Foundation also provides scholarships for indigenous children from remote communities. They pay the fees to take promising children into the best schools. They have an excellent record for graduating indigenous children from the best boarding schools and universities.
      This certainly helps to break the cycle of dysfunction but is still only available to a small percentage of indigenous kids.

  6. Insightful essay as always Ted. I too took note of the notion of the PM legislating a “voice” to parliament should the referendum fail. A slap in the face to the Australian people to be sure. Perhaps this is naive but isn’t legislation infinitely preferable to a change to the constitution? A piece of legislation can be amended to adapt to societal changes over time or even abolished by a future government should it turn out to be ATSIC 2.0. As I understand it no such flexibility exists once the constitution is changed. If I’m right perhaps ditching the referendum and legislating is the responsible course of action for the PM.

  7. Ted
    I am one of the persons you know who will vote NO.
    I will not vote for any proposition which in my opinion has any slight chance of destroying, derogating or subsuming the Primacy of Parliament.
    As to Di’s point, from my experience that approach worked well in PNG also, as I had the pleasure of working with Nationals who were educated in Australian Boarding Schools.
    Linda Burney has the ability to achieve the outcomes she espouses by setting up a Standing Senate Select Committee with external members similar to the manner corporates do with Board Committees.
    My cynical side says it is all about power.

    1. Thanks David. As I responded to Di there is a history of success for indigenous children who have been extracted from their communities and sent to good hoarding schools for education.

  8. Interesting, Ted. Followed up by reading more from Anthony Dillon. I definitely share some of your concerns and reservations, and it’s instructive to hear a few different opinions. Cheers.

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