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.
- 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.
- 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?”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Those of the right who believe on principle the Voice must be rejected because it enshrines racial division in the constitution.
- 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.