Indigenous Voice to Parliament will be a distraction from the real problems
Published 17 Jun 2023 IN The Australian
The so-called voice to parliament, enshrined in the much-praised Uluru Statement from the Heart, claims to establish a constitutionally guaranteed Indigenous voice in our legislative and executive arms of government. This, according to its advocates, will ensure that the plight of Indigenous Australians is impossible to ignore.
By saying so-called voice, I mean no disrespect, but it is misleading to suggest that Indigenous Australians currently have no voice to parliament when each Indigenous Australian has an equal vote to anyone else and, importantly, each state and territory has a minister for Aboriginal affairs, and federally we have a minister for Indigenous Australians.
These portfolios liaise directly with many Indigenous stakeholders. Indigenous Australians, like all Australians, have many voices to parliament already.
I and many others am simply not convinced that this so-called voice will achieve anything positive beyond a very short-lived rush of joy for those in favour of it.
More seriously, though, I think the voice to parliament will actually prove to be detrimental to the cause of Indigenous disadvantage, for it will beget divisiveness and cynicism, and its politics will prove to be a distraction from the very practical challenges of closing the gaps in health, education, domestic violence, substance abuse, employment and income.
Other countries that have adopted similar approaches have borne bad fruit.
Take the Waitangi Tribunal in New Zealand, which has direct veto power over certain legislation. This discriminatory innovation to the New Zealand government system has expanded over time and has contributed to divisive racial politics. We’ve got to be wiser here.
Despite the near-universal praise heaped on the Uluru Statement from the Heart, its words, if they were to be taken seriously by Indigenous Australians, are actually misleading and highly detrimental. Most notably, the document declares Indigenous Australians to be “powerless”, and that “constitutional reforms” are the only way to “empower our people”, and that Indigenous Australians currently do not have “power over our destiny”.
It is bad enough to be saying to a generation of Indigenous Australians that they currently have no control over their destiny, but what are Indigenous youths to conclude about their agency over their future if the referendum fails? Inseparable from the voice to parliament is the question of a treaty, and treaties very often involve the establishment of separate, autonomous Indigenous territories with massive taxpayer funding.
Certainly this has been the case with Australian discussions of a treaty – we are talking about a radical move.
The Uluru Statement itself calls for a “better future based on … self-determination”. The phrase self-determination is a barely veiled reference to a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Indeed, the Uluru Statement calls for a “Makarrata Commission”, Makarrata being a term historically referring to a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
In 2021 Anthony Albanese, now the major champion of the voice to parliament, said: “The voice is the bedrock upon which we must build. I want a voice and truth, then treaty.” I think we need to take the Prime Minister at his word. I also believe he should, in the interests of transparency, explain exactly what that three-step process of voice, treaty and truth-telling will be, and how he believes it will “close the gap” rather than widen divisions.
If the voice is step one on this path to a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, then we can rightly expect a perpetual call for a such a treaty. And given that most Australians will not be sympathetic to such an extreme reform, how will this not beget perpetual grievance and cynicism among many Aboriginal Australians? All the while the gaps between Indigenous Australians will remain, with the politics of the voice overshadowing the everyday needs of Indigenous Australians much as today the question of changing the date of Australia Day gets far more media attention than the horrific rates of domestic violence and child abuse in remote communities. We don’t need more distractions from the real issues.
I am encouraged by Indigenous Australians such as senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, businessman Nyunggai Warren Mundine and academic Anthony Dillon, whose passion for Indigenous welfare is undeniable yet who prefer practical and tried public policy as the best means to close the gap.
For example, in 2003 alcohol restrictions were introduced to the Aurukun region in western Cape York in far north Queensland, resulting in a sharp decline in murders and suicides, and a 90 per cent decline in people presenting in hospitals for suturing for injuries sustained in fights.
But the current government scrapped the cashless welfare card in many dysfunctional communities that prevented money from being spent on alcohol (and gambling) rather than food for families. It was scrapped despite earnest Indigenous voices – led by Price – crying out for its continuation.
In The Politics of Suffering, a classic discussion of Indigenous policy in Australia, anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton regretfully wrote of “an apparent correlation between the progressiveness of policy and the degree of (Indigenous) community disaster”. I’m sorry to say that I foresee much the same for this so-called voice to parliament: it will further entrench a sense of irresolvable grievance among many Indigenous Australians and, worse, become a distraction from the real problems that require practical policy initiatives.
When I stepped down from public leadership in 2005 I did so with a clear and optimistic vision of where this country was headed.By and large, politicians then were men and women of character and principle. READ MORE ABOUT JOHN