Tuesday, 27 June 2023

In 1967, Australians considered a question at a referendum that proposed alterations to the Constitution to remove discrimination against Aboriginals and to include them in the national census. Brought by Australia’s 17th Prime Minister, the Liberal Party leader, Harold Holt, the successful referendum was a culmination of a bipartisan campaign to bring Australians together. The question was overwhelmingly supported, with 90.77 per cent of 4.5 million Australians voting yes.

Now, contrast that with the process employed in the 2023 Voice referendum led by Anthony Albanese, which is dividing Australians before a ballot has been cast. In response to legitimate questions regarding details of how the Voice would be structured and give effect to the proposed constitutional amendment, the Prime Minister ridicules the questions and tells people to do their own research. He has called opponents ‘Chicken Littles’. He tells people that voting yes is the right thing to do, insinuating that voting against the Voice will make you wrong. This is not the way to approach such major, permanent and groundbreaking reform—reform that has been characterised as modest and generous but is neither. This constitutional amendment would be a radical and permanent change to our founding document and our governing principles.

I want to quote Ian Levy, in a letter to the editor in the Australian. He said:

Constitutions are rigid, slow-evolving frameworks, much like our bones, and governments are elected to keep the body politic in shape. The insertion of a permanent voice into the Constitution is adding another vertebra to our nation’s backbone and can only be done with total disclosure if there is the slightest risk of paralysis. Like surgeons, governments must endeavour to do no harm.

In modifying our Constitution, the precautionary principle requires complete public disclosure of all legislation and costings. A last-minute or post-referendum disclosure after months of emotive persuasion would be an act of gamesmanship, not statesmanship.

Prime Minister Albanese has not provided Australians with the detail of what legislation for the Voice would look like. Instead, he’s asking everyone to trust him, with the ‘nothing to see here’ attitude of someone who has already broken many of the promises he made only a year ago. The Prime Minister cannot or will not tell us what the Voice mechanism will cost, how many bureaucrats will be employed, what powers the legislation will provide, how the members will be identified and appointed and what areas the Voice will have application to. The failure to provide all the details—in fact, any of the details—shows a lack of trust in the Australian people, and, if the government don’t trust us with the detail on how the Voice looks and works, how can we trust them to bring forward legislation that will be the consequential part of this constitutional change?

On 30 May, the Cairns Post reported the results of a reader survey. It said:

One common concern expressed by Indigenous people who said they would vote no or were undecided was the Voice would not sufficiently represent the diversity of Indigenous communities and therefore ignore the differences between them.

This is an important point because Indigenous communities are not all the same and have unique issues and views; however, the Prime Minister has provided no clarity or guidance on how the vast number of Indigenous cultures would be represented by the Voice. The ABC recently reported what a Doomadgee resident said:

But out here, in our communities, no one is talking about it. It wouldn’t be in the top five issues on the minds of our people.

The Post also interviewed two people from Wujal Wujal who had never heard of the Voice.

It is hard to comprehend how this government came to believe that its Voice model will represent all the Indigenous cultures across Australia, especially when it hasn’t consulted with people in these diverse and remote areas. Remember, what I’ve described as just a snapshot of one region of Australia. How many more people in remote areas around the country aren’t aware of the Voice? How many more communities question whether someone from another community will accurately represent them? Another Doomadgee resident told ABC Radio, ‘I don’t know why we’re going back to the Voice when we’ve already got a voice. If we’ve got already got people talking to us and they don’t like us, they’re not going to talk to us. It’s happening now. It’s happening in our community now. If you don’t like you, you get nothing. All our leaders do that.’ If you’re an Indigenous person from one of these remote communities whose views are inconvenient to those who hold the power, you risk being sidelined and marginalised. This Doomadgee resident’s comments underline the fact that new power structures will only entrench these divisions.

I attended the annual Eddie Mabo oration in Townsville—the first time it had been held outside Brisbane in its 31 years. The guest speaker was one of the authors of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and I was keen to hear a well-articulated argument in support of the ‘yes’ campaign. The speaker is a constitutional lawyer, an Indigenous woman with a strong and powerful story of her own. For the 400-odd people in the room, the speaker was a wonderful demonstration of success in her life through hard work, opportunity and mentorship. There is an awful assumption in the Voice amendment that being Indigenous is to be forever disadvantaged and that the lives of all Indigenous Australians are somehow less—less successful, less inspiring and less hopeful. There is no recognition of all the Indigenous Australians who have led fulfilling lives, raised families and pursued careers, and become leaders in their families, their communities and their industries: sporting identities, business leaders, members of parliament and even senators. The Prime Minister conflates disadvantage with indigeneity, rather than disadvantage born of geography and poverty.

To return to the ‘yes’ speaker, it was really disappointing that the speaker couldn’t articulate anything more in her argument than ‘there is disadvantage, and we need to do something about it’, because not all Indigenous people are disadvantaged. Disadvantage is not a race issue. It is largely down to geography, poverty and education. Where you live has more bearing on your fortunes than who you are—your access to good health care, to education, to roads to get you to bigger communities, data and voice connectivity, reliable electricity, air fields upgraded and mental health services. These are all matters that the coalition and the Nationals in particular work hard on, trying to prioritise additional spending at each budget, the very expenditure that Labor should be pushing if they genuinely want to reduce disadvantage in rural, regional and remote Australia. Instead, they have paused spending on infrastructure in the very remote regions that need it.

Some Australians may have considered voting for the constitutional change to enshrine the Voice because they are told it is the generous thing to do and they are thinking, ‘Why not? We have to do something.’ But the better question is why? Why should we adopt a radical change to our Constitution? Australia’s story is an Indigenous one followed by waves of migration, first by the British and then other Europeans. South-East Asian migrants followed, and those from the Middle East and Africa have all arrived. They were all lured by the dream of living in a free democracy, working as one towards a better future. They came here because of our opportunities for all, regardless of race. We have something unique in Australia—a rich tapestry of multiculturalism.

Those waves of new Australians have given us so much besides different foods and architecture and style. Most importantly, they have given us a culture that is humble, prepared to lend a hand to our neighbours and which has a strong sense of a fair go. Some would tell you that Australia does not have a culture, and perhaps we don’t, not in the way of a country with low migration and clearly unique language, food and buildings. But to say Australia does not have its own culture is never to have celebrated Anzac Day, experienced chicken salt, swam at our pristine beaches or hung clothes on a Hills hoist, to have felt a sigh of homecoming on landing in Australia, heard rain on a tin roof or cheered your team on with a crowd. As has been said, ‘I can travel all over the world, but no matter how far or how wide I roam, I still call Australia home.’

Australia aspires to a fair go for all by not having different levels of citizenship, and that is something worth celebrating. Having an equal say is an important premise in our democracy, one which will be replaced should a new body be established that grants additional rights to some citizens over others based on race. Making this change to the Constitution would enshrine the new Voice body forever, whether it’s doing a good job or not.

The beauty of our Constitution is its simplicity. It describes broadly the House of Representatives, the Senate and the powers of the parliament. The introduction of another body will, by its nature, provide additional uncertainty and an increase in bureaucracy and cost. It will not fix geography and poverty.

The legislation that would need to be passed by the parliament to put flesh on the bones of the skeleton Voice, as established in the Constitution and as yet undescribed by the Prime Minister, could not legislate away the powers of enshrined Voice which would be determined by the decisions of the High Court. This proposed constitutional change will make the High Court of Australia the determinator of the influence and importance of this proposed body, not the elected representatives of Australia and, subsequently, Australians.

Opinions from some of our brightest legal minds on the Voice’s powers are already divided, a sign of future years of expensive legal battles. Since 1972, there have been three iterations of a voice, which all ended up being disbanded for various reasons. The most recent was the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, ATSIC, which was abolished in 2005, not only because it was ineffective in helping Indigenous Australians but in large part because of allegations of corruption and mismanagement amongst the leadership.

We currently have numerous Indigenous bodies providing advice to the federal government. These include the National Indigenous Australians Agency, the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, the Torres Strait Regional Authority, the Northern Australia Indigenous Reference Group and the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, all of which have specific areas of focus. There is also the Coalition of Peaks, Empowered Communities and thousands of Aboriginal corporations and service providers all able to give advice, to give voice, via their elected MPs and senators. Anyone who claims that Indigenous Australians are not consulted on policies that affect them is being disingenuous at best. For good or bad, a nonconstitutional body can be abolished, reshaped or replaced. This ability to reform when things aren’t working as they should is an important part of democracy and good governance.

The coalition has made clear its opposition to the Voice. It will simply add another layer of bureaucracy that will inhibit the practical, local measures that need to be taken to improve Indigenous people’s lives, especially those living a long way from the capitals and in regions with limited work opportunities. It will instead soak up attention and funding that could be spent on the ground. Furthermore, elected coalition MPs and senators take seriously our duty to represent all constituents regardless of race. Governments shouldn’t decide how to allocate resources and attention based on race instead of need.

The issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, particularly in remote areas, are numerous and complex. It’s difficult to see how a new body made up of 24 persons appointed rather than elected, from different parts of the country and with different priorities will be able to present a consensus opinion to the government in a timely manner. Australians have already, in this, the 47th Parliament, sent 11 Indigenous Australians to parliament. These men and women have been appointed not by bureaucracy but by their communities. They sit in two chambers alongside representatives of our newest arrivals and descendants of those who settled here earlier. This is something that Australia can be proud of.

Changing the Constitution is a big deal. It would have permanent outcomes. Change to the Constitution in an ill-considered way is not generous; it is unwise, and it risks the stable and successful nation that Australia is today. I cannot support this change to our Constitution.