International Politics

Australia’s moment of truth

The battle over ‘The Voice’ indigenous advisory body reveals a deep divide in Australian politics

Parliament House in Canberra via The Unsplash License

This week, the ‘no’ group launched its “Recognise a Better Way” campaign in preparation for this year’s referendum on an indigenous ‘Voice’ to parliament.

The referendum, a key election commitment of the government, is asking Australians to vote on whether the Constitution should be updated to include an indigenous Voice to Parliament. 

The Voice would be an advisory body made up entirely of indigenous people from around Australia. According to the government, the Voice would enable indigenous Australians to provide advice to the parliament on policies and projects that impact their lives. The argument is that indigenous people are best placed to offer advice on how best to solve the complex problems affecting the lives of indigenous people.

The Voice was a key recommendation from of ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’, widely seen as a historic consensus by indigenous people and groups. The Statement called for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to parliament, along with a commission to discuss treaty making and truth-telling. During last year’s election campaign, now Prime Minister Anthony Albanese pledged to implement the Statement’s recommendations “in full”.

The ‘no’ campaign, led by politicians and commentators from the right of Australian politics, has made several public statements against the Voice.

Jon Anderson, a former Deputy Prime Minister, argued that he could not support “race-based measures” in the constitution and that the Voice is “the wrong way to recognise Aboriginal people or help Aboriginal Australians in need.”

Jacinta Price, a conservative senator from the Northern Territory and indigenous woman, has claimed the Voice would “divide us along the lines of race”. Warren Mundine, a former Liberal Party candidate, stated that the Voice “was dreamed up by a whole lot of people, aboriginal people, in Sydney and Melbourne. The elites of academia.”

The National Party leader, David Littleproud has previously stated that the Voice “will not advance the primary aim of Closing the Gap and dealing with the real issues faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

These claims are right out of the conservative playbook and are designed to misinform and confuse.

Let’s unpack these arguments.

Claiming that ‘race-based’ measures in the constitution divides the community ignores history and reality.

Firstly, the constitution already includes provisions recognising indigenous Australians, allowing the parliament to make “special laws” for indigenous people. This has not divided Australians as the provision was designed to help the parliament better tackle the specific and complex issues indigenous people face. The Voice will seek to do the same.

This claim also ignores the impact of historical inequality. Since colonisation, indigenous Australians have experienced extreme hardships, such as the loss of traditional culture and land and the forced removal of children.

Indigenous people also continue to suffer from inequality in Australian society.

Indigenous adults make up approximately 2% of the population but constitute 27% of the national prison population. The life expectancy of indigenous people is also lower than non-indigenous Australians, 71.7 years for men (8.6 years lower than non-indigenous men) and 75.6 years for indigenous women (7.8 years lower than non-indigenous women).

Indigenous people also continue to die in custody, with 24 indigenous deaths between 2021 and 2022, and alcohol-fuelled violence continues to be a problem. This year, the town of Alice Springs has been gripped by a wave of violence after alcohol restrictions were not renewed by the government.

This suggests the Voice doesn’t divide on race, it instead seeks to address historic wrongs and improve equality for Australia’s oldest inhabitants.

The second claim, that the Voice was “dreamed up” by inner city elites is also incorrect.

The Uluru Statement of the Heart was created from a series of 12 ‘dialogues’ across the country, including Dubbo, Broome, Ross River and the Torres Strait, and at the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru in 2017. These dialogues includes widespread consultation with indigenous Australians from both rural and metropolitan areas.

This is an anti-elite message, like those seen in the Brexit campaign, aimed at denigrating the public faces of the yes campaign, such as Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney.

Finally, the third claim, that the Voice will not help solve issues facing indigenous Australians, is frankly laughable.

The Liberal National Coalition, which Littleproud is a member, was previously in government for almost a decade and in power for 21 of the last 27 years.  In fact, the Coalition was responsible for handing down the ‘Closing the Gap’ report in 2005, aimed at achieving equality in health and life expectancy for indigenous people within a generation. The report recommended that programs and services needed to be “designed, developed and implemented in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

The problem here is that, under the Coalition, the situation of indigenous Australians did not improve, and indigenous people were not listened to.

This is the very thing the Voice seeks to address.

Giving indigenous people a say in their own affairs, one that caters to the specific needs of families and communities, is not only consistent with Closing the Gap but also a potentially better way of solving the complex problems indigenous people face.

This reveals the National Party’s position is based on politics, not substance.

The government can combat these arguments by being upfront with the Australian public.

This could involve media campaigns that better explain the complex issues indigenous Australians face and why they occur. This can be done in partnership with indigenous organisations.

The government would also do well to remind the Australian public about the failures of the past by both sides of government and how an indigenous advisory body will result in better outcomes for indigenous Australians after years of false starts.

This information may be obvious to some, but it may not be for others.

After two centuries of dispossession and disadvantage, indigenous Australians deserve better than a referendum campaign mired in disinformation.

For this reason, the government needs to ensure the public know the facts, so they make the right decision to help improve the lives of indigenous people.

This is important. Indigenous lives are at stake.

Chris Fitzgerald is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne. He writes on political and human rights issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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