As a theatre- and filmmaker, and a publisher for over thirty years, I have had a fair amount to do with Indigenous Australians. Almost ten percent of our authors identify as Aboriginal, and in 1995 I directed a film, Dead Heart, based on my own stage play, that changed my life and introduced me to a host of Aboriginal actors and performers, many of whom became friends – people I knew and loved.
Yet in 2023, most of them have died far too young. As have many of the Indigenous writers we published in the 1970s and ’80s. All that talent and courage and wisdom, gone.
I won’t name them, but their loss shocks and saddens me whenever I think of it – and yet this experience is the rule more than the exception. In 2022-2023 the Commonwealth spent $4.2 billion dollars on Indigenous programs, yet Indigenous Australians have worse health outcomes and shorter life expectancy than other Australians. They have higher rates of infant mortality and lower levels of education and employment. An Indigenous male has a one-in-six chance of being imprisoned at some time in his life, and the situation is getting worse. Since 1991 the percentage of the prison population that identifies as Aboriginal has doubled, from 14% to 28%, yet they represent 3.8% of the general population. There are few Indigenous people who don’t know someone who is in gaol or has been there. When you lock someone up, you imprison a family as well.
Something has to change, and I believe that change is the Voice.
There have been many Commonwealth advisory bodies on First Nations matters, but they have all been creatures of the administrations that created them. There was the Council for Aboriginal Affairs (1967-76), the National Conference of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Councillors (1972), the National Aboriginal Conference (1977-85), the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) (1989-2005), the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (1991-2000), the National Indigenous Council (2005-07), the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (2009-19), the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council (2013-19) and the Special Envoy for Indigenous Affairs (2018-19). Each established under one government only to be defunded, expire or be abolished under another. The Voice is not a creature of any government. It has come directly from Indigenous people themselves, and its great genius is the prospect of continuity. By enshrining this body in the Constitution, the Government may amend its legislation, its functions can be changed, but without another referendum it cannot be abolished. Corporate knowledge will be preserved, expertise expanded, lessons finally learned. And because it will advise executive government, the Voice will influence legislation as it is drafted rather than argue fruitlessly for amendments in the House.
The Voice to Parliament is both modest and radical. It is modest because the 96% of non-Indigenous Australians will barely notice it, but for the few who need it – the Voice could be life-changing.
Sadly, misinformation about the Voice is pervasive. The Voice will not introduce race to the Constitution – race has always been there, under Section 51(xxvi), often referred to, ironically enough, as ‘the race power’. It was in fact the 1967 referendum that included Aboriginal people under the race power by deleting the words ‘other than the aboriginal race’. This allows the Commonwealth to make laws that specifically benefit Indigenous people, but also to impose the civic responsibilities that apply to other citizens. Without the 1967 referendum the Voice amendment would not be possible, and in fact the Voice fulfils that referendum’s promise by defining the process by which the Commonwealth should make those laws.
This does not grant Indigenous people any special privileges. As Peter Hartcher recently pointed out, the Voice amendment is not actually about race at all; it is an acknowledgement of indigeneity, and the disadvantages that have accrued to Indigenous people as a result of their dispossession. If First Nations people had been blonde and blue-eyed, like the Sami in Scandinavia, they would still be entitled to that acknowledgement.
Perhaps the most potent but misleading criticism of the Voice is that it lacks ‘detail’. There is of course a mountain of detail in the Calma Langton Report, commissioned by the Liberal Party when in office, which points to the likely direction of the legislation, but the detail cannot be included in the Constitution, nor should it be drafted before the amendment becomes law.
Consider, for instance, Section 51(vi), commonly referred to as the defence power. It reads as follows:
51 The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to:
(vi) the naval and military defence of the Commonwealth and of the several States, and the control of the forces to execute and maintain the laws of the Commonwealth;
(xxxii) the control of railways with respect to transport for the naval and military purposes of the Commonwealth;
It needs to be read in conjunction with two other paragraphs relating to State powers, but essentially that’s it. If the founders had included more detail, such as the size of the force, for instance, or the number of rifles, or the command structure – where would we be now? Or perhaps the 1900 referendum on our Constitution should not have been held until all the legislation had been drafted – in which case no doubt we would still be six squabbling states.
We elect our government to decide legislation. If the first iteration of the Voice is not effective, then Parliament – including the Liberal and National parties –will amend it. Calling for detail now is to deny one side of politics the opportunity to shape the Voice. And it is crucial, for many reasons, that this legislation is bipartisan.
Yet the avalanche of misinformation continues: it will tie up Government business in the High Court, Aboriginal people could be entitled to compensation, the Voice will advise on everything from defence to Australia Day … These objections are nothing more than smoke to cover base political objectives. Many countries have first-nations advisory bodies, including Sweden, Finland, Norway, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. Peter Dutton in particular has never shied away from dog-whistling on race to gain political advantage, whether by refusing to attend the national apology to the stolen generations, or his claim that Malcolm Fraser allowed too many Lebanese into the country, or that Victorians cannot go out to dinner at night for fear of Sudanese gangs. Sometimes he has simply been tone-deaf, as when he diverted grants for crime prevention in remote communities in favour of bowling greens in Liberal electorates, or simply joked about Islanders losing their homes to climate change.
When I think of the generosity of spirit that I have found in the Indigenous people I’ve worked with, and of what they have suffered, I’m filled with sadness and with rage – but also with wonder that they have returned, once again, with a hand outstretched in friendship. I urge Australians on Saturday the 14th October to reject Dutton’s vision; to see through the smokescreen to the justice and simplicity of the proposed amendment for the Voice. We need it, not just to acknowledge past wrongs, but for our future as a nation and for our self-respect as a people.
Nick Parsons, Chair, ePublishing Editor, Currency Press
18 September, 2023