The Voice to Parliament: Before Deciding, We Need a Specific Model

The Voice referendum is perhaps the most significant climacteric of the twenty-first century for the direction – and credibility – of the incomplete fight to close the gap. Without a specific model from the Albanese government, we risk turning our backs on Indigenous Australians by dooming the referendum to fail, or voting into existence a political or constitutional catastrophe.

Australia continues to be a nation sorely divided over how to effectively address disadvantage among Indigenous Australians. Some are claiming a successful ‘Yes’ vote in favour of the Voice will be the first step toward a process of Makarrata (a Yolngu term meaning peacemaking), enabling us to process a chequered history and reconcile it with our present:

We need a Voice to represent our people and our culture and our nation. Being First Nations people, we’re the last to be heard, the last to be counted. We don’t want to be the last any more; we want to be equal to all the other cultures in the world and even to white Australians.” – Aunty Ruth Dunn.

By contrast, other indigenous leaders have viewed it as a tokenistic step backward, with the effect of driving public discourse in Australia deep into the realm of identity politics and race:

“The Albanese government’s proposed voice in the Australian constitution is the wrong way to recognise Aboriginal people… [it] smacks of the paternalism of an earlier time, without proof that it will help those in need.” – Nyunggai Warren Mundine.

If you were searching for an article on the principle of the voice, one which assesses the dichotomy presented above, you’ve misread the title.

You’ve also misunderstood the debate.

To be clear: at current, the Yes-or-No debate of principles is not a dichotomy. A dichotomy requires mutually exclusive or contradictory terms; instead, we’re observing ‘No’ arguments which rely on the same foundational logic of some ‘Yes’ proponents (such as Indigenous self-determination, cf. Lidia Thorpe’s view), and ‘Yes’ arguments which could easily be attributed to members of the ‘No’ campaign (such as the need to avoid alienating Indigenous Australians from the rest of the population). Current debate is therefore untidy at best, and totally uninformed at worst.

To form a considered view before ticking ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ this year, Australians need to understand the outcomes which a constitutionally-enshrined Voice holds the potential to deliver – and, importantly, those which it cannot deliver. Australians need to understand the model.

For example, it is in nobody’s interest for the Voice to become a politicised body. There should not be a Voice composed of Liberal, Labor or Greens members, nor should select Indigenous groups or geographic regions be overrepresented. Should such overrepresentation materialise, the Voice will devolve into a polarised political arena employed primarily for electioneering. It must therefore be asked, will members be elected at the ballot box in a general election format? What prevents political parties from prompting so-called ‘independent’ candidates to run? Will members be appointed by State and Territory Governments? If so, what prevents blatant political appointments? If members are selected by the Federal Government, who makes the final decision? How regularly are new members elected? Or selected? Or collected?

A similar flurry of questions arises over the implications of intentionally enshrining the Voice in the constitution. There is a real possibility that the High Court could – at some future stage – make judicial interpretations identifying certain implied rights introduced by the Voice, in the same way Australians have an implied right to freedom of speech. Is it not logical that “representations… on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” requires a legal definition? If there’s a legal right for the Voice to make such representations, is there not a legal responsibility of the Commonwealth Government to at very least acknowledge those same representations? How broad is this responsibility? The Voice’s role could be enlarged by common law beyond that which Albanese intends – whatever that is exactly.

Indeed, January polling reveals that only 13 per cent of voters are confident they ‘understand the current plan for constitutional change to give First Nations people a bigger say in national affairs’. Australians are kidding themselves if they believe that a referendum on the Voice, held today, is about anything more than notional goodwill for Indigenous communities if only 13% of us understand the subject of the referendum.

First Nations Australians deserve a debate which has a proper chance to highlight disadvantage and sharpen Indigenous Affairs policy, not simply one that allows virtue-signalling Tweets and temporary Facebook frames en masse. Perhaps a preference for tokenistic goodwill explains why the same Albanese government claiming support for First Nations peoples’ sovereignty could totally ignore their cries from Alice Springs, as crime rates skyrocketed under a reversed alcohol ban?

The method of approaching Indigenous issues should not be relegated to public stunts, exhausting enormous volumes of political capital while simultaneously being devoid of detail. We cannot let action on genuine Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage become token gestures from our centres of government. You deserve to know specifically what “mak[ing] representations to parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” entails.

Until specificity is received, it is not racist to be considering a ‘No’ vote to the referendum question. You are not voting against the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Australians; you are signalling to the Albanese government that Australians will not be taken for fools. You are voting against the existence of a Voice which is unpredictable, potentially a directly counterproductive body and certainly one which is not understood.

Cooper is the President of the University of Sydney Conservative Club

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