Introduction by Croakey: The Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues (JAII) published a special edition last month that asked Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars, lawyers, constitutional experts, community workers and other representatives who work with Indigenous communities to reflect on the importance of the upcoming referendum and an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
Below, University of Queensland researcher Professor Bronwyn Fredericks and Dr Abraham Bradfield, University of Sydney, summarise some of the reflections presented.
Bronwyn Fredericks and Abraham Bradfield write:
In the 23 papers submitted, contributors recognised that while the Voice is modest in its request, it is transformative in its potential to improve outcomes for both Indigenous peoples and the nation at large.
Constitutional lawyer Professor Gabrielle Appleby, for example, writes on how the Voice will enhance responsible government by contributing to nation-building exercises and shifting how Australia identifies itself.
Since European arrival, governing bodies have adopted paternalistic measures that have sought to “fix” the so-called “Aboriginal problem”. Regardless of whether policies have been motivated by genocide, assimilation, surveillance, or neoliberal methods that claim to act in Indigenous peoples “best interests”, Indigenous voices have struggled against what Fiona Jose describes as the “beast” of government control.
Many contributors reflect on how progress in closing the gap has been slow and, in many cases, regressive. While representative bodies such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) have come and gone, Indigenous voices have largely remained invisible within the institutions that have aimed to improve Indigenous futures and Indigenous non-Indigenous relations.
Despite the risk of lateral violence and infighting, for Professor Bindi Bennett, the Voice will provide Indigenous people with “a seat at the table” where the condescending “plastic knives and forks” will be replaced with the arsenal needed to create meaningful and lasting change.
For Jim Morrison – the son and nephew of survivors of the Stolen Generations – enshrining the Voice in the constitution will provide the stability needed to address the “dimensions of our crisis” and enable political leverage that cannot be disbanded or abolished at the will of the government.
Promoting wider inclusivity
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is gifted to Australians from all walks of life. Some contributors express a sense of dis-ease at having the majority weigh in on the lives of minority groups.
The Voice additionally remains important to other groups of people as it would symbolise the nation’s intent to move towards a more shared and inclusive society. Transgender man Joe Ball, for example, writes of how his own liberation is entwined with the liberation of Aboriginal people.
Many migrants and refugees also relate to the struggles associated with living within Anglocentric communities, and sense of national belonging. Within this context, Shankar Kasynathan encourages migrants to explore how their own experiences fit within a large historical context of institutional and systemic racism.
Not a new idea
An argument put forward by some members of the no campaign is that the Voice lacks detail. This is somewhat ironic as critics often engage in what Jesse Fleay describes as “wound stories”; narratives that speak to colonial violence without offering alternatives or enacting the leadership needed to inspire courage.
Similar disingenuous arguments have suggested that the Voice is new, has come out of the blue, is untested, or hasn’t received adequate community input.
Associate Professor Emma Gavin and others observe how calls for an Indigenous Voice date back to the 1920s, well before the regional dialogues in 2016/17. A representative Voice was and remains an inherently grass roots initiative. Noel Pearson observes how “No public policy issue has ever run this long or consumed as much time and report writing and inquiry as this one”.
Whilst Australia’s colonial history is ripe with harmful protectionist policies that oppressed Indigenous people, Professor Amanda Nettelbeck notes that the idea of seeking and following Indigenous input in regard to land management in South Australia existed as early as 1835.
The role of the protector was to ensure that the interests of local Indigenous people was followed and upheld. This included protecting Indigenous people’s right to practice “undisturbed enjoyment” of Country. A history of racism proved that such directives were rarely adhered to.
The Voice, however, provides a mechanism where Indigenous people can provide input on their own terms, protecting their own communities to which the government of the day is expected to consider.
Creating a united front
Built on the legacy of Indigenous activism and the successful referendum of 1967, attempts to create systemic change in “Indigenous Affairs” have historically been compromised by failing to solidify a united front amongst all Indigenous peoples.
Professor Dennis Foley observes that this is no fault of Indigenous peoples but rather politically calculated moves that have limited the input of Indigenous communities in national conversations.
Progress, however, has been made in the states/territories.
Since 2016, all states have recognised Indigenous people in the preamble of their constitutions and shifts in partnerships between local/regional Indigenous communities and governments have achieved results by listening to Indigenous voices.
What is currently lacking, however, is consistency between the states, the ability to inform federal policies, and a bridge that links local, regional, state, and federal levels of power. This is what the Voice will do.
Widespread support is needed
There is a thirst for reconciliation amongst the Australian public and private sectors.
Regardless of varying critiques of its success, the voluntary uptake of Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs) and commitment to reaching set targets and KPIs testifies to this.
Professor Andrew Gunstone observes that the 2,400 organisations with RAPs have a tremendous reach of over four million people. More leadership is needed by organisations with RAPs who can play key roles in encouraging discourse about the Voice and how it will improve outcomes for Indigenous peoples and business.
Recent criticism, such as that by John Howard who has characterised these organisations as “bullying” the public, is incongruous with public and commercial sentiment.
The Voice is legally sound
Constitutional lawyers and experts reiterate that the Voice aligns with Australia’s constitution and maintains parliamentary supremacy.
Far from a tokenistic gesture, the referendum will provide parliament with the mandate to act on the public’s desire to have Indigenous Voices considered, whilst explanatory memorandums and/or annual reporting will demand accountability for the decisions made vis-à-vis the input from the Voice.
Constitutional expert Professor Anne Twomey addresses the conception that the Voice would create further division by giving special rights to Indigenous peoples and therefore enshrining inequity within the constitution. Twomey reminds readers that proving equal opportunity for certain groups to participate in the political process is constitutionally sound with legal precedence.
The Voice is important as it transcends the “inequality of political influence” that currently obstructs Indigenous people’s full participation in the democratic process.
Indigenous representative mechanisms have been established and are operating internationally in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Scandinavian countries.
Programs such as the Harvard Project on Indigenous Governance and Development have documented evidence that attests Indigenous communities are more successful when they have a voice in the policies that impact their peoples.
However, the Voice in Australia will be unique in that it will be the result of a double majority referendum declaring a clear mandate from the Australian people.
Education and building awareness
Professor Barry Judd writes on the importance (and current lack) of education from non-Indigenous people about Indigenous Australians in broader Australian society.
Whilst a lack of education about First Nations people has obstructed some non-Indigenous people’s engagement with the Voice debate, the Voice itself can transcend knowledge gaps by promoting Indigenous leadership and educators.
Through the Voice Australians will be able to understand themselves in the world, as Australians who are knowledgeable of the nation’s ongoing Indigenous herstory. In the wake of the referendum Julie Sanders asks, “that you take the time to learn as much about the upcoming referendum as you can so that you can make an informed decision”.
The Voice will not erode 200 years of European history but enrich it with 65,000 years of knowledge and culture.
For Noel Pearson, its importance lies in its potential to instigate mutual recognition where Indigenous cultures, European settlement, and multicultural unity are grappled with to create a new inclusive and representative Australia. This process begins with the constitutional recognition of Australia’s First Nations people.
We encourage you to consider and discuss why an Indigenous Voice to parliament is important – not only to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but to you personally and the forthcoming generations who will live with the consequences of its legacy.
When the time comes on October 14, please vote with your heart. VOTE YES.
• References for this article are available here.
• Professor Bronwyn Fredericks is Co-Chair and a director of Croakey Health Media.