Identity politics has no place in Australia’s constitution
The Aboriginal ‘Voice to Parliament’ is a divisive and anti-democratic proposal.
An Aboriginal artist is searching for a white Australian to sacrifice their body in atonement for colonial sins. Artist Nathan Maynard placed a newspaper advert earlier this month appealing for volunteers. He is searching for an Australian of British descent who is willing to donate his or her future remains to an art installation. The installation would be shown at the Hobart Current arts festival, supported by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG). The aim of the piece would be to ‘speak to’ the colonial-era theft and exhibition of Aboriginal bones and skeletons. The director of the TMAG, Mary Mulcahy, says that while the piece may be confrontational, it is ‘an important part of our commitment to… apology and truth-telling’.
This is only the latest example of Australia’s frankly exhausting culture of identity politics, most of which revolves around its colonial history and the past treatment of its Aboriginal population. There are times on this ‘journey’ towards Aboriginal reconciliation when you feel like kicking the driver’s seat and asking: ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ Symbolic gestures have got us nowhere, it seems. After an endless series of national apologies, barefoot circles and smoking ceremonies we are still no closer to shaking hands and being done with it.
One of the most frustrating stops along this journey has been the debate around the ‘Voice to Parliament’ initiative. Later this year, Australians will be obliged by law to cast a vote on the establishment of the indigenous Voice to Parliament – a proposed group of indigenous representatives who would advise parliament and government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Prime minister Anthony Albanese told Australians last month that this is our chance ‘to be heard on the side of progress, on the side of fairness, on the side of a stronger and more equal and more reconciled nation’. The Voice to Parliament, Albanese tells us, is ‘a generous, patient, gracious call to be heard. To be listened to. To have a say.’ Details beyond that are scarce. Albanese happily admits that the shape of this new something won’t be worked out until after the referendum, which he says will be held before Christmas this year.
Early polls suggested that a clear majority of Australians would vote ‘yes’ in most states, the threshold required for the amendment to pass. It would become only the ninth constitutional amendment to be approved by the federated Australian people. Recent polls, however, have been trending south. If the proposal is rejected, it will bring the total number of failed referendums to 37. No proposal has passed without fulsome bipartisan support, which the Voice to Parliament lacks.
The lack of clarity on the consequences may be one reason why support for the Voice is waning in the polls. Prime minister Albanese becomes noticeably irritated when pressed on details about the Voice. He seems unable to indicate how members of this unelected body will be chosen, how many of them there will be and whether they will be paid. What will be the structure and size of the secretariat that the Voice will inevitably require? Will it be merely an advisory body or will it usurp the role of parliament’s upper house? Will it effectively have the power to veto any legislation it dislikes? After all, as Albanese says, it would take a ‘very brave government’ to defy the Voice.
Should a ‘very brave government’ go against the Voice’s wishes, could its actions be tested in the High Court? In such a scenario, it could feasibly be argued that the executive had not properly listened to the Voice’s grievances or guidance as it was constitutionally required to do.
Albanese refuses to acknowledge that any of these questions are legitimate. Instead, during a speech in February, he made broad accusations against opponents of the Voice. He claimed that they were ‘pushing misinformation on social media, drumming up outrage, trying to start a culture war’. The inevitable consequence of trying to achieve change, Albanese says, is that ‘there are always those who want to create confusion and provoke division, to try to stall progress’.
There are clear parallels here with the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump and the 1999 referendum in Australia. In the latter, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to create a republic and ditch the Queen. By doing so, they also rejected the clear advice of the media and much of the cultural elite.
Similarly, every state premier, the federal Labor government, woke independents and most Greens are on board with the Voice to Parliament. Naturally, so is state-funded broadcaster ABC, once again defying its obligation to remain impartial. Media giants Fairfax and News Corp have also made declarations of commitment, although editors with their ears to the ground are allowing space to critics of the Voice.
Almost every corporation is also nodding vigorously in agreement. That includes our unbearably woke national airline, Qantas. Its cabin stewards are now obliged to read formulaic statements acknowledging the traditional owners of the piece of Aboriginal land with which the wheels have just made contact. Companies, including all the major banks, have released statements in support of the Voice.
When the Voice was first conceived in 2017, few questioned its good intentions. Yet it is not clear what it will add to our democracy that the plurality of indigenous voices currently sitting in parliament does not.
Besides, which of the diverse views held by the 11 elected members and senators of indigenous heritage will the Voice represent? And which will it reject? Will the Voice sound like senator Jacinta Price, who grew up in Warlpiri country in the Tanami Desert and has witnessed the dysfunction of many Aboriginal communities she wants to correct? Will the Voice follow her in favouring the practical over the symbolic? Will it seek equal opportunity rather than equal outcomes, reject separatism and celebrate Australia Day with unabashed national pride?
Or will the Voice be angry like Lidia Thorpe, an independent senator from Melbourne who despises the national flag, seems to believe that all white people are racist and says her purpose in entering parliament was to infiltrate the ‘colonial project’?
Ironically, Price and Thorpe stand in furious agreement in rejecting the Voice to Parliament. Thorpe recently resigned from the Greens to argue why Australians should vote No. She wants to go much further by establishing independent sovereignty for so-called First Nations people.
Price’s objections are more practically grounded. As she said in her maiden speech to the Senate last year, she has had enough of being symbolically recognised. She wants evidence of the practical improvements proponents of the Voice claim it will make. She is especially invested in the lives of the largely forgotten Aboriginal people in remote and regional Australia. The Voice, Price said last year, is a gesture of ‘racial separatism’ by a ‘woke, sycophantic and spineless Labor government’. Price regards the Voice as patronising in the extreme.
For her opposition to the Voice, Price has been silenced on social media. Last year, she recorded a video for the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) think-tank arguing her position. The response from Facebook was to block the video from being advertised on the grounds of non-compliance with advertisements about social issues, elections or political policy. The irony was breathtaking. A group of faceless Californian tech-heads had decided that in order to avoid prejudice in a debate about an indigenous Voice to Parliament, an Aboriginal woman with a voice in that very parliament should be denied a voice on Facebook.
Far from revealing the strength of the Yes case, this act of censorship shows the insecurity of pro-Voice advocates. They are horrified at the idea that their progressive cause might fail – a cause in which they passionately believe and upon which they have stamped their identity. This is best demonstrated in the growing crankiness of pro-Voice responses to those who dare to advocate voting No.
In response to her video, Cape York Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson went on national radio to accuse Price of being caught in a ‘tragic celebrity vortex’ powered by two right-wing think-tanks, the IPA and the Centre for Independent Studies. ‘They’re the string-pullers – they’re the ones who have lined up behind Jacinta’, Pearson said. He claims their strategy was to find a black politician ‘to punch down on other black fellas.’
Marcia Langton, a distinguished Melbourne-based Aboriginal leader, joined Pearson by assigning racist motives to Voice opponents. She wrote that ‘it would be terribly unfortunate for all Australians if the debate sinks into a nasty, eugenicist, 19th-century style of debate about the superior race versus the inferior race’.
Sadly, the dispiriting influence of the US Black Lives Matter movement has polarised an already passionate debate in Australia. But the Australian debate has a very different history. Aborigines were not brought here as slaves. There was no Jim Crow. The suffering of Aborigines at the hands of historic policies is no doubt significant, but also very different from that experienced by African Americans. Exporting US-style racial politics to Australia only further confuses an already complicated discussion.
We are unlikely to ever resolve the excruciating moral question of to what extent European settlement was legitimate. But for most Australians, regardless of race, the issue is historical. There are more pressing, material matters to deal with. Reconciliation in Australia has enough setbacks to contend with without the added complexities of the somewhat abstract Voice to Parliament debate.
Take the more practical Closing the Gap project. The stark differences in life expectancy, health, literacy, employment and wealth between remote indigenous Australians and the rest of the population have resisted countless government attempts at improvement. But it is imperative that we keep trying.
Crime in Aboriginal communities particularly demands attention. The government has repeatedly failed to heed the warning signs – the endemic misuse of alcohol and associated domestic violence demands attention. And there is no shortage of voices attempting to bring attention to these problems.
As Senator Price wryly observed recently, it’s not for lack of a voice that this cycle of disadvantage is allowed to continue. What’s missing is a government with ears.
Nick Cater is executive director of Menzies Research Centre and a columnist with the Australian.
Picture by: Getty.
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