Voice and ears and heart

Dimly, against the shuffling of papers, the Voice can be heard again. In a 165-page report, an interim document, the joint select committee on constitutional recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has resurrected what the prime minister has already once killed.

This is a moment of national import. It is a second chance. As the committee report notes, the Voice is “a continuation of the long struggle for political representation going back over a century and an expression of the right to self-determination”.

The interim report makes a number of findings, many of them self-evident. It notes that the Voice has strong support. It notes that this support is especially strong for local and regional structures. As if to address the flippancy with which Malcolm Turnbull has treated the Voice, it says, “the effect of any successful referendum held on entrenching The Voice would be moral, political, and legal”.

The committee found that the intended Voice would empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It would give them greater say in the affairs of their lives. It would produce both autonomy and prosperity.

“An entity or entities such as The Voice would give effect to the long-held desire for recognition of the unique status and rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as well as their need for engagement and direct participation in the issues and decision-making that affect their rights as citizens and their daily lives,” the report says.

“The committee recognises that such calls for greater self-determination, partnership, and participation have been longstanding and are not recent calls. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are demanding to be self-determining, to have a primary role in decision-making processes, and not merely be the subjects of any decisions made by others.”

In saying this, the report also says that the Voice needs an ear. More than that, it needs a heart. With Malcolm Turnbull, it has been given neither.

“There needs to be a bipartisan buy-in,” Bertus de Villiers, an adjunct professor at Curtin Law School, told the hearings. “There needs to be a serious commitment. That cannot be legislated. That has to come from the heart. Unfortunately, that is where advisory bodies often fail.”

He pointed to successful models in South Africa and Finland. He said that “political recognition inevitably, in the long term, leads to economic improvement. That’s why people want political power, because they realise that through political power one can better take care of the interests of your community.”

Questions remain about constitutional and legislative changes. The report acknowledges that. There is not consensus on whether the Voice would be given a constitutional guarantee.

The committee intends to take more evidence. It will continue to consult with First Nations people. It will look again at Makarrata and processes for truth telling. A final report will be prepared before the end of the year. It calls this “The way forward”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 4, 2018 as "Voice and ears and heart".

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