Marcia Langton
Fighting for a Voice

It is eight months since Prime Minister Anthony Albanese used his victory speech to promise his government would implement in full the Uluru Statement from the Heart. What has transpired since is less the dialogue he hoped for and more two separate monologues.

In one monologue, advocates for the Voice, myself included, set out a vision for a reconciled Australia in which First Peoples are constitutionally part of the fabric of the nation, able to speak to the lawmakers whose decisions have too often harmed us and have comprehensively failed to close the gap.

In the other, there are petty diatribes warning of the collapse of democracy should the Voice become reality. Worse, they say in their almost daily harangues, Australia will be divided by race and, because the Voice is a racist proposition, we who advocate for it are opposed to the very idea of Australia.

To these people Australia is not a racist country: we are all one people, under one flag, in one nation, and the Voice will utterly destroy the social fabric of this great egalitarian nation. To be honest, the relentless stream of misinformation and imagined scenarios, designed to strike fear in the heart of the remaining Liberal and National Party voters, would take a while to explain, but that is the gist.

The key gripe of Peter Dutton and his shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, Julian Leeser, is that “no detail” has been provided about the Voice – what it would do, who its members would be, how they would be appointed, how much they would be paid. What the opponents mean is that they will seek to deceive the public into believing that there is “no detail”, ignoring at least three reports on the matter running to hundreds of pages, including the 272-page “Indigenous Voice Co-design Process” final report, which Professor Tom Calma and I led; the 183-page “Final Report of the Referendum Council”; and the 264-page report from the joint select committee on constitutional recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, led by Senator Patrick Dodson and Leeser himself. It would be unfair, and probably un-Australian, to suggest that Dutton should have read these reports, and equally unfair, and probably un-Australian, to expect that Leeser could remember the detail of his own report to parliament.

Still, the path to the referendum is becoming increasingly difficult and each week brings a new but not surprising claim about the Voice, totally unsupported by evidence. I have a dark and heavy sense of deja vu as I read the media reports demanding to see the detail.

I remember being at the Australian Reconciliation Convention in Melbourne on May 26, 1997, just hours before the “Bringing Them Home” report was tabled in parliament, detailing the thousands of Indigenous children who were forcibly removed from their families. As then prime minister John Howard worked his way through the usual niceties on stage, he became visibly angry. By the time he got to setting out his objections to all the issues Indigenous people had raised, he was furious.

He berated the audience of at least 600, including international dignitaries, referring to the invasion and frontier wars as a “blemish” on Australian history. He slammed the lectern with his fist and yelled at the participants, some of whom turned their backs on him. He raged about the “overall story of great Australian achievement” and delivered one of his petty, specious, defining lines: “Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies over which they had no control.”

In this speech he laid out his creed for refusing to acknowledge the facts of Australian history and for his absolute refusal, over a 10-year period, to apologise to the Stolen Generations, just as all Liberal prime ministers since have refused to acknowledge the point of reconciliation with Indigenous people.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart, like all the reconciliation statements and reports before it, makes clear that we are not blaming and not demanding a response of guilt. Howard, like the opinion writers in the Murdoch media, throws sand in your face so you cannot see what we are actually asking for: a right to be consulted about decisions that affect our lives, and a right to truth-telling and treaties. These are the three aspirations set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Now there is a new creed. Albanese’s alleged “refusal” to provide details about the Voice proposal, so described by conservative constitutional lawyer and former Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven, has “doomed” the referendum. Craven’s latest tack follows years of influencing constitutional reform for Indigenous Australians towards compromise and minimalism.

Joining Craven is Nationals leader David Littleproud and Celtic–Warlpiri Senator Jacinta Price. Price falsely claims the Voice is a “new governance structure” that will be “placed with some sort of priority over our current Westminster system”. This is nonsense and as a new senator she might wish to be briefed on the committee system already established, to which a Voice would likely make reports.

Price opined that it is “not racist to disagree” with the Voice and that it would “divide us along the lines of race”. She sneered at Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney, saying she “might be able to take a jet out to a remote community dripping with Gucci and tell people in the dirt what’s good for them, but they’re in the dark and they have been in the dark”.

Her remarks were met with astonishment from several Indigenous leaders, not least Guugu Yimithirr man Noel Pearson, who said she was caught in a “tragic redneck celebrity vortex”. Burney’s office clarified that the minister does not wear Gucci. Price continued with her disinformation about the Voice not closing the gap, ignoring the reports already prepared on this point and the decade of indifference and rorting in the Indigenous portfolio from her side of politics.

Former minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said he brought the reports I prepared with Calma to cabinet while in government and asked his former colleagues to consider them. He even offered those in parliament now the exact page numbers of the summary, to help them out. “What is obvious with the National Party,” he said, “is they have not read the report and not given an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament an opportunity to be aired and listened to … There’s no excuse to say you do not know the detail. It’s laziness.”

The bleating about “detail” is clearly a sign of laziness among the opposition parties, but there is another tactic at play. Think George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the pigs. When Andrew Bolt interviewed Price’s father on Sky News, the purpose of the whining about “details” became obvious to me.

Earlier, I had expressed disappointment that the senator had sought to diminish the Voice and explained there was no biological reality to the concept of race. Only some of my comments were reported. With the mapping of the human genome, it is clear that “race” is a social construct, often used in the way she used it to deny minority groups of colour a meaningful place in society. Given the great cultural and linguistic diversity of First Peoples, the accurate way to describe Indigenous people is by their language, nation or clan status, which is the practice in contemporary Australia.

On Sky News, Price’s father, Dave Price, found his chance and accused me of being “literally insane” and interpreted my evidence-based explanation of the fiction of “race” as an attack on him and his Celtic background. You see what I mean about Animal Farm?

Politicians and columnists and whatever Andrew Bolt is are working hard to ensure that by the time we get to the referendum most Australians will believe there is no detail. Their claims about the deleterious impact of the Voice on our great nation fail one by one as they become wilder and wilder, answered in detail by former High Court judge Kenneth Hayne and eminent lawyers including Mark Leibler and Anne Twomey. As Twomey says, all that is important at the referendum is to know the scope of the power being enshrined. This leaves the function in the hands of the parliament, with the oversight of democratic process. “It puts democracy, not the devil, in charge of the detail.”

Twenty years ago, John Howard and his government rejected the recommendations of the report by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, in its road map for reconciliation. Howard continued to reject the call for an apology, recommended again in this report, and also rejected a treaty and a referendum to be held to change the constitution’s preamble to recognise Indigenous peoples.

Cabinet papers released in the past few days are replete with the language of his speech in 1997. A national apology would be “inappropriate” as it could imply “that present generations are in some way responsible for the actions of earlier generations”. A treaty would be “divisive” and would “not solve the critical issues facing Indigenous Australians”. This is, of course, wrong.

In 2008, Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations united the nation. Hundreds of thousands of people listened. It was a healing gesture. Its importance to the remaining victims of those vicious policies and their descendants cannot be overestimated. Dutton admits he was wrong to reject the apology and walk out of parliament while it was being read. Howard admits he was wrong to berate the participants at the Reconciliation Convention.

Crocodile tears after their failure to respond to the nation’s most profound moral questions are hardly convincing. I do not expect the hard men and women of right-wing politics to grasp the enormity of the referendum question on the Voice. Their politics of denial is an old colonial cult, not easily forgotten.

It is the duty of Australians who want to build a nation that recognises 65,000 years of human history, who want to accord First Peoples a rightful, honourable place in the nation’s fabric, in the warp and weft of its foundational document, to convince their family members, friends, neighbours and colleagues to vote “Yes”. We have asked people to imagine the days after the referendum when the votes are counted: Will our nation continue to be founded on colonial theft and brutality towards Indigenous people, or will its people agree to a new accord, one based on the right to dignity for all?

There is something the “No” camp doesn’t understand – or if they do, they are worse than I think. We will never get this opportunity again. This referendum is a once-in-many-lifetimes event. That is why it is more important than the cynicism and redneck opportunism with which they have tried to frame it.

A lot is made of the comparison between this referendum and the 1999 referendum on a republic, which took that question off the table for at least a generation. There is one fundamental difference, however: the Liberal–National Coalition is a spent force in Australian politics and, with its track record on climate change, women’s rights, integrity in politics and marriage equality, its opposition to the Voice may well relegate it to an irretrievable status, a place of opprobrium and irrelevance from which it may never recapture an electorate weary of hateful culture wars.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 7, 2023 as "Fighting for a Voice".

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