The “No” campaign’s confusing and foggy polemics about the Voice referendum have set me thinking. The thought is about those qualities that we uncritically ascribe to our Australian character: that we enjoy a fair go for all with no one left behind, that everyone is equal. They are fine sentiments, but they are not universal and have not been inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
When voters are told the referendum will deliver a Voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, many are confronted by their own perspectives and cannot comprehend that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the First Peoples of Australia, that we are distinct and unique. We are not from the traditions of Western civilisation but from our own traditions, out of this country. Some think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples ought to be the same as the non-Indigenous population, and therefore should not have any recognition in the Constitution. This denies the uniqueness of who we are.
At the same time, people are confronted by the realities and challenges of the present. All the social indicators tell us life for First Peoples is not on par with the average Australian. The unsatisfactory statistics of life expectancy, incarceration, suicide and the removal of children from the scourge of domestic violence clearly tell us the gaps of poverty and disadvantage between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are not being closed. There is no formal equality.
Perhaps it is our gullibility or laconic attitude towards life that disposes people to believe Indigenous advocates who oppose a Voice. Their position seems to be that we are all equal, that there is no need for change because there is no disadvantage. There are people who are keen to believe this argument, but to make it requires a gross manipulation and distortion of our nation’s history. To watch it has alarmed me.
The assertion of this formal equality ignores the challenges of what is called substantive equality. That is, equality that starts with the unique cultural and social values of the First Peoples. The rejection of ongoing trauma from the consequences of colonisation may comfort those who accept that assimilation is inevitable – beneficial, even – but the Indigenous people making those claims reject their own peoples’ history and the history of how this country came to be in the hands of the British colonists and then passed on to the settlers.
At the CPAC Australia conference in Sydney last month, for instance, former prime minister Tony Abbott claimed “hundreds of Aboriginal men would not have signed up to fight for king and country in 1914 and 1915 if they had been the subjects of a racist empire”.
We know more than a thousand Aboriginal volunteers did serve in World War I, with equal wages and conditions. However, the service of those volunteers counted for nought after they were demobbed. When they returned, they did not return as equals: their lives were still controlled by the state, they were not counted in the census.
The Australian Army’s online professional development platform, The Cove, says this: “Unfortunately, the conditions for returned servicemen were not equal, with Indigenous Australians not being granted land entitlements like their European-descent counterparts on return from the war. When they returned to civilian life, they returned to discrimination.”
After they returned, their countrymen on the frontier were still being hunted and killed. Abbott, a former Rhodes scholar, referred perversely to the frontier massacres of Aboriginal people in his CPAC Australia address: “If you go back far enough, there were injustices, there were massacres, but there was justice too for those who perpetrated them.”
The two worst massacres early last century were led by two white returned servicemen, both from Australia’s light horse regiments. In the Kimberley region in 1926, Patrick Bernard O’Leary, a former light horseman (5th regiment), was a leader among a dozen men on a rampage we now know as the Forrest River massacre, after a local pastoralist was killed. Scores of Aboriginal men, women and children were hunted down, their bodies burnt. After court hearings that followed a royal commission, no one was found guilty.
O’Leary soon decamped to Central Australia and teamed up with another former light horseman (4th regiment), Police Constable William George Murray, who in 1928 led punitive raids that slaughtered scores of Aboriginal adults and children after a white dingo hunter was killed, most likely because he had illicit sex with an Aboriginal woman. A bogus board of inquiry into what we now know as the Coniston massacre, established by the Commonwealth government, exonerated everyone.
John Howard, the Liberal prime minister, generated international headlines in July when he said, “the luckiest thing that happened to this country was being colonised by the British”. Not that the British were perfect, he told The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen, but they were “infinitely more successful and beneficent colonisers than other European countries”.
To attempt to ameliorate the impact of colonisation by comparison with other colonial powers is to whitewash the reality of the impact of British settlement on Australia’s First Peoples.
In a statement in March, the Vatican repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, a Papal Bull from 1493 that supported the Spanish conquest of the New World and was relied upon by European powers in later centuries to usurp the lands of indigenous peoples.
The Vatican’s revisionary statement said the Catholic Church had acquired a greater awareness of the sufferings of indigenous peoples due to the expropriation of their lands, “which they consider a sacred gift from God and their ancestors, as well as the policies of forced assimilation … intended to eliminate their indigenous cultures”.
The statement noted it was just to recognise the pain of colonisation and the “terrible effects” of assimilation. It asked for pardon. “Furthermore,” it said, “Pope Francis has urged: ‘Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.’ ”
The ongoing trauma resulting from Australia’s colonisation is founded in the initial injustice of the doctrine of terra nullius, which justified the taking of lands from Aboriginal peoples without their consent and then subjugated them to policies and practices that denied their rights and interests.
Only after decisions of the courts – Milirrpum v Nabalco in 1971 (the Gove Land Rights case that led to Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory), Mabo in 1992 (which demolished the doctrine of terra nullius) and Wik in 1996 (which held that native title rights could coexist on land held by pastoral leaseholders) – have governments been galvanised into righting historical wrongs.
Now we have the opportunity, offered by First Nations peoples themselves, to set this nation on a new footing by recognising First Nations peoples through a Voice to Parliament and the executive government.
A successful vote in the October 14 referendum will signify a first step towards salving the trauma, frustrations and anxiety that First Nations people continue to experience. There is no curveball here, no trickiness in the simple question that will be put to every voter: “A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?” Yes or No.
The proposal for a Voice has been with us for many years now. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese floated a draft version of the current provision at the Garma Festival in July last year. It drew upon proposals put to the final report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, which Liberal MP Julian Leeser and I co-chaired and delivered to parliament in November 2018.
The provision makes clear that the Voice will hold no powers to bind the parliament or to dictate to government. It will be advisory only: it will have no capacity to spend money. Its regional representation will take account of developments in the states and existing regional entities. To argue otherwise is mischievous.
It is my abiding regret that politics has overwhelmed the approach to the Voice referendum and that debate has sunk into a maelstrom.
This is not about Anthony Albanese who has, to his great credit, held steadfast; it is about the vote of the Australian people to whom the Uluru Statement from the Heart was addressed six years and four months ago and in whose goodness its authors placed their faith. It is about a matter of principle. Parliament will sort out the detail. The Constitution is for principle. Parliament relies on those principles to pass valid laws. The High Court is the forum to decide the validity of any law passed by parliament. This is entirely normal.
The consequences of our vote in the referendum will give us some insight into the meaning of that concept of a fair go that we proudly proclaim. It will test the idea that we are an enlightened, modern democracy. I remain confident in the goodness of the Australian people.
If you don’t know what this referendum is about, it is your bounden duty to find out.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2023 as "The Voice is a test of enlightened democracy".
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