All Australians are equal. The legal status of Australians should not be decided according to their skin colour or race. Any proposal that seeks to establish a special “voice to Parliament” for some people and not others is radical, illiberal, and a violation of all principles of racial equality. Our nation’s founding document should not divide us.
Australia has just commemorated National Reconciliation Week, a period in which Australians are asked “to reflect on our shared histories and relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and explore how each of us can contribute to achieving reconciliation”.
This year, the focus turned to advocacy for a referendum to “recognise” Indigenous Australians in the constitution by establishing multiple representative bodies at a national, state and local level to advise Parliament on issues relevant to Indigenous Australians.
The establishment of such bodies, or an Indigenous voice to Parliament, is one of the most radical proposals for constitutional change in Australian political history. It risks establishing a parallel system of representative government based on race.
The suggestion that the voice could be confined to issues affecting Indigenous Australians is fundamentally incoherent. All policy decisions that have a general application are Indigenous policy decisions because Indigenous Australians are Australians.
Dangerously, the voice would in practice exercise a veto over any policy passed by the federal Parliament. While a formal veto would not be written into the powers of the voice body, the political risk would make it too costly for a government to go against the Indigenous voice. The accusation of racism, rather than the formal powers of the voice, is the veto.
In June 2017, the federal government’s Referendum Council delivered its Uluru Statement from the Heart, which called on the Australian people to follow the precedent set by a successful effort to change the constitution in 1967. In the statement it said “in 1967 we were counted. In 2017 we seek to be heard”.
Constitutional recognition advocates have always had a weak claim to be the spiritual successors of the 1967 referendum. In that year Australians voted by an overwhelming margin to “alter the Constitution so as to omit certain words relating to the People of the Aboriginal Race in any State and so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the Population”.
The symbolic importance of this vote should not be underestimated. While the practical effect was to centralise much of, and kick-start the massive growth of, the Indigenous affairs bureaucracy in Canberra, this was a positive step forward in removing references to race in our constitution.
Australian voters then began to understand that race had no place in the constitution.
It is true that many Indigenous Australians face a range of challenges from unemployment, high rates of incarceration, and drug and alcohol abuse. Addressing these challenges may well require local solutions. Many conservatives are in favour of broad-based political decentralisation and empowerment of local communities to solve local problems. But this doesn’t mean that the universality of the Australian constitution needs to be compromised. Nor does it mean that the concerns and needs of Indigenous Australians are fundamentally different to that of non-Indigenous Australians.
The basic needs of humans, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, are not culturally contingent. For example, all Australians need access to the dignity of work, effective policing to reduce crime and violence, home ownership and high-quality education to live flourishing lives. And the Australian Parliament, which represents all Australians regardless of race and is open to participation from all Australians, remains the best body to address these issues.
The idea of formal equality under the Crown is the cornerstone of the constitution and the principle underlying our freedoms and the rule of law. Challenging this idea is a challenge to national unity and Australia itself.
Regardless of how the country votes in a referendum for constitutional recognition or an Indigenous voice, Australia will lose. Merely asking Australians to divide themselves by race will divide Australia along racial lines forever. The dignity of Indigenous Australians demands that they be treated the same as non-Indigenous Australians, which means being included and represented in a common national body: the Australian Parliament.