All Australians are equal. Our legal status should not be determined by our skin colour or our race. This clear principle is being undermined by a campaign to divide Australians in our nation’s founding document through the constitutional ‘recognition’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The ‘recognition’ agenda currently advocates for the establishment of a special body to represent Indigenous Australia, enshrined in the Constitution, to be a ‘voice’ to parliament on issues relevant to Indigenous Australians.
As is typical whenever any form of ‘recognition’ is proposed, it has been unquestioningly adopted by the Canberra consensus, such as the left-wing media, the legal establishment, academia, and the upper echelons of corporate Australia. In May alone, 21 law firms collectively announced their support for an Indigenous voice. 21 investment banks, superannuation funds and accounting firms soon followed suit. For the National Reconciliation Week, a group of 14 major organisations from the Elevate Reconciliation Action Plan also issued a statement in support. The Sydney Morning Herald launched a campaign to lobby the parliament to implement the Uluru Statement and promise to declare a referendum accordingly.
Never mind that these were the policies that Labor presented to and were rejected by the electorate in last month’s federal election. The re-elected Coalition government has floundered in its response. In hopes of achieving ‘recognition’ without constitutional change, or at least to delay it further into the future, the federal government appears to support a powerful non-constitutional body to represent Indigenous Australians, which resembles a hybrid of the scandal-plagued and abolished ATSIC and the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The incoming Indigenous Affairs minister, Ken Wyatt, has prepared laws to establish a new Indigenous commission run by elected ‘elders’ which would review government policies, activate taskforces, receive complaints about agencies from ‘empowered communities’ and inform ‘itself on any matter it thinks fit’.
The practical problem of such a body, whether enshrined in the constitution or not, is one of obvious mission creep. Such a body could never be confined to issues solely affecting Indigenous Australians because all major policy issues, such as health, education, and infrastructure, apply to all Australians regardless of their race. And it couldn’t be any other way. All Australians are Australians, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.
It is inconceivable that a representative body for Indigenous Australians would not effectively practise a veto power over any policy passed by any Australian parliament. Rather than a formal veto power, the power of the body would be to shame parliaments into agreeing with its advice, lest it ‘go against’ the Indigenous ‘voice’. The accusation of racism itself is the veto. This would in effect render parliament incapable of representing all Australians. As Robert Menzies once said of the proposal to establish an economic advisory council, ‘the power to advise is the power to coerce’.
These problems are only enhanced when enshrined into the Constitution. Moreover, it threatens to put a fault-line down the middle of our system of representative government. Advocates are honest about this. In July 2017, the Referendum Council delivered its Uluru Statement from the Heart, declaring that Indigenous tribes were sovereign nations, and that this sovereignty was not ceded or extinguished. At present this is an assertion not based on fact. However, it is becoming apparent that the endgame of ‘recognition’ is recognition of sovereignty. All Australians regardless of race have a shared destiny, but any concession of sovereignty, or attempt to enshrine a race-based body in the Constitution, will put a wall between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Race has no place in Australia’s founding document.
To hijack a favourite phrase of the Left, recognition advocates are on the wrong side of history. As prime minister, Tony Abbott planned for a referendum on recognition to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the successful 1967 referendum, and the Uluru Statement itself called on Australians to follow the same precedent, claiming ‘in 1967 we were counted. In 2017 we seek to be heard’. In 1967, 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’. Now, however, the proposal is to insert further references to race in the Constitution.
Part of the problem in Indigenous affairs is the assumption that the types of policies and institutions which promote success and flourishing are somehow different for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. And, further, that an Indigenous-only body is the only way to promote the welfare of Indigenous Australians. But the fundamental building blocks of a successful life are the same regardless of one’s race, and include access to the dignity of work, crime-free communities, stable families, home ownership and economic opportunity. The basic needs of human beings are not culturally contingent. It would be much better if the government focussed on attaining practical outcomes for Indigenous Australians, such as ensuring more children attend school and more economic opportunity finds its way to remote areas.
Addressing these challenges may require local solutions. But this does not demand that the universality of the Australian constitution be undermined. Any proposal to establish a special ‘voice’ for some people and not others is illiberal and a violation of all principles of racial equality. The parliament, which is open to participation from all Australians, remains the best body to address these needs.
Even just challenging these ideas and asking Australians to divide themselves by race will divide Australia along racial lines forever. If the referendum for an indigenous ‘voice’ wins, Australians will be divided in our institutions and in the constitution itself. If the referendum fails, advocates will use it to fuel resentment and fan division throughout the country.
What is needed now more than ever in an age of identity politics is a vision of unity, not division. All Australians, regardless of race, share the same nation, institutions, and land. The Morrison government must not ask Australians to divide themselves by race.