Well-meaning Australians have no idea what they are voting for
Opponents of the Voice to Parliament have argued that it is inherently wrong to enshrine race at the centre of the Australian constitution and to give one racially defined group civic rights denied to all other Australian citizens. It breaches the principle of political equality which is fundamental to liberal democracy.
This argument is currently either ignored or rejected by those supporting the Voice, the so-called Yes voters. But these Yes voters in fact fall into two broad camps. One camp seems to think it does not matter if our constitution has a discriminatory element, since it’s for a good cause. The other camp quite openly calls for radical constitutional change and theirs is, in fact, the more coherent case.
For the radical Yes voters, the argument that the change is discriminatory and accords an unelected body great power serves their purpose. It is exactly what they want. They are committed to all three steps of the Uluru Statement of the Heart – ‘Voice, Treaty, Truth’. They demand reparations. They support the movement for ‘Blak Sovereignty’, being promoted by now independent Senator Lidia Thorpe. They reject the legitimacy – the legal and moral claims – of our constitutional order.
The other and more moderate group of Australians currently indicating that they will vote Yes do so believing it is time to finally mobilise the power of government to ‘close the gap’. They have nothing but the best of intentions. But their belief rests on false premises and, it would seem, little knowledge of indigenous land rights, the vast range of indigenous specific representative bodies, and the substantial government expenditure on indigenous projects and welfare.
They are also influenced by the false narrative that indigenous Australians lead lives of unrelenting misery and neglect, a narrative fed by media sensationalism. The overwhelming majority of indigenous Australians lead lives familiar to any other mainstream Australian: in stable employment, raising families, and taking responsibility for their lives.
Then there are the approximately 20 per cent of indigenous Australians outside the workforce and the familiar social structures of modernity, such as regular education, proficiency in English and settled accommodation in towns with adequate services. Their social outcomes – as they would be for any group in that situation – are too often disastrous. But these have not just come to light, and there have been literally decades of sincere and well-resourced effort to address them.
Another false premise is that ‘nothing has been done’ and indigenous Australians have no rights, no assets, and no voice. In fact, there have been 56 years of continued and concerted government effort to address indigenous disadvantage. Australian governments now spend approximately $39.5 billion a year on indigenous programs, a greater sum than is spent on Medicare.
As a result of government actions and High Court decisions, indigenous Australians have some form of rights over more than 40 per cent of the land in Australia. Holders of land rights receive hundreds of millions of dollars in mining royalties each year – more than $230 million in the Northern Territory alone. In 2020, there were 3,273 registered Aboriginal corporations delivering health and other services, and making representations to governments. More than 1,000 bureaucrats work in the National Indigenous Australians Agency.
For the moderate group of Voice supporters these facts are not front of mind. They simply want something to be done, and they want reconciliation. They expect a successful Yes vote to put an end to the discord and agitation around indigenous claims, whereas it will in fact give these a permanent constitutional base, supported by the Australian taxpayer.
They also believe the Voice is designed only to give indigenous Australians a say on the laws that affect them. In fact, it will give an unrepresentative group of indigenous activists a say in the laws that affect us all. Few are aware that in the preferred model there will be just 24 representatives in the Voice to Parliament, none of whom would be directly elected by indigenous Australians.
In March 2023 the Prime Minister committed to a form of the Voice which will have tremendous influence over all current and proposed laws, and all current and proposed government action. As the Prime Minister has significantly noted, ‘it would be a brave government that ignored the recommendations of the Voice’.
If the Yes voters who just want better outcomes for indigenous Australians are prepared to overturn our proven constitutional arrangements to achieve this, then that is their right. But they need to have their eyes wide open while they do so. Even what they consider to be moderate reform will have the effect of transforming our constitution, forever.
For the radical voters, that transformation is exactly what they seek. They do not accept the ongoing value of the liberal democratic project. Established principles like one vote one value, or that justice is blind, are to be cast aside in the pursuit of something else entirely.
The liberal democratic system emerged after centuries of struggle. Representative institutions originally reserved for the few were successfully claimed by all. Australians can simultaneously be ashamed of how long it took for all Aboriginal Australians to be accorded full civic rights and also be proud that a hundred-year long process was finally completed in 1967.
They can be disappointed that social disparities still exist but also be proud that so many Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are full participants in the Australian way of life.
Those proposing to vote Yes must, on or before polling day, ask themselves whether it is wise to jettison the principles that we are created equal and have an equal say in the future of our great country. In doing so, they should also remember that it will be the one and only occasion they have any role in determining the limits of what the Voice will do in practice, regardless of whether or not the promised outcomes actually eventuate.