The Question Of Simplicity

Written by:
10 August 2022
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Originally Appeared In

The vote for an indigenous voice has been made easy but what powers it eventually has are still unclear

Anthony Albanese should be commended for keeping the referendum question that would establish a permanent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice  simple.

As the PM said, it is a “momentous change but it is also a very simple one”. Because it is a simple question, Australians can answer either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Albanese’s comments are clear and focused, he understands the outcome he seeks. Freshly elected and having  enjoyed a smooth start to his term in office, it is clear he  intends to invest a significant amount of his personal political capital in the Voice project.

This is in stark contrast to the Coalition MPs. Dispirited and disorganised following their election defeat, their position on the Voice is ambiguous and shrouded by their calls for more detail.

Voice proponents, like Professor Marcia Langton, say that the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and its voluminous  accompanying materials, is already enough detail to satisfy everyone.

However, how exactly proponents like Professor Langton see the Voice working in practice is irrelevant.

The one question Australians must ask themselves is whether racial classification should determine who can, and cannot, participate in this unique means of influencing how our laws are made.

Commentary over detail is also irrelevant because in the event of a dispute over the powers of the Voice, the High Court will not be trawling through speeches and  research papers and reports written by activists and academics.

It will instead be primarily interested in the actual words of the new section of the Constitution inserted by the proposed referendum.

Take these words for instance: “[the Voice] may make representations to Parliament and the executive government on matters relating toAboriginal and Torres Strait  Islander peoples”.

As it stands, there is a real possibility that the Voice may in fact cover  all  laws,  all proposed laws and all aspects of government  administration.

Argument about what constitutes ‘consultation’ will swiftly become legal. Our democracy would be sorely tested if the High Court has to play peacemaker between Parliament and the Voice.

In 1967, Australians decisively, and rightly, affirmed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have the same rights as all other Australians.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are just as interested in health, education, taxation, foreign affairs and welfare as the rest of the population and should have just as much of a say. But with the Voice model as it stands, they would get to have a say twice.

Think back to discussions about big issues you might have had with groups of people at work, or groups of friends.

If there’s disagreement, at least you can say “well it’s a free country” or “you’re entitled to your opinion”. And in our democracy, everybody gets the same voting rights.

However, under the Voice proposal, there is the potential that one out of 30 Australians visiting a Polling Booth on election day will have an additional vote through the Voice to Parliament.

Some have said the Voice would be a “third chamber” of Parliament, as some Australians will have an  additional, exclusive vote for the Voice. They may also be on a specific, race-based Electoral Roll. Those who use the “third chamber” as an argument are worried that a such a body would introduce a new and  unstable element to our political process.

But once again, before we consider whether the Voice could actually work in practice, is it OK to have only one portion of the Australian population able to be represented in that “third chamber”? A portion  defined by race alone.

There are many Australians who believe that a supreme aim of our democratic system should be equal representation.

It is one of the reasons why  migrants to our country have a pathway to citizenship, so they will have equal political rights with those who were born here.

Most Australians would be pleased the world is moving beyond the failed idea that countries are full of different races who must fight each other for access to power.

So, too, there are those who would believe there is something wrong with a constitution that  permanently divides a population by race.

They may well be criticised by  activists and academics who think that being deliberately ‘colour-blind’ and ignoring a person’s race is now somehow racist.

The Prime Minister has shown integrity and done Australia a  service by making the question so simple.

For that we should be grateful  because, if we get lost in detail, we could lose the clarity that allows us to say: it’s OK to say no to enshrining racial division in our  constitution.

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