All Australians are equal. Our legal status should not be determined by race, ethnicity, gender, or skin colour. Any proposal to divide Australians by race is illiberal, undemocratic, and inegalitarian.
In his maiden speech to the Parliament on Wednesday evening, newly minted Liberal Senator for NSW Andrew Bragg renewed calls for an indigenous-only “voice” to parliament. Such a voice is to be entrenched in Australia’s constitution, and would be solely comprised of and solely represent indigenous Australians.
Senator Bragg argued that “the campaign that ‘race has no place’ in the Constitution may sound good, but it is a campaign that should have been run in the 1890s as we crossed that Rubicon in 1901.” It is correct that race has been a part of the constitution since it was first drafted. But that just means that we must fight even harder to purge the constitution of race by removing the two existing references to race. Only then will all Australians be truly equal before the law.
This objection notwithstanding, Senator Bragg is absolutely correct when he stated “we want all Australians to be proud of our great nation.” But the proposal for an indigenous-only voice will not achieve this.
The concept of a voice for a group of Australians based on race offends every principle of the rule of law, equality before the law, and liberal democracy. There are 26 million Australians, each one of whom deserves an equal and loud voice which our liberal democratic system of government facilitates. No group of Australians should be placed above any other.
The “voice” also assumes that indigenous Australians are one homogenous group with the same view on all issues. This is a mistake. There are substantial differences in opinion amongst indigenous groups across the nation, and within those groups themselves. Indigenous Australians should be viewed as autonomous and free-thinking individuals endowed with free will to form their own thoughts, views, and beliefs.
Even at the 2017 Constitutional convention in Uluru which recommended the voice, consensus for the idea was only reached after several delegates walked out after ironically complaining their voices weren’t being heard.
Subsuming an individual to a broader identity group based on their race is de-humanising and undignified. In this way, the voice is an unsavoury application of identity politics for it holds that the interests of indigenous Australians can only be forwarded by other indigenous Australians. This shatters the very model of representative democracy that has seen Australian become one of the freest and most prosperous nations.
The practical problem of an indigenous specific body is that it would in effect become a highly unrepresentative third chamber of Parliament. The voice would inevitably practice a veto power of policies passed by the Australian parliament through shaming politicians into agreeing with it advice. The voice could also never be confined to issues solely affecting indigenous Australians because all major policy issues, from heath, to education, to infrastructure, affect all Australians regardless of the skin colour.
None of these criticisms are to deny the real and significant challenges facing many indigenous Australians and communities. High rates of suicide, incarceration, joblessness, violence, and family and community breakdown have ruined too many lives. We are all Australians and we all share a responsibility to care for one another and create a better future.
But proposals for constitutional identity politics will not address these challenges. Instead, there are a number of principled and practical initiatives that could be pursued.
Firstly, fair dinkum land rights should be embraced which would allow indigenous Australians to enjoy the same bounty of private land rights that the rest of Australia enjoys. This means the ability to buy and sell land, borrow against it, and decide what types of economic development will be allowed.
Secondly, governments should promote a policy of localism. This means devolving power away from Canberra and the major cities to local communities in the regions who are at the coal-face. The Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt acknowledged the importance of local control when he stated in his address to the national press club earlier this month that “even the most well intentioned modern policies and programs have still tended to take a top-down command-and-control approach”.
Finally, Australian governments should promote development in regional areas to expand economic opportunity and job creation. In practice this means removing obstacles to growth, such as red tape, environmental regulations, and special legal privileges which allows activists to engage in frivolous and vexatious litigation to thwart development.
In the debate over an indigenous voice it is important to remember that there is no “them”; only “us”. Australians are an inseparable people with a common purpose, set of interests, and shared destiny. Race has no place in the Australian Parliament. Race has no place in Australia’s constitution.
Daniel Wild is director of research at the Institute of Public Affairs