As The Voice To Parliament Debate Continues, We Must Make Space For Differing Indigenous Perspectives To Be Heard
Australia is on the brink of making a historic decision about who we are as a country. A decision determined by a referendum between October and December this year.
The question being put to the Australian public has been suggested by the Labor Government: Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?
An Indigenous Voice to Parliament would change the process of how the government makes decisions regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities — that is, Parliament would be advised by a body of First Nations representatives.
However, in the lead-up to what will be a defining moment in the country’s history and future, the main point of the Voice to Parliament is getting lost in the weeds. The weeds, in this case, are those who want to derail a valid and important conversation and drown out Blak voices.
Sometimes that’s certain politicians or a less-than-impartial masthead. However, what cannot be labelled and cast aside as ‘weeds’ are concerns and questions from our community.
First Nations people are routinely overlooked, with policies and laws put in place as tools of oppression under the guise that we can’t agree, or don’t know what’s best for our own. There is a huge mistrust of the government from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, but the burden cannot lie with the community to mend that.
Further, it’s important to recognise the diversity of opinions amongst First Nations people. Our views aren’t homogenous and we won’t all share the same perspective on the Voice.
Journalist and TV Host Narelda Jacobs says that no perspective of any First Nations or Australian person should be dismissed, and it always comes back to the question of sovereignty.
“They [different perspectives] are all open for discussion,” the Whadjuk Noongar woman tells Refinery29 Australia. “We can’t bash anyone over the head and convince them that our way is right; we can just talk through the things.”
What are some of those different perspectives? As Bundjalung, Widubul-Wiabul woman Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts explained in a recent Instagram post, there are four prominent perspectives that have been widely discussed in recent months.
As she articulates, there's the ‘yes’ campaign in support of the Voice, the ‘no’ campaign which advocates against it, a “racist ‘no’ campaign” which Turnbull-Roberts describes as being “where we see politicians and people get off for reasons of being racist and harmful” and the ‘I don’t know’ campaign, where people are unsure.
Advocates for the Voice and constitutional experts say that an Indigenous Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Australian Constitution will not and cannot cede sovereignty. What the Voice would do is provide “a much more democratic approach to the ways in which policy and laws are passed about First Nations peoples,” according to Professor Megan Davis, Co-Chair of the Uluru Dialogue.
The Voice would be a permanent body representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, advising government on Indigenous policy. Parliament and government would need to consult the Voice on matters relating to the social, spiritual and economic wellbeing of First Nations peoples, including employment, housing, community development, native title, heritage protection and the NDIS.
“[The Voice] is a really substantive reform,” Davis told SBS. “What we know from the Uluru Statement from the Heart is that all of the dialogues rejected symbolism as being an appropriate form of recognition.
“What the Voice will involve is our people being brought to the table when laws and policies are made about our life. It's a very tactile, pragmatic reform that will empower our people to actively participate in the democratic decision-making of the state.”
Opposition against the Voice
Some argue that First Nations people and communities have been advising and recommending strategies to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for decades, which successive governments have failed to enact.
Landmark reports with specific recommendations such as the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Bringing Them Home Report have been, for the most part, ignored.
There have also been national advisory bodies put in place before – such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission – only to be dismantled and defunded by changing governments based on their political agendas. To this point, the Voice is different as it would be enshrined in the constitution and therefore could not be removed.
However, The Voice holds no veto power, meaning that although the government will seek consultation with the advisory board, it is not obliged to listen. This was confirmed by the Prime Minister on ABC’s 7:30 in January.
“The Voice will be subservient to the parliament; that is parliament will continue to control the destiny of Australia,” Anthony Albanese said.
DjabWurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara woman and former Greens Senator, Lidia Thorpe, has been outspoken in her criticism and questioning of the Voice and has been pushing for a Treaty first.
In an interview with Radio National's Patricia Karvelas, Thorpe stressed the need for people to understand that there is a ‘progressive no’.
Thorpe said it troubled her that white ‘progressives’ were casting aside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may vote no.
“That’s part of the problem; that if you vote no you’re going to stand with Peter Dutton or Pauline Hanson,” said Thorpe.
“That is another way of taking away the voice of those grassroots Blackfullas who have a progressive no, that the white progressives don’t want to hear. That’s part of the problem, that’s systemic racism right there.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to live through colonisation, which is seen as the cause of disproportionate incarceration rates, deaths in custody, children in out-of-home care and other adversities faced by First Nations people.
Communities have been using their voices for decades, centuries even, to call for change, and have also given solutions for how to achieve change. Will a Voice be enough to result in tangible change if recommendations and advice have been disregarded for so long?
The failure has not been a lack of a voice, but rather successive governments’ failure to listen and its white-knuckled grasp on upholding systems that oppress First Nations people and perpetuate an enormous imbalance of power because it is in their interest to do so.
This is evident in the failure to ‘Close the Gap’.
At the same time, Australia remains the only Commonwealth country to not have a Treaty with its original custodians — the 250-plus clans and nations that have been here for tens of thousands of years prior to 1788, and make up the oldest continuous culture in the world.
The Labor Government has committed to the Statement from the Heart in full and in doing so, has agreed to look at Treaty legislation following a majority yes vote in the referendum. Some states have begun their own individual Treaty processes. Some activists are calling for a Treaty before Voice.
According to Thorpe, it’s what we need in order to have ‘real power’. “We’re not focusing on the day after the referendum, we’re focusing on survival today,” she said.
“We deserve better than a powerless voice; we need a treaty, we want real power, we want real justice in this country. Everything else we’ve been offered for the last 200 years has no power.”
Difference of opinion is important
Speaking to Refinery29 Australia, Larissa Baldwin, CEO of GetUp! Australia, says that activists who want more ‘substance’ cannot be dismissed.
“I don’t think we would be in this situation of even being able to consider a referendum if it wasn’t for the activism of people that have been turning out on the streets on January 26 and doing that truth-telling,” says the Widjabul Wia-bul woman.
Baldwin said people are trying to "shut down the conversation of Treaty before Voice", but she welcomes the debate.
“I think this is the point where that conversation should be loud,” says Baldwin.
“We’re really having to talk about what Indigenous people want and this is the type of debate we should be having.”
Journalist, academic and Darumbal and South Sea Islander woman, Amy McQuire echoed these sentiments in an interview on ABC’s The Drum.
McQuire said that ‘black dissent’ is ‘framed as irrational or unjustified’.
“There's been a long history to this process, which has meant that the Uluru Statement from the Heart was largely a compromise in order to get some form of constitutional reform in a referendum,” said McQuire.
McQuire added that Blak people are concerned that a referendum won’t address any of the problems and issues they are facing within communities.
"When you look at what Blackfullas are currently facing right now, where you've got racism – racist violence endemic in the justice system, the child protection systems, in the health systems, in the education systems – that's why mob out here are currently protesting.”
Baldwin says that treaties do give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people ‘a seat at the table’, but stresses that it's not the only way to do that.
‘We can do all of the things,’ says Baldwin. ‘And we should do all of the things.’
In the lead up to the referendum, Baldwin says that all Australians should be asking themselves what kind of country they want to live in.
“Do you want to live in a country where there is racist legislation… Without First Nations people, and there isn’t an adequate representation of them?” asks Baldwin.
She also says First Nations issues are never election issues and, as a minority, are rarely a decisive vote in electorates across the country.
“We need other people voting with us in order to get political will,” says Baldwin.
If there is to be adequate representation for a community that is just 3 percent of the population, there needs to be space for all perspectives to be heard and considered. Anything else is more of the same paternalistic rhetoric that is used against our communities. This is an opportunity for Australia to decide who we want to be as a country in the future, but how we engage in the conversation until then, defines who we are right now.