EDITORIAL: In support of The Voice

There is little prospect that a “No” vote would provide an impetus for a move towards Treaty and Truth. Instead, it would deter any government from pursuing meaningful steps towards justice for First Nations communities.

The Voice is needed because this country was taken by force. White Australia was forged by colonial might, Indigenous lands and waters were never ceded, and compensation was never paid. The doctrine of terra nullius promoted the convenient fiction of an empty Australia. The dehumanising intent of this claim was, and continues to be, reflected in law and policy ever since. Creating a Voice to Parliament recognises First Nations peoples’ presence and establishes a unique system of influence on policies directly pertaining to them.

The voice and self-determination

At the outset, it should be made clear that approximately 80% of First Nations people support the Voice based on recent polls. We make this observation because it is impossible for the colony to truly move forward with First Nations justice without listening to the voices of First Nations people. The Voice is the culmination of consultation and debate within First Nations communities. This fact goes a long way to why we support a “Yes” vote.

Beyond this, Indigenous peoples have an inalienable right to self-determination. It is important that First Nations people have the capacity to exercise self determination by making decisions that impact and shape their lives.

The Voice does not fully implement self-determination. Self-determination also includes the right to have autonomously run institutions which have the power to make decisions relating to their communities. The right to self-determination would also give Indigenous peoples veto power over decisions which negatively affect them, including over the exploitation of their lands. Nevertheless, the Voice would mean First Nations peoples are consulted on decisions which affect them, albeit little else. 

Why the Voice will improve conditions for grassroots Indigenous communities

The sport of Indigenous affairs has always been played at a much higher level than Indigenous people have ever been allowed to occupy. The Voice changes this through the validating gestures of contrition, truth-telling, and dialogue.

Annual Closing the Gap reports continue to show Indigenous people measure far behind other Australians on many fronts; political representation of Indigenous people is stagnating. Thirteen years on from the release of the Closing the Gap report, none of the targets are progressing — we need an imaginative solution to Indigenous self-determination that will stick.

The Voice looks to the future. Right now, progress is extremely limited and the gap is closing far too slowly. The life expectancy disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people across Australia is still unacceptably high. Aboriginal community-controlled health services have been critical in closing the gap — an example of what can be achieved when Indigenous Voices are heard. So much more could be done if that right to be heard was forever enshrined in the founding document of this country.

By making recommendations to both the legislature and the executive, the Voice will have the ability to influence laws and policies before they are ratified, rather than challenging existing legislation in the courts. 

Currently, First Nations people can only challenge legislation through litigation — a status quo which has continually failed Indigenous people, as progress can only be won in the courts by non-Indigenous lawyers. There is no mechanism for the vast majority of Indigenous people to challenge the government. They are always reacting to government decisions, rather than influencing them. 

The Voice, as a political tool, will compel consultation between the parliament and the executive government and Indigenous people. This will allow for more meaningful and structural engagement with First Nations voices in the design and implementation of policy. If the Voice is approached in good faith, Honi believes that this will lead to better policies. In a less ideal world, the Voice will deny politicians the ability to feign ignorance. Decision-makers will be held accountable as recommendations are made public, thus demonstrating the incongruence of their policies with the wishes of First Nations people.

Why the Voice should be enshrined in the Constitution

Honi spoke with Gunaikurnai Wotjobaluk writer Ben Abbatangelo, who expressed misgivings about the perceived “bulletproof truth” that constitutional enshrinement will safeguard the Voice against neglect or inefficacy.

“The theory of constitutionally enshrining the Voice is that it can’t be abolished or ignored. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bulletproof truth, though. You can create the Voice and enshrine it, but there’s no real guarantee that Parliament won’t reform the model of the Voice.”

Abbatangelo stresses that the Voice “relies on the government acting in good faith — something which they have never been able to do. Every time we come to drink from the well under false winds of change, we are drowned.”

This fear lives in the memories of First Nations communities — that each time Indigenous people are lured into the light, they are mugged by the darkness of this country’s history. The scars of colonial betrayal are worn on the backs of Indigenous people, and communities are naturally hesitant to write the government a blank cheque for their constitutional rights.

However, constitutional law expert Elisa Arcioni claims that the debate about detail is a disingenuous one.

“The Constitution should never contain all of the detail about every institution. The design of the Constitution is to set up the basic framework of an institution and its key role. All of the detail is then to be determined by parliament through legislation.

“But because there are legitimate questions about the detail, that has been weaponised by ‘No’ proponents as a way to sow confusion and concern.”

Constitutional enshrinement retrospectively recognises that even in the tolerant and multicultural nation Australia purports to be, the pre-existing human rights of its original inhabitants are inalienable and unique. This should have been reflected in the nation’s founding document.

To deny that now, given this chance, would constitute an outrageous validation of British dispossession, the injustice it sanctioned and the cultural genocide it licenced.

The risks of a failed referendum

First Nations people have been building towards constitutional recognition since the 1950s, and an immense amount of political capital has been invested into this process. If it were to fail, the political will to pursue Indigenous justice would dissipate. A “No” outcome, resulting from the racist campaigns by the Liberal and National parties — as much as a “progressive ‘No’ campaign” — does not represent a rejection of the political system which upholds Indigenous dispossession and is, instead, an emphatic legitimisation of this system. 

There is little prospect that a “No” vote would provide an impetus for a move towards Treaty and Truth. Instead, it would deter any government from pursuing meaningful steps towards justice for First Nations communities. This process was played out with the 1999 republic referendum and it will play out again.

A “Yes” vote is the only way to reject the racism of the right-wing “No” campaign. It is the only way — given the referendum has already been announced, and will occur — that momentum towards greater goals can be created. It is largely for this reason that a “progressive ‘No’” position should be rejected by left-wing students.

Why Honi?

As to the specific question of “why Honi?” — the act of making a radical case for the Voice is an integral part of our historical contribution to the struggle for civil and political rights. It is Honi’s opposition to the Vietnam War, its support for queer and women’s liberation, its ongoing critique of Invasion Day which come to mind in this history.

The referendum facing us now is different to these issues. The Voice has been proposed by the government and has received support from broad swathes of the political and corporate establishment. Yet, it is nonetheless incumbent on Honi, and all left-wing students, to support the Voice because it is fundamentally right to do so. Australian citizens must vote in this referendum. A “Yes” vote will provide a foundation upon which the radical work towards true First Nations justice can begin.