EDITORIAL: What should the Voice be?

Honi wants a Voice that implements the wishes of First Nations people, that gives true control over their lands and waters. We should not settle for less. 

Labor’s proposal is intentionally modest — it offers only constitutional recognition, but does not bind the parliament to take the recommendations of the Voice. This should be contrasted with the rights afforded to Indigenous peoples under International Law, with veto powers and autonomous institutions par for the course. The fact that the Voice has deliberately been constructed by the government to withhold these rights from Indigenous people should be vehemently condemned. The government has calculated that, to convince white Australians of the Voice’s worth, it must be curated to not pose too much of a threat to the status quo. The State doesn’t want to relinquish its powers over First Nations people. Accordingly, the Voice does not do the required work to destabilise settler control. Honi wants a Voice that implements the wishes of First Nations people, that gives true control over their lands and waters. We should not settle for less. 

Why Voice first? What about Treaty and Truth?

Principally, the idea of constitutional recognition and an enshrined Voice to Parliament is not one which is revolutionary, or even particularly new. Questions of whether Indigenous people should be included in Australia’s founding document have been asked since the time of Charles Perkins and the Freedom Rides.

The question which must then be asked is why a Voice must come before either of the remaining two components of the Uluru Statement. The Labor government is evidently following the order set out in the Statement chronologically, despite claims from key groups in political and activist circles — particularly the “progressive ‘No’ campaign” — that a negotiated Treaty should be the government’s priority. To lend credibility to these claims, as the only Commonwealth nation without a Treaty with its First Nations people, it is critical that this chasmic omission is redressed. However, enshrining a Voice before embarking on a Treaty-making process will undoubtedly afford Indigenous communities more political capital to invest in a Treaty.

Wiradjuri woman and member of Uluru Youth Dialogues Brydie Zorz told Honi about the significance of achieving an established Voice before negotiating a Treaty.

“Australia is the only Commonwealth nation without a Treaty. Because we would be negotiating it so long after first contact, we have no idea how that process will work and what it will look like,” said Zorz.

“Having a Voice which is constitutionally enshrined will give First Nations people the political power we need to then embark on a Treaty process.”

The other advantage of the Voice preceding Treaty and Truth is that it means there will be an established, and influential body to represent First Nations voices during the Treaty-negotiating and Truth-telling processes. As it stands, First Nations institutions are highly decentralised, and are run in greatly varying ways, usually dependent on regional differences. Many are underfunded and defunct. A national Voice will be able to bring these regional voices into a single forum, mitigating the issues of resources or factionalism facing some of these groups. This will make negotiating with the State a less onerous process, leading to faster progress towards Treaty and Truth and better outcomes in both respects. Moreover, as the Voice consolidates influence and becomes a normalised feature of government, so too does its authority, improving the political power of First Nations voices. 

What happens after the referendum?

Speaking with Honi, Wiradjuri Gamilaraay author and journalist Stan Grant expressed less worry about the referendum itself than the day after Australians cast their vote.

“Irrespective of whether people vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, we’re going to wake up in a nation still so deeply wounded,” Grant observes.

“We are all deeply wounded and we are all implicated and complicit in this moment in different ways. But we’re going to wake up and we’re going to be in the same place — in this scarred and broken land asking who we are and asking where we are.”

However, the day after Australians vote on a Voice to Parliament will be a markedly more painful day in the event of a failed referendum. Of course, negative narratives will continue to frame discussions of Indigenous justice, but there will be a new sense of contempt — one which is nationally-sanctioned and newly resuscitated by an empowered right-wing.

Business-as-usual will continue to produce egregious policy failures that will waste money and cost lives. Australia’s pathetic tradition of low expectations will have triumphed again.

How will we recover from a “No” vote? How will we come back as a nation? The distrust and alienation of First Nations people will grow, any remnant faith in reforming and improving settler systems will wither. Indigenous people will continue to be viewed as a problem to overcome, rather than as a people offering ideas and solutions grounded in their deep sense of culture and care for Country and their intimate knowledge of people and society.

It will be a day where First Nations people will feel, perhaps more than ever before, invalidated and judged to be of no consequence to a country they have called home for thousands of generations. How can we explain this to our children and grandchildren? How will we explain it to ourselves?