This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
On 14 October, the Australian people will vote in a referendum that, if successful, will radically alter the governance of Australia forever.
The amendment being put by the Labor government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese seeks to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice that will make representations to the Federal Parliament and Government on behalf of only Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.
There is no detail from the Labor Party as to how this “Voice” — this institution or body — will be selected or elected, who will be allowed to be a member of it, or what powers it will have. This will be decided by the Parliament only after the referendum is held, and then interpreted by the High Court.
God only knows how the often-activist Justices will interpret the Voice; history tells us it will not be a minimalist interpretation of its scope. Conservative Indigenous Senator and Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, has repeatedly argued that an extra layer of bureaucracy in Canberra will do nothing to alleviate socioeconomic disadvantage experienced by Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, particularly those in rural and remote communities.
The Voice is an entirely regressive step that seeks to divide Australians by race. The Voice will be the first step towards what Aboriginal activists have always wanted: a treaty with the government and reparations to be paid to them.
The Australian Constitution has served us well for over 120 years. Australia is one of the world’s oldest continuous democracies. It is also usually a place of constitutional common sense. Of the 45 referendums have been put to the Australian people, only eight have passed since the Australian Constitution Act approved the Imperial Parliament in July 1900.
Sensible Australians are rightly proud of our unique constitutional settlement
John Quick and Robert Randolph Garran observed in 1901 in The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth that Australians “without the compulsion of war or the fear of conquest, have succeeded in agreeing upon the terms of a binding and indissoluble Social Compact”. The pride in this great “Social Compact” has disappeared from many on the political left and woke business leaders. There is an all-pervasive culture of national self-loathing corrupting the soul of Australia, and nowhere does this present itself more than in debates about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy.
Before every sporting event, civic ceremony, sitting days in federal and state parliaments, there is a “welcome to” or “acknowledgement of country”. I have always found this utterly absurd. Australia belongs to all of us, whether indigenous or not. As the late, great, former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke said, “in Australia there is no hierarchy of descent; there must be no privilege of origin”.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who is leading the case against the Voice, summed up the malaise perfectly:
Even though this generation of Aboriginal people are not victims and this generation of non-Aboriginal Australians are not oppressors, the Voice would mean that all of us and our descendants would have to live forever with institutional arrangements enshrining compensation for the crimes of some Australians’ ancestors against other Australians’ ancestors.
Sensible Australians are rightly proud of our unique constitutional settlement. As the preamble to the constitution makes clear, Australia is a constitutional monarchy, a parliamentary democracy, and a federal state. Sovereignty may well be vested in the Crown, but it’s vested also in the people. In 1900, this inevitably didn’t include all Australians; not all women and very few Aboriginals could vote.
Unlike Howard, Albanese has refused to provide much detail about what the Voice will do
Yet throughout the journey since Federation, these discriminatory provisions have been removed, only now to be replaced with attempts at “positive discrimination”, or as the former Liberal Party Prime Minister John Howard would say ,“minority fundamentalism” — of which the Voice is yet another example.
The only mechanism to alter the nation’s founding document is by referendum. In October, voters will be asked to vote yes or no on the following question put to them by the Albanese Labor government:
A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?
The Australian Constitution requires a national majority, then a majority of electors in four out of six states for a referendum to succeed. It is often referred to as a double majority. If the vote is successful, a new clause will be inserted into the Constitution. It will read as follows:
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice; the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.
When John Howard, an ardent constitutional monarchist, kept his promise after winning the 1996 election and held a constitutional convention and then referendum for an Australian republic, all information about the proposed change was disclosed. The question that was put to the Australian people in 1999, the last time Australians voted on whether to change the Constitution, included both the substantive question about changing to a republic, and the process for appointing the President who would have replaced our late Queen and the Governor-General:
Proposed Law: To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament. Do you approve this proposed alteration?
Unlike Howard, Albanese has refused to provide much detail about what the Voice will do. He has also refused to hold any convention to debate the merits of the proposed amendment. Sydney radio host Ben Fordham asked Albanese, “Are people going to be appointed or elected to the Voice?” He replied, “The Calma-Langton report … ” Fordham persisted, “Just answer the question”. Albanese suggested, “It [the Voice] envisages two people from each state and territory. It then envisages a group of people specifically representing remote communities.”
Fordham pressed, “Are they appointed or elected? You haven’t answered it.” Albanese responded, “What the report suggests is that in some cases, in New South Wales, for example, they are already working towards, so for your listeners, they’re already working towards a Voice in New South Wales towards some process whereby Indigenous people vote for a group and that would come from that existing group.”
There is simply no detail regarding the composition of the Voice because if there was, it would offend the fundamental principle that binds Australian society together: egalitarianism.
Australia’s longest-serving Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, argued recently, “Modern Australia has, almost since its foundation, been an aggressively egalitarian society. It is ingrained in the zeitgeist of the country that, regardless of your social background, your race, your religion or your ethnicity, you’re no better, or no worse, than the next man or woman.”
In modern multicultural Australia over 50 per cent of citizens are either born overseas or have a parent that was born overseas. The idea that the 97 per cent of Australians who don’t identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander will not be afforded the same constitutionally-guaranteed influence on legislation, policy, and decision-making as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is fundamentally illiberal and frankly un-Australian.
The Voice will essentially become a de facto third chamber of the Australian Parliament based on race. As former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his outstanding former Attorney-General and High Commissioner to Britain, George Brandis KC, said:
Our democracy is built on the foundation of all Australian citizens having equal civic rights – all being able to vote for, stand for and serve in either of the two chambers of our national Parliament – the House of Representatives and the Senate. A constitutionally-enshrined additional representative assembly for which only Indigenous Australians could vote for or serve in is inconsistent with this fundamental principle. It would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of Parliament …
The Voice that was rejected by the Turnbull government (Turnbull has rescinded his opposition and now supports the proposal) is drawn from the Uluru Statement from the Heart which proposes three stages of reform: “Voice, Treaty, Truth”. The full version of the Uluru statement includes references to a treaty and reparations which the Yes campaign, and the Prime Minister, deny supporting.
The full version of the Uluru statement suggests that:
The treaty could include a proper say in decision-making, the establishment of a truth commission, reparations, a financial settlement (such as seeking a percentage of GDP), the resolution of land, water and resources issues, recognition of authority and customary law, and guarantees of respect for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
Aboriginal activist Professor Megan Davis makes clear that “Uluru was a sequence reform. Voice to the Parliament first, Treaty second.” Davis also said, “Treaties are legal texts. There will be disputes over interpretation. The treaties are about reparations for past injustices, and they are about land, and they are about resources.”
The government of Victoria has already begun this process at the state level. When I was a member of the Victorian Parliament, I opposed the Bill that formed a treaty authority. The Victorian Liberal Party shamefully supported this legislation so I was compelled to cross the floor, as I am opposed to a treaty because you cannot enter into a treaty with your own fellow citizens.
Support for the Voice has plummeted to 38 per cent
The Uluru statement talks of “genocide” being perpetuated on Aboriginals by the British. As Australian historian Geoffey Blainey has argued, there was brutality and killing in frontier conflict, but most of the indigenous people who died through contact with the settlers since 1788 died from diseases to which they had no immunity. There was no policy by the British government to exterminate Aboriginals. White settler perpetrators of massacres of Aboriginals such as at Myall Creek in 1838 were found guilty and hanged.
Soon after his appointment as the first Governor of New South Wales in 1786, Arthur Philip drew up a detailed memorandum of his plans for the new colony and wrote:
The laws of this country [Great Britain] will, of course, be introduced in [New] South Wales, and there is one that I would wish to take place from the moment his Majesty’s forces take possession of the country: that there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves.
Furthermore, he stated, “Any Man who takes the life of a Native, will be put on his Trial the same as if he had kill’d one of the Garrison. This appears to me not only just but good policy.” This is not the behaviour of those with genocidal intent.
I hope one day that Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders can obtain the same life outcomes that most of their fellow Australians enjoy, but there is no unanimity on the Voice within the Indigenous community, which is as diverse in opinions as it is in languages and culture. As Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price set out in her maiden speech to the Senate:
No Prime Minister, we don’t need another ‘hand-out’ as you have described the ‘Uluru Statement’ to be. No, we Indigenous Australians have not come to agreement on this statement — as also what you have claimed. It would be far more dignifying if we were recognised and respected as individuals in our own right who are not simply defined by our racial heritage but by the content of our character.
This message has been lost on the major sporting codes who all would do well to remember Senator Price’s message as they continue to publicly support this divisive proposal. So too should big businesses, which have pumped millions of dollars into the Yes campaign and have lined up to support Labor’s Voice. The worst offender being Qantas, which rather ridiculously has emblazoned pro-Voice messages on the side of its aircraft.
Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders make up 3.2 per cent of the population but hold 4.8 per cent of the seats in the Federal Parliament, on merit. They were the original inhabitants of Australia, they were dispossessed, cruelly treated, and today die on average 8 years younger than non-indigenous Australians. The path to full citizenship for Indigenous Australians was long and tortuous. But it is a matter of undisputed fact that Australia is, as Tony Abbott rightly describes it, a country with “Indigenous heritage, a British foundation and a multicultural character”.
Support for the Voice has plummeted to 38 per cent. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has committed to another referendum, if elected prime minister, to symbolically recognise Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in the preamble of the Constitution, whilst not undermining our system of government or the important principle articulated by Bob Hawke: “There must be no privilege of origin … The commitment to Australia is the only thing needful to be a true Australian.” Let’s hope the Australian people continue their fine tradition of not changing the Constitution because the loudest voices demand it of them.
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