By Kate Maccarone
“An Indigenous Voice to Parliament is consistent with guiding principles of key human rights treaties… [which] include the rights to self-determination. Given the proposals outlined in the Uluru Statement from the Heart were determined through an unprecedented First Nations-led, bottom-up process, they can be seen as an expression of self-determination by First Nations Australians”.
– United Nations Children’s Fund
Australia prides itself on being a multicultural land that gives everyone a “fair go”; however, Australia has failed to value and protect its Indigenous peoples, who have experienced centuries of discrimination following the invasion of their nation in 1788. Indigenous Australians are underrepresented in the government, leading to a disconnect between Australian politicians and local Indigenous communities. The Indigenous Voice to Parliament (the Voice) is a proposal for a constitutionally enshrined way to ensure Indigenous Australians’ voices are heard. Constitutionally enshrining the Indigenous Voice to Parliament is necessary for reconciliation and will ensure the Indigenous community has more opportunities to share their concerns and ideas during the political decision-making process. This article will explore the history, recommendations, and arguments for the Voice to conclude that Indigenous Australians need to have the opportunity to share their opinions and concerns during the political decision-making process.
The Indigenous Voice to Parliament
The Indigenous Voice to Parliament has sparked a controversial debate in Australia. The Voice describes an Indigenous representative body that can advise both parliament chambers on policies that directly impact the Indigenous community (Larkin & Galloway, 2021, p.2). Since 1999, there has been a movement towards constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians (Larkin & Galloway, 2021, p.2). In 2012, an expert panel on the Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians was created; however, the government did not adopt the panel’s recommendations and instead established a Referendum Council in 2015 (Larkin & Galloway, 2021, p.2). This council led to the First Nations Regional Dialogues and the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru in 2017 (Larkin & Galloway, 2021, p.2).
At the convention in Uluru, 250 Indigenous representatives discussed implementing a constitutional reform that would recognise Indigenous Australians (Fredericks & Bradfield, 2021). This resulted in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a 440-word statement decided by Indigenous Australians that called for law reforms through a voice, treaty, and the truth (Larkin & Galloway, 2021, p.2). The first reform was an enshrined Voice to Parliament to help reconcile and build a more equal nation for Indigenous Australians (Markham & Sanders, 2020, p.1). In 2018, the government began designing a process to facilitate an Indigenous Voice; $7.3 million was budgeted in 2019, and a Senior Advisory Group was established to assist with this (Fredericks & Bradfield, 2021). The goal of the Voice was for Indigenous perspectives to be considered when designing new policies that relate to Indigenous affairs, but it does not give the Indigenous representatives veto powers (Fredericks & Bradfield, 2021).
Arguments Against the Voice
One argument against the Voice is that it will harm the political process. The concern is that lengthy debates on all policies before parliament will stall the decision-making process, legislation, and policy (Mundine, 2022). Additionally, people are concerned that having a “separate race-based representative body” is risky (Allam, 2022). Not only are Indigenous Australians classed as Indigenous by their Indigeneity and connection to their country, not the colour of their skin (Allam, 2022), but it is also dangerous for race to be “put ahead” of necessity and merit in the constitution (Osborne, 2023). Instead, Indigenous sovereignty needs “more than a voice”; it requires direct participation in policy-making (Osborne, 2023). The impact of the Voice on the political process is of great concern to those who are unsure or outright against it.
Another argument against the Voice is that it does not represent Aboriginal culture (Mundine, 2022). Nyunggai Warren Mundine, an Indigenous Australian advocate and writer, states that Indigenous voices can only be represented by the countrymen and women in their country; no Aboriginal person can speak for another from a different country, let alone by a national body (Mundine, 2022). He argued that the national body would only “drown out” the Indigenous voices and not enable them to be heard (Mundine, 2022). He also raised the concern that it will group Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders into one body despite their differences in “descent, culture, and lore” (Mundine, 2022). There is concern in the Indigenous community that the Voice to Parliament will become another way to silence Indigenous voices and destroy Indigenous culture.
The referendum to amend the constitution is expensive, and other options could be considered. It will cost between $180 to $200 million on top of the money already spent to hold a referendum and change the constitution (Mundine, 2022). Instead, Indigenous activists have suggested other alternatives: treaty rights, agreements between traditional owner groups and governments, or laws on native titles (Mundine, 2022). New Zealand is an example of a country with treaty rights. The Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand ensures that seats for Maori people are reserved in parliament (Fredericks & Bradfield, 2021). Senator Lidia Thorpe states, “We can have a Treaty for the 21st century, that gives us real power and allows real, genuine self-determination… We have our own structures that are thousands and thousands of generations old. Why are we continuing to come up with all these new advisory bodies that have no power?” (McHugh & Kellaway, 2023). Additionally, it is argued that Indigenous Australians already have a voice through their local member of parliament; therefore, the Voice is not needed (Osborne, 2023). There are cheaper options that will recognise Indigenous Australians.
The Voice to Parliament may also fail to decrease Indigenous inequality and, instead, will be a tokenistic approach led by activists and those with money. Nationals’ senator Jacinta Price has shared her concerns about the Voice not being able to “deliver practical outcomes” for Indigenous Australians for the “real and pressing issues” they are dealing with (Appleby & Levy, 2023). This is because many people against the Voice believe it will primarily comprise of activists or those who can afford to run to be elected (Osborne, 2023). Another concern is that the Voice will only be used as a symbolic gesture in areas such as family violence, health, education, and housing (Osborne, 2023), and it will fail to make a practical difference for Indigenous Australians in those areas (Reconciliation NSW, 2023). This is because the powers of the current government and the powers proposed in the amendments to the Voice are similar: the government still has the authority to determine “the Voice’s powers, functions, structure and composition” (Mundine, 2022). The Voice may be a costly option that does not achieve its goals of decreasing disadvantage in the Indigenous community and, instead, may become a tokenistic tool for activists and the rich.
Arguments In Favour of the Voice
The Voice gives Indigenous Australians a formal and structured way to share their opinions in the decision-making process, recognising the value of Indigenous self-determination and aiding reconciliation. The Voice will only be used when issues directly impact Indigenous Australians, so it will not slow down Australia’s decision-making process overall and will not substitute for direct participation in the political process (O’Neil, 2021). Additionally, the Voice will allow Indigenous Australians to have a say in enacting and managing a Treaty (Finlay, 2023). The process of creating Treaties for the 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations will take time; therefore, it is essential to implement the Voice so Indigenous voices are heard on current issues as well (Finlay, 2023).
There should be a recognition of the 65,000 years of Indigenous culture in the 122-year-old constitution (Reconciliation NSW, 2023, p.4). Governments have failed to repair the social, emotional, physical, economic, and cultural damages caused by colonisation (Kingsley, et al., 2013, p.679). Indigenous Australians face higher rates of psychological distress, prejudice, health complications, and trauma compared to other Australians; however, the government only prioritises helping extreme cases (Kingsley, et al., 2013, p.679). The government’s inability to listen to Indigenous concerns and lack of inclusion in the political process has led to decades of policy failures (Banks, 2008, p.367). According to Reconciliation New South Wales (NSW), the Voice to Parliament allows Australia to “bring our nation together”, close the gap, and recognise the importance of Indigenous Australians (Reconciliation NSW, 2023, p.4, 5). It is clear the importance of the vote is deeper than just its impact on the political process and “put[ting] ahead” one race over another; it is about acknowledging and reconciling centuries of discrimination towards Indigenous Australians through recognition in the constitution.
Since colonisation, First Peoples have been excluded from the political process. Australia’s government style was established without Indigenous input, leading to conflict between the Indigenous and Western views of leadership and governance (Beckman, Gover & Mörkenstam, 2022, p.2). Indigenous beliefs about authority, legitimacy, and law differ significantly from the ideas state power is based on (Beckman, Gover & Mörkenstam, 2022, p.3). Indigenous concepts are less rigid and more relationship-based than Western political traditions (Beckman, Gover & Mörkenstam, 2022, p.3). For example, First Peoples view authority and identity in connection to land and Country (Kingsley, et al., 2013, p.682). A strong value is placed on the environment over economic development; First Nations have led campaigns to protect the environment (O’Neil, 2021). For instance, Indigenous Australians are leading the campaign against the Adani/Bravus Carmichael Coalmine, arguing that their traditional lands are central to the “maintenance of [their] identity, laws, and…rights” (Wagan and Jagalingou, 2023). While Mundine’s argument that First Nations cannot represent people outside of their country may be correct, the Voice also could be a way to ensure Indigenous culture, values, and beliefs are represented and recognised in the Australian political system.
A second argument in favour is that enshrining the right for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament ensures future political parties will not have the ability to undo the reform. While there is merit to the argument that the Voice to Parliament should not be enshrined in the constitution because the referendum is expensive and the government’s current powers and those proposed in the Voice are the same, it is important to consider the government’s history. Australia has a history of “extinguish[ing] statutory national Indigenous representative bodies” (Galloway & Larkin, 2021, p.3). For example, the 2012 Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians was disregarded and replaced without the government adhering to their recommendations (Galloway & Larkin, 2021, p.2). First Nations’ voices are problematic for the government because they often critique and have challenged the narrative about the settler-colonial governments, Australia as terra nullius, an empty land, and Indigenous Australians as a race destined to fail for decades (O’Neil, 2021). Constitutional enshrinement is vital to the sustainability and long-term success of the Voice even if it is expensive because it guarantees Indigenous Voices cannot be silenced or weakened by a change of government (Galloway & Larkin, 2021, p.3).
The Indigenous Voice to Parliament also helps address inequality and disadvantage in Indigenous communities because Indigenous Australians can have first-hand input into new policies. Strong First Nations voices have proven that they can gain support from the community and pressure the government to make reforms (O’Neil, 2021). For example, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody shows how Indigenous voices can bring attention to injustices in the community (O’Neil, 2021). The report was authorised due to Indigenous activists raising awareness about deaths in custody (O’Neil, 2021). However, these voices have also shown that the government still fails to listen to them because, following the commission, there have been more than 455 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody (ANTAR, 2022). Indigenous Australians also struggle to access housing, services, and healthcare (Reconciliation NSW, 2023, p.5). Therefore, Reconciliation NSW argues that following the status quo is leading to these policy failures, so it is time for First Peoples to voice their concerns and share their views on minimising inequality (Reconciliation NSW, 2023, p.5). There will be changes to the inequality and disadvantage in the Indigenous communities through the Voice because they can directly influence policy-making decisions.
The Indigenous Voice to Parliament proposes a constitutionally enshrined way to ensure Indigenous Australians’ voices are heard. Despite Australia being a multicultural country that prides itself on giving everyone a “fair go”, Australia has disregarded its Indigenous people and allowed centuries of discrimination and violence towards First Nations to flourish. The disconnect, disengagement, and distrust between the Indigenous communities and the Australian government is widening. Whether the referendum is passed or not, Indigenous Australians need to have the opportunity to share their opinions and concerns during the political decision-making process on policies that directly impact them.
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