Chris Kenny’s piece “Busting eight myths of the No Campaign” in Inquirer last weekend read like a laundry list of the Yes campaign’s talking points to deal with its leaders’ repeated stumbles over issues like what the Uluru Statement said and what the voice is. In it, he says he “cannot deal with the myriad minor lies and distortions” of the No campaign and then proceeds to repeat the distortions of his own side. Here are 10:
1 The voice doesn’t mention race
No race of people is mentioned in the Constitution. Not since 1967 when references to the “aboriginal race” and “aboriginal natives” were removed. “Aboriginal” is a racial description of Australia’s first peoples. We aren’t one homogenous group but many nations; each differentiated by common descent, history, culture, language and country. Bundjalung is my nation. Aboriginal is my race. If Kenny believes race is an outdated concept, he shouldn’t advocate for an “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice”. That voice not only mentions race, but is defined by race.
2 The voice will only have influence if it has good ideas
Kenny says the voice’s effectiveness will depend on the quality of its ideas; governments will “easily ignore” any wild recommendations. Wishful thinking. Consultation rights are powerful because actions can be delayed due to the processes followed and/or information considered, regardless of merit. Santos had to stop exploratory gas drilling when the Federal Court said it hadn’t consulted properly with Tiwi Islands traditional owners. Whether drilling was a bad idea was irrelevant. The more dismissive the government is of the voice, the better grounds for dragging the government to court for not giving its ideas proper weight. That’s why Professor Greg Craven said it “absolutely guarantees judicial intervention”.
3 When the Uluru Statement says “Makaratta” it doesn’t mean “treaty”
Makarrata has been synonymous with “treaty” since 1979 when adopted by the National Aboriginal Conference for its treaty demands. Don’t take my word for it; the Uluru Statement website says “Makarrata is another word for Treaty”. The website also sets out the “Our Story” narrative from the 26 pages Kenny claims is a “confection”. The Uluru Statement says “Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda” and “We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history”. The government has committed to implement the Uluru Statement in full and has even appointed an Ambassador for First Nations People to “engage regional partners on the voice, treaty, truth process”. I support agreements between governments and traditional owners regarding traditional owner rights. They’ve been entering into them for 30 years under native title laws. But I oppose creating some centralised commission to supervise them or to be some arbiter of truth.
4 The main change in 1967 was allowing federal government to make special laws for Indigenous people
Australia’s Constitution empowers the commonwealth to legislate with respect to any race of people. Outdated maybe. But not the same as singling out one racial group. The states can also legislate with respect to any race of people. That’s not written down because state powers don’t have to be. Commonwealth powers do. And on those matters, the commonwealth laws override. Before 1967, the states used their race powers to impose racial segregation on Aboriginal people. But the commonwealth’s race power excluded the “aboriginal race”. The 1967 referendum removed that exclusion. The main change in 1967 was the commonwealth gaining power to override state segregation laws and Aboriginal people attaining the same rights as others.
5 A constitutional right to advise government is inclusive, just a fair go
Indigenous people already advise governments through many voices. Hundreds of Indigenous organisations can offer their views and are directly involved in writing laws, policies and programs. The inclusivity and fair go Kenny supports already exists. But being able to make special laws for Indigenous people doesn’t justify a constitutional voice. The commonwealth can also make special laws on foreign citizens, foreign corporations, Pacific Islands relations and unemployment, among others. Groups affected by those laws don’t have a constitutional voice.
6 The voice will be a grassroots, representative body
Governments appoint many advisory boards, with members selected on expertise and experience. To advise; not represent. The Indigenous Advisory Council I chaired was never claimed to be a representative body. Nor the hand-picked Voice Co-Design Senior Advisory Group chaired by Marcia Langton and Tom Calma, of which Kenny was a member. The Co-Design Group rejected the voice having elected members, worried about low voter turnout. It proposed members be chosen by a consensus of the huge number of Indigenous organisations and a vast bureaucracy interfacing at all levels of government via arbitrary regions bearing no resemblance to First Nations. That won’t allow grassroots communities to be heard, but will cause chaos, confusion and conflict. And since the proposed voice has no details on composition or structure, it could end up being a few chosen individuals.
7 It is meaningful recognition
The only recognition proposed in the referendum is to recognise and entrench Aboriginal people as a race of people. Kenny describes an alternative of symbolic recognition as “a modern version of trinkets and beads”. Yet he described the voice as a “toothless body”, so presumably beads would be more useful. The voice isn’t about recognition. It’s about entrenching government dependency, bureaucratic institutions and community organisations through a centralised, top down, segregated model wrapped in a veneer of “recognition”.
8 The voice aims to redress imbalance for our most downtrodden cohort
I don’t oppose special measures to help people out of hard times. Not to entrench them there. Are Aboriginal people destined to be downtrodden forever? If the voice will redress imbalance, it should be temporary until balance is achieved. If it won’t, it’s not the answer. That’s reason enough not to constitutionally enshrine it.
9 The voice will promote agency and shared responsibility for outcomes
Responsibility and agency go hand-in-hand with economic participation: getting educated, having a job, running a business, owning a home. Entrenched government dependence, whether administered centrally or by Aboriginal organisations, doesn’t promote responsibility or agency. Nor does wrapping up one bureaucracy with another black one. Bureaucracy is the enemy of outcomes.
10 The No campaign has no persuasive arguments other than fear
It’s not fear but principle that underpins opposition to a race-based body enshrined in the Constitution. It’s not fear but care and loyalty for country that drives Aboriginal opposition to a national body speaking for other peoples’ traditional lands. It’s not fear but common sense to know that the official Yes pamphlet is lying when it paints the voice as a magical wand to solve all problems facing Aboriginal people. That’s the greatest distortion of them all.
Nyunggai Warren Mundine is director, Indigenous Forum, Centre for Independent Studies.