For a project supposedly based in a call for goodwill and respect, the Indigenous Voice debate is rife with distrust and assumptions of bad faith.
For example, a common response on the left to Peter Dutton’s call for details is that he is being disingenuous. Many on the left simply assume that Dutton is acting in bad faith, seeking to scupper the Voice. The response has been to attack him personally, not to answer the questions. His seemingly reasonable questions have a sinister motive, they argue.
Yet it is clear from recent polling that many voters don’t understand the Voice. Moreover, it’s likely that Dutton — like many of us in policy circles — have the experience of non-political friends and acquaintances coming forward to ask some variation of “so what’s this Voice thing all about anyway?”
Not to mention that credible supporters of the Voice on the right are increasingly asking similar questions, for example in a paper by Prof Greg Craven and Damien Freeman recently published by the CIS.
Moreover, aside from being poor form, starting from an assumption of bad faith looks like being counter-productive.
Indeed, Ben Fordham’s excellent questioning of the Prime Minister this week revealed that the various strategies being employed to bat away questions on details, especially referring to documents like the Langton-Calma report, seem destined to fail.
Some detail is necessary. If the government is committed to the Langton-Calma model, it should answer questions for detail with responses based on that model.
It will not be sufficient to defer to parliament making these decisions following the referendum. In a Westminster system, the government is responsible for the business of parliament, and it will be the government’s model that is taken to Parliament for approval.
Further, this reluctance to provide any detail shows an unwillingness to trust voters to take these matters seriously, an increasingly common sin on both sides of politics.
Of course, it is easy to assume that a refusal to provide detail is itself an example of disingenuousness on the left. An attempt to sneak a radical policy through a sceptical electorate by obscuring the true nature of the Voice body until after the referendum.
Yet, that too seems like an unnecessary exercise in bad faith.
At least in part, it seems motivated by a fear of repeating the supposed mistakes of the republic campaign in 1999. The claim is that the republic was defeated at the referendum because of a fight over details. By not giving voters the opportunity to get bogged down in details, they can focus on the important principle.
But this interpretation of the republic campaign is flawed.
The inability of republic proponents to agree on what the republic would be isn’t a mere detail. It was a fatal flaw in the campaign. The continuing inability to agree on it in the decades since makes this abundantly clear.
The most recent republican model, based around a similar idea of approving the principle without agreeing the necessary detail, didn’t emerge well from initial scrutiny in public debate.
For Voice proponents, this likely means confronting the possibility of a similar split in expectations of the Voice. Right now, the Voice can be everything to everyone because it hasn’t committed to anything on paper.
Hence the claim that the Voice can combat violence on the streets of Alice Springs — a claim that will likely be viewed with incredulity by many who live there.
These are not questions of mere detail. They go to the fundamental basis of the Voice itself.
Is the rationale for the Voice the need to remedy the disadvantage of Indigenous communities? If so, what will the Voice provide that has not already been tried. Many of the activists involved in the Voice movement are the very same activists deeply engaged in the current mess of programs that are clearly failing to close the gap.
Will the Voice provide more accountability, or less? How can we judge success of the Voice? What happens if it fails? Is the Voice just a waystation to more radical reform through a treaty-making process?
Is the rationale instead a desire to allow people impacted by decision-making to have a say in those decisions? But if that’s the case why do Indigenous people need a different process for having a say than everyone else?
One thing that previous research has made clear is that most Indigenous people live in cities and towns, and live lives very similar to those of their non-Indigenous neighbours. It is the minority that live in remote communities who are suffering.
Is the Voice needed to remedy historical dispossession and lack of consultation? Then it’s just simple affirmative action, which has had mixed (at best) results. Is it a manifestation of Indigenous sovereignty? If the Constitution acknowledges Indigenous sovereignty does that have any other consequences or create avenues for judicial activism?
Proponents claim the model of the Voice will not be subject to judicial review and therefore any concerns about High Court activism are ill-founded.
Yet, after the decisions of the High Court in Love and Thoms, which found that Indigenous Australians couldn’t be ‘aliens’ under the Constitution, and decades of administrative law around issues such as relevant considerations and rights of consultation, such concerns are hardly disingenuous.
People will want to know the answers to these questions before the Voice goes into the Constitution. It is folly to think that rhetorical trickery and accusations of bad faith will carry the day in a referendum campaign.
The onus is on those seeking change to convince the people it is necessary. Starting from the premise that anyone not already convinced is an opponent seems like a bad way to win over the voters.
Simon Cowan is Research Director at the Centre for Independent Studies.