Stop seeing the Voice as easy ESG points

Last week the Chairman of CSL and the CEO of Lendlease threw their support behind the referendum
to implement an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in the Australian Constitution.
Lendlease’s CEO said his company will encourage staff to think about the constitutional change
required to enshrine the Voice.

A recent dinner for the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia in Canberra was a
lovefest for the Voice, with speeches from the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, and
Senator Pat Dodson — and a heavy dose of misinformation when Senator Dodson claimed
Indigenous Australians weren’t citizens before 1967.

A large part of the Australian business community is clearly behind the Voice. But can any of them
explain what the Voice is or what it will achieve?

How will it end violence in remote communities, lift disadvantaged Indigenous people out of
poverty, or deliver economic prosperity? How will it inform government decision-making any better
than the vast number of Indigenous organisations and individuals who already advise government
and even design policy?

The federal government released proposed constitutional amendments to implement the Voice to
coincide with the Prime Minister’s speech at the Garma Festival. I was also at Garma and spoke with
a number of Aboriginal people there about it. Aside from those involved in campaigning for it, not
one Aboriginal person told me they were supportive.

This is consistent with the many conversations I’ve had with Indigenous people from across Australia
in a range of settings, from business meetings and events, to conversations with elders on country,
to catch ups with friends and family.

What I’ve heard consistently when the Voice comes up is people telling me they oppose it, or don’t
understand it, or think it will just be a forum for the usual suspects to benefit from government
largesse.

The campaign for the Voice is very different from the campaign for the 1967 Referendum.
Before the 1967 Referendum, Indigenous Australians didn’t have the same status under the
Constitution as everyone else. No, we weren’t classified as flora and fauna or universally banned
from voting. These are myths. But we were excluded from sections of the Constitution with the
result that state governments continued to control their Indigenous populations after Federation in
ways they didn’t control everyone else.

This control was suffocating and prevented Indigenous Australians from getting ahead. For example.
from the 1880s to 1910, many Aboriginal families across New South Wales set up their own
independent farms on reserves and began to prosper. In 1909, the NSW Aborigines Protection Act
gave the Aborigines Protection Board sweeping powers to control Aboriginal lives and much of this
independence was removed.

Protection regimes existed in all Australian states and territories. They were the primary governing
legislation for Indigenous Australians, controlling all aspects of life; regulating movement, controlling
finances (including confiscating wages), allowing removal of children at will and enforcing
segregation.

Aboriginal people campaigned against these protection regimes for decades. My grandfather joined
the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association (AAPA) in the 1920s. Passionately opposed to the
Protection Board and its actions taking Aboriginal land and children, he wrote countless letters to
authorities (for which he built a desk especially) and hosted meetings at home in which there was
great frustration and condemnation of the Protection Board’s actions and a great sense of urgency
about changing it.

The AAPA was one of several Aboriginal activist movements against state protection regimes. All
wanted Aboriginal people independent of government control, able to make decisions about their
own lives, have economic independence and use land as an economic base and have the same
opportunities as other Australians.

This campaign against state protection regimes became focussed on removing express exclusions of
“aboriginal natives” in the Constitution. By removing provisions that excluded us, we would have the
same constitutional status as other Australians; no longer a special group of people managed by the
states.

My older siblings — Ann, Olive, Kaye and Charlie — were heavily involved in the campaign for the
1967 Referendum. As a child I remember them talking about it at the dinner table and their
campaign planning meetings in the living room. This was when I first met Charles Perkins and John
Moriarty who made a huge impression on me. On the night of the 1967 referendum, family and
friends gathered at our house to watch the vote tally on television with mood of great anticipation
and excitement; we cheered when we saw it would be carried with a landslide “yes”.
The campaign for the Voice is nothing like the 1967 Referendum.

In 1967, we knew why we wanted the Constitution amended and the outcome we wanted to
achieve. Most Indigenous people I speak to don’t have the first clue what the Voice will achieve.
Many regard it with extreme cynicism.

For decades before 1967, Indigenous families sat around dinner tables talking about what needed to
change and why. The only people sitting around dinner tables talking about the Voice are woke
corporates and well-heeled people from the metropolitan suburbs.

The 1967 Referendum signified a country doing away with segregation. The Voice will see
segregation introduced.It could also see decisions by traditional owners for their own country undermined by an interfering,
bureaucratic overlay.

The campaign for the Voice is coming from Australia’s elites: woke corporate, the liberal political
classes and Indigenous academia. And they will campaign for it whether the majority of Indigenous
people like it or not.

My plea to the Australian business community is this: stop seeing the Voice as easy ESG points; sit
down with Indigenous people who oppose the Voice and try to understand why.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO is Director of the Indigenous Forum at the Centre for Independent
Studies.