Voice a dagger to the heart of liberalism

There is nothing finer in political culture than the idea – the doctrine, the inspiration – that all men and women are equal in their ­essential human dignity. And following on from that, the idea that within a nation, every citizen is equal before the law and equal ­before their parliaments and institutions of the state.

A liberal nation is egalitarian in its institutional outlook, and universal in its civic identity. So ubiquitous is this idea in our minds, that in some ways we think it self-evident, obvious to everyone. Or, even worse, the idea is so familiar that we forget about it and why it is so special, and sometimes, without quite realising it, we entertain innovations and novel structures that contradict liberalism at its heart, and therefore tend to ­destroy it.

The proposal for a constitutionally guaranteed, elected, policy advisory chamber to be known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice to parliament is a direct repudiation of the central tenet of political liberalism, because it strikes against universal citizenship. Further, it gives life to the pernicious idea that universal suffrage, the rule of law and representative, democratic institutions are somehow inherently deficient when dealing with all the variety of human racial, cultural and ethnic diversity.

This is a dagger at the heart of liberal democracy, for if democratic institutions are insufficient for one minority, they might be insufficient for any minority, or indeed even for the majority. The whole project of the voice represents one part of a tragic wrong-turn in Australian politics towards the sterile, chaotic entropy of identity politics.

These are controversial conclusions. But they are inescapable. Truth, in the old definition, is conformity of the mind to reality. There is simply no other way of viewing the reality of what the voice involves. Truth is truth.

A race-based electoral body in the Constitution contradicts the essential race blindness our institutions should have, which is an ineradicable element of liberalism.

Among commentators, these conclusions are unpopular. But this is a profoundly important step Australia is considering. It would change the basis of citizenship and therefore change the nature of citizenship.

For if citizenship assumes different categories, if there are different grades of citizen, if people can be different types of citizen because of their racial background, then the nature of citizenship is no longer universal. That means citizenship has not changed just for Aboriginal Australians who can vote for the voice. Citizenship is then changed for everyone. And changed for the worse, because it’s no longer a universal quality we share.

Regarding the voice as a mistake does not suggest any hostility to Aboriginal Australians. It is partly out of love and respect for Aboriginal Australians that I am so grieved by this proposal. Aborigines were dispossessed and frequently persecuted, and many continue to suffer disadvantage today. But a slice of Aboriginal leadership has made a terrible ­mistake in travelling down the dry gulch of identity politics.

Liberalism is not a rejection of change. Liberalism is a positive and magnificent vision. The debate about the voice should force us to reconsider and reaffirm the basic idea of liberalism. That basic idea centres on a distinct conception of the human condition. Perhaps the defining programmatic effort of liberalism over the past couple of centuries has been to remove race and gender altogether from civic status, from civic rights and obligations.

A liberal state should never accept that there is either entitlement or disenfranchisement, virtue or vice, superiority or inferiority, in any racial category. Yet enshrining in the Constitution an elected Aboriginal voice to parliament does exactly that. It’s wrong in principle.

What about righting the wrongs of history? What about compensation for past injustice? What about setting things to right?

A fundamental tenet of liberalism is that within a liberal society, individuals have civic rights, not groups or categories of people. You cannot therefore justly, or even meaningfully, remedy an injustice from 250 years ago, especially on the basis of race. For that to be even possible, individual identity must be erased, and only the nation, or the racial identity, has a personality.

In the United States, there is a movement to pay African-Americans compensation for the historic crime of slavery. Slavery was always wrong and it’s right that it is considered a blight and a tragedy and, morally, a crime. However, the concept of low-wage factory workers in West Virginia paying higher marginal tax rates in order to provide historic compensation to Oprah Winfrey or Kanye West is absurd.

This may all seem a long way from contemporary Australian debates. But the principle is bad wherever you try to apply it. A liberal society cannot go back and re-adjudicate historical wrongs and then find descendants of those wronged and pay them reparations, even constitutional reparations. Logically, such reparations would have to be proportionate to the percentage of someone’s ancestry which was in the victimised group.

This is entirely grotesque. And has nothing at all to do with the wholly sensible task of searching out important indicators of disadvantage and doing everything you can to remedy the disadvantage. A liberal society seeks to do justice to, and offer assistance to, people who are living in the society whatever their background.

An Australian citizen who is a Chinese immigrant from Hong Kong, or an Indian immigrant from Kolkata, or a Hmong hill tribesman from Laos who took out Australian citizenship one day ago, as a citizen is just as good as me, and just as good as Aboriginal Australians.

The absolute civic equality of citizenship is its essence.

There is an argument that the Constitution already has racial clauses, so inserting the voice is not a departure from constitutional practice. In fact, there are only two Constitution provisions that relate to race.

One is Section 51 which gives the commonwealth the power to make laws about people of any race. This is a benign but certainly clumsy provision. I’d be happy if it wasn’t there, because I don’t think the Constitution should make any mention of race. The purpose of that section is to allow the commonwealth to make laws which help Aboriginal communities.

Section 25 of the Constitution prevents states counting people in their census, and therefore for the allocation of seats in parliament, if they have disqualified them from voting by race. The whole idea of disqualifying anyone from voting because of race is obnoxious. The specific constitutional provision is also anachronistic.

The Racial Discrimination Act prevents any state from banning any racial group from voting. It is, as they say, a Dead Letter in the Constitution. Lots of constitutions have odd ­little bits and pieces hanging over from history that are never used. I would enthusiastically support getting rid of this section. However, doing so would not make any practical difference to anybody because it has no current application, but it would require a full referendum to change. It is absurd to use this long-obsolete section to pretend that we have a racist Constitution.

Our Constitution provides a mechanical rule book for the way government is legally organised. It has all kinds of inefficiencies, but it has certainly provided the legal framework for the development of one of the most liberal and successful societies in the world.

Removing any one inefficiency, or adding a whole new dimension, such as a new category of citizenship, risks unbalancing the whole enterprise with unknowable effects.

Nobody has the slightest idea what the High Court, with its tradition of judicial activism and creative interpretations, would do with a constitutional clause which establishes a voice. Therefore, it’s right to be worried about the unintended practical consequences of messing with the Constitution in this way. This is both a liberal and a conservative objection to the voice. Above all, this caution, this reluctance about unnecessary and unpredictable change, embodies the virtue of prudence, which should be the virtue which guides all other virtues.

Even in concept, the voice seems malleable and protean, just as its interpretation by the High Court would likely be. Although it would not have the powers of a House of Parliament, it certainly does have the potential to act as a third chamber of parliament by reviewing and delaying and affecting absolutely anything it wants.

That can easily take you into the realm of shared sovereignty, or divided sovereignty, or co-sovereignty. And any project like that, which is available to only one race, is inherently racist and contradicts the most basic principle of non-discrimination at the heart of ­liberalism.

Australia has countless methods of consultation and engagement with Aboriginal citizens. Local consultation, much more than a national voice, is crucial in trying to form effective policy. There are many regional Land Councils, traditional landowners’ bodies, countless government-funded service delivery and community consultation bodies and forums and other Aboriginal groups and consultative bodies seemingly without end.

It is true that all this consultation has not produced perfectly effective policy. Nor is there the slightest likelihood that the voice would do so.

As I write, there are 11 Aboriginal members of federal parliament. They are not there just to represent Aborigines. They represent all Australians in their electorates, or if senators, in their states or territories.

But they certainly bring to the high table of decision making their Aboriginal histories, sensibilities and consciousness. Moreover, we live in a society abundantly rich in recognition of Aboriginal heritage and presence, both in formal rituals and in popular culture.

This brings us to the emotional manipulation and dishonesty – often enough unconscious dishonesty – of much pro-voice propaganda. Overwrought and highly emotional prose is produced: if you do not pass the voice, Aboriginal souls will be broken.

It is implied or claimed that the only reason the voice could be rejected is a hard-hearted hostility to, or fear of, Aborigines. If you believe that Aboriginal parents love their children, then you must support the voice.

This is ridiculous and in its emotional transaction, if not its methodology, has more to do with a Chinese communist re-education session than normal rational argument. An issue on which people of perfect goodwill can conscientiously disagree is transformed into a turbocharged emotional test of moral decency.

It’s a fundamental error to assign moral virtue to one side of such an argument and moral degeneracy to the other side. Yet that is how so much of the discourse around the voice takes place. I think the idea of a race-based body in the Constitution is such a bad idea that it wouldn’t withstand a robust and searching debate. But the cultural and political powers that be are determined that there never will be such a debate.

This is a further clue that what we are really dealing with is a tragic manifestation of the rise and, at least temporary, triumph of identity politics. There is no more destructive ideological pathology in Western culture today than identity politics.

First, the demands of identity politics are endless and can never be satisfied. Second, the views that anyone expresses are assessed not on their merits but on the basis of their racial identity, or some other element of identity, such as gender or sexual orientation. Third, disagreement, no matter how measured, mild and rational, is regarded as a sign of mal­evolence and racism.

Finally, there is the idea that Indigenous Australians are special and therefore should get special recognition and rights. This is the other anti-human element of the voice. To tell Aborigines that they are special is to tell them that they are different, inherently different in an essential way from other Australians. This is a grisly triumph of identity politics.

The greatest rejection of identity politics is to be found in Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” civil rights speech.

Nothing could be further from the moral confusion and rhetorical absolutism of today’s identity politics. King did not ask for a special place in the American Constitution for African-Americans because of the historic crime of slavery. His argument was far more subtle and powerful. He asked for America to live up to the universalist promise of its founding documents, of its liberalism. He wanted to cash the constitutional cheque America gave its citizens. He stated his key demand: “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.”

Citizenship rights. That was the sum of King’s requirements and those rights, in his view, could lead to a brotherhood across the races. The voice, in contrast, appeals to an at least partial negation of liberalism on the basis of the belief that liberalism can never work sufficiently well for Aborigines.

Opposing the voice is not about a lack of acceptance or esteem or love of Aborigines. It is about valuing equality of citizenship. For the Constitution to divide Australians on the basis of race is wrong at every level, when we can all be friends and citizens together, with no vertical relationships, all of us instead looking eye-to-eye, in solidarity and engagement and good humour, with perhaps the trace of a smile.

This is an edited extract of Greg Sheridan’s paper for the Centre for Independent Studies, titled Liberalism’s Universal Vision Better than a Race-Based Voice.