At the Garma Festival last July, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese unveiled his proposal for constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice. Last week, he announced the final wording for a new chapter in Australia’s Constitution that will be put to vote in a referendum this year.
After eight months of discussion and debate, many people thought the government would at least carve out the Voice’s right to make representations to the Executive Government after significant legal concerns were raised — including by Albanese’s own Attorney-General.
Not so. Only a few tweaks to the initial wording were made, with the Indigenous working group reportedly rejecting the Solicitor-General’s advice. Albanese refuses to release that advice. No member of parliament should be prepared to vote for the referendum bill without seeing it.
Giving the Voice a constitutional right to make representations to, and be consulted in advance by, the Executive will upend Australia’s system of government.
The Executive includes every minister, department and public servant; every agency (from the ATO to the Federal Police to the Mint) and, indirectly, the entire government apparatus of the Northern Territory and ACT which exists under Commonwealth legislation and oversight.
The Voice’s remit will be “matters relating to Indigenous people” which includes matters relating to every Australian. Noel Pearson has said there’s “hardly any subject matter” on which the Voice won’t want a say.
Anyone who thinks the Voice is just some nice, well-mannered thing to do that they’ll never have think about again is mistaken. Every Australian will be impacted every day by what the Voice has to say.
It’s the Voice to Everyone on Everything.
If you don’t believe me, believe Professor Greg Craven, who sat on the Constitutional Working Group for the Voice referendum and, until last week, was a leading Voice cheerleader. Last year he scoffed at suggestions the High Court could run amok with the Voice. Last week he had a change of heart, describing Albanese’s Voice as a “fatally flawed” proposal that “absolutely guarantees judicial intervention”.
He said: “The Voice can comment on everything from submarines to parking tickets … It will be very difficult for government to operate, either because it will be constantly delayed, tied up in knots or indeed because the courts end up intervening directly in the decision.”
And if you don’t believe him, believe Albanese who said: “The Commonwealth Parliament and Executive Government will need to seek written advice from the Voice early in the development of proposed laws and policies.”
So, eight months on from the Garma Festival, we know the Voice will be a radical and powerful body that all arms of the Commonwealth government will need to cower to.
Yet Australians are still in the dark about the details of its design and how this body is supposed to result in real outcomes for Indigenous people.
Albanese’s government refuses to talk about that until after a successful referendum, which will kick off yet another detailed and time-consuming process on design and implementation. The fundamental details about what the Voice will actually look like and how it will operate in practice will only be revealed after Australians have agreed to it in the first place.
You’ll have to choose whether to sign up to the Voice (but told you must, or you’re a racist) with limited information to decide and only after you decide will you know what you’ve actually voted for.
It’s putting the cart before the Trojan horse.
Some Voice campaigners call the requests for details a “tactic”. It’s only a tactic because they fear people won’t vote for the Voice if they understand what it truly means.
Albanese said the government is taking a bottom-up rather than top-down approach. Yet he was sharing a podium with some of the most influential Indigenous people in the country — academics, lawyers, current and former parliamentarians, and senior leaders of influential agencies and organisations — who had just spent the past eight months huddled around tables in Canberra talking among each other and arguing over theories and principles for hours only to produce much the same wording that was there before. All so we can have another body in Canberra and layers of additional bureaucracy. How exactly is that bottom-up?
Albanese says he wants to hear from Indigenous people. But I was in Parliament House last week with a delegation of over 20 Aboriginal community leaders from around Australia who flew to Canberra to express concerns about the Voice. Albanese refused to meet with them.
That delegation’s views on the Voice reflect the views of most Aboriginals I speak to, the ones out on country, rolling up their sleeves and getting things done. Most have told me they oppose the Voice, don’t understand it, or think it will just cement the influence of Indigenous people at the helms of the organisations who already have the ear and largess of government, while building an even bigger, more expensive bureaucracy and won’t fix any problems. None of them believe it will help ‘close the gap’.
Meanwhile many non-Indigenous people have told me they support the Voice because they just feel it’s the “right thing to do”, are worried about being called racist or seem overwhelmed by some kind of misplaced guilt.
The loudest demands for the Voice come from a minority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elites from organisations that already sit at the table with governments and have been amply funded to deliver improvements for years with little to show for it.
Unsurprisingly, polling shows support for the Voice continues to fall as more Australians start to see beyond the political rhetoric and understand it for what it really is – politics, power and a distraction from real outcomes for Indigenous people.
Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO DUniv (Hon. Causa) is Director, Indigenous Forum, Centre for Independent Studies.
Photo by Felix Mittermeier