The federal government response to the Referendum Council proposal for a constitutionally-enshrined Voice to Parliament was delivered in the form of a joint press release. The statement is attributed to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Attorney-General George Brandis, and Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion.
The government decision
This week we learned that the federal government decided to reject the consensus of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples who participated in 12 regional dialogues and the 2017 Uluru Convention. That consensus was for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, to advise on legislation affecting Indigenous Peoples; as well as for Makaratta, a truth and reconciliation process.
Perhaps the best known Referendum Council members are Megan Davis and Noel Pearson.
Professor Megan Davis was interviewed on ABC radio this morning. The first question implied that the government had rejected recognition, when it in fact rejected a Voice to Parliament and resurrected symbolic recognition. When as experienced and relatively impartial a journalist as Sabra Lane has to be corrected on a basic misapprehension from the very start of an interview… I mean, just imagine how exhausting this stuff is.
Noel Pearson was out of the blocks early. He condemned the dearth of political leadership on 4 August this year and has continued to do so since. Of all the Aboriginal people consulted by government, it is Noel who is called, Noel who gets the airtime. This week, you can hear his exhaustion and frustration, such as in this Radio National interview with Pat Karvelas.
Abridged and annotated: the government statement
Despite Turnbull and Brandis being named at the top of the press release, due to cabinet superiority, only Scullion has been on the hustings defending the Cabinet decision, which was leaked to the Courier Mail. According to Scullion, in an interview on RN Drive, the decision to put out the statement on the anniversary of the Uluru handback to traditional owners was out of “respect”. It happened to be the day the Indigenous Advisory Council meets, he said, and thus the press release went out that day with zero mention of the IAC out of respect for the IAC.
This peculiar claim suggests two likelihoods: first, that cabinet took the decision to reject Referendum Council proposals without consulting the IAC (and definitely without consulting the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples); and secondly that the statement was rushed out because someone in Cabinet leaked to the Murdoch press.
The government press release goes something like this.
The Turnbull Government has carefully considered the Referendum Council’s call to amend the Constitution to provide for a national Indigenous representative assembly to constitute a “Voice to Parliament”. The Government does not believe such an addition to our national representative institutions is either desirable or capable of winning acceptance in a referendum.
Translation: the Voice to Parliament proposition terrifies us. We perceive it as an existential threat to white Australian hegemony (institutions). We are projecting our own fear and loathing onto the electorate by claiming, without a skerrick of evidence, that the Voice proposal can not succeed at a referendum, because we are cowards and liars.
Our democracy is built on the foundation of all Australian citizens having equal civic rights – all being able to vote for, stand for and serve in either of the two chambers of our national Parliament – the House of Representatives and the Senate. A constitutionally enshrined additional representative assembly for which only Indigenous Australians could vote for or serve in is inconsistent with this fundamental principle. It would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of Parliament.
Translation: Despite the resistance, despite respectful political communications over centuries, and the overturning of terra nullius by our highest court, we refuse to concede that Australia is built on stolen Aboriginal land. We refuse to see that not all citizens are equal. Such a concession poses an existential threat to our entire belief system, which is built not on evidence but on ideology, including the ideology of racism. We will express this in terms of a ‘third chamber of parliament’, which nobody proposed, because we are liars and cowards.
The Referendum Council noted the concerns that the proposed body would have insufficient power if its constitutional function was advisory only. The Referendum Council provided no guidance as to how this new representative assembly would be elected or how the diversity of Indigenous circumstance and experience could be fairly or democratically represented.
Translation: the Referendum Council did not do all our work for us and noted concerns rather than set us up for handy political point scoring with the lives of First Peoples. What is wrong with these Black people are they lazy or unprofessional or something.
Moreover, the Government does not believe such a radical change to our constitution’s representative institutions has any realistic prospect of being supported by a majority of Australians in a majority of States. The Government believes that any proposal for constitutional change should conform to the principles laid down by the 2012 Expert Panel, namely that any proposal should “be capable of being supported by an overwhelming majority of Australians from across the political and social spectrums”.
Translation: it suits us to frame the Voice to Parliament as radical, even though it is modest and moderate. Wait there while we condescendingly spell out the constitutional requirements of passing a referendum to the Referendum Council. Also we have some beliefs about what Australian voters will vote for lololol just like we did when we lost 14 seats at the last election and just like our leader did when he messed up the republic referendum but hey we won’t let a dismal trail of multiple failures stop us talking down to First Peoples as though we know more about Australia than they and their 60,000 years of occupation and 230 years of colonisation what would they know?
The Referendum Council said the Voice to Parliament was a “take it or leave it” proposal for the Parliament and the Australian people. We do not agree. The Council’s proposal for an Indigenous representative assembly, or Voice, is new to the discussion about Constitutional change, and dismissed the extensive and valuable work done over the past decade – largely with bipartisan support.
Translation: how dare First Peoples take leadership of what directly affects them and put a proposal that directly includes them. Did they not get the memo? The symbolic recognition thing that First Peoples definitely did not prioritise has bipartisan mainstream political support, unlike the symbolic recognition thing that was tagged into the failed republic referendum and voted down under the mismanagement of Malcolm Turnbull.
We are confident that we can build on that work and develop Constitutional amendments that will unite our nation rather than establish a new national representative assembly open to some Australians only. The challenge remains to find a Constitutional amendment that will succeed, and which does not undermine the universal principles of unity, equality and “one person one vote”.
Translation: blather gargle bargle. More perceived existential threats. Non-binding advice from Indigenous people on legislation that affects Indigenous people would undermine democracy as we know it because we think it will.
We have listened to the arguments put forward by proponents of the Voice, and both understand and recognise the desire for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to have a greater say in their own affairs. We acknowledge the values and the aspirations which lie at the heart of the Uluru Statement. People who ask for a voice feel voiceless or feel like they’re not being heard. We remain committed to finding effective ways to develop stronger local voices and empowerment of local people.
Translation: we have not listened to the CONSENSUS put forward by the Referendum Council, but we have called its logic ‘arguments’, which shows we have not considered it carefully. Whatever, WE will tell YOU how you feel because who better to tell black people how they feel than colonial governments?
Our goal should be to see more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians serving in the House and the Senate – members of a Parliament which is elected by all Australians. The Government has written in response to Mr Shorten’s call for a Joint Select Committee, and have asked that the committee considers the recommendations of the existing bodies of work developed by the Expert Panel (2012), the Joint Select Committee on Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (2015) and the Referendum Council report (2017). The Coalition continues to aim to work in a bipartisan way to support Constitutional recognition.
Translation: you should have proposed something else which we also would have reserved the right to reject if it rose above mere symbolism. We will work with the other major political party on ensuring any meaningful change for Indigenous people is killed in committee or otherwise endlessly delayed and sapped of all meaning. A few white people will be given a platform to tell the rest of Australia what will or will not further reconciliation, whatever that is, we do not seem to have much of an Indigenous Affairs policy of which to speak.
Where to now?
It is largely forgotten that Congress put out the Redfern Statement, a comprehensive and widely-supported policy document, for the last election. So while the current government has no real Indigenous Affairs agenda, it could have.
Both Turnbull and Abbott, like Gillard and Rudd before them, continued the Howard era-conceived Northern Territory Intervention. The policy is a disaster and its worst features have been adapted and applied to other areas which large Aboriginal populations. In a coincidence much like the tone-deafness of rejecting the Uluru Statement on the Uluru handback anniversary, Turnbull travelled to Kalgoorlie to announce the imposition of cashless welfare the same week the community was commemorating Elijah Doughty one year after he was killed by a white vigilante.
Meanwhile, the Rudd-instigated ‘Closing the Gap’ Indigenous health and well-being policy has been kept on in name, but all its KPIs have stagnated or gone backwards under the Coalition.
It is strikingly obvious that as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have reconstituted and developed their structures and forged an increasingly unified voice through their own modes of consensus and respect, it is increasingly difficult for governments to stick to the same old approach. That same-old same-old is victim-blaming paternalism designed to disguise the vicious brutality of the colonial-settler state policies and practices chiefly characterised by mass incarceration and forced child removal.
Nevertheless, Turnbull and Scullion have valiantly continued in this vein. It is particularly galling that the same man who set back Republicanism for decades now presumes to divine – Scullion conceded both to Senate estimates and to Karvelas that the ‘Voice will fail’ claim is not founded on polling – that an Aboriginal-led proposition would fail at a referendum, and set ‘reconciliation’ back decades.