THE VOICE in NINE POINTS and a PREAMBLE
By Paul Smith
PREAMBLE – Addressed to serving military personnel and veterans
Reconciliation with former enemies ought to be prominent in the ethos of the Australian military – serving personnel and veterans alike. What greater example is there of such mutual generosity than the existence of Turkish subbranches of the RSL in NSW and Victoria? The very people Australians fought, in what most people once thought was the war that made Australia a nation, commemorated ANZAC Day with Australians in Korea and have done so, virtually ever since. Furthermore, veterans of the war in Vietnam know the warmth of genuine welcome whether visiting the south or the north of the now unified country. In fact, there is no former enemy on whose land Australians veterans are not welcome.
Every day in every part of Australia non-indigenous Australians are welcomed by Indigenous Australians to the land of its traditional owners. This is an offer of friendship that non-indigenous Australians can fully appreciate when we acknowledge that the first Australians’ 140-year struggle to defend their land was the first war that made us the people we are today – Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians alike.
The Australian War Memorial has acknowledged the Frontier Wars. At the same time, constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is at the forefront of nation’s agenda. As military veterans we are especially invested in the success of these two developments in our nation’s ever-changing understanding of itself. That is to say, we who went to war in support of an empire to preserve White Australia became a multicultural society that supports self-determination wherever it is possible in the world; and we who pride ourselves as being the kind of Australians who treat Indigenous people fairly must surely want all Indigenous people to be treated fairly by all other Australians.
Like the Turks, who we made the enemy by invading their land, Indigenous Australians are embracing their former enemy with extraordinary good will. What follows is a nine-point case for reciprocating that good will by supporting the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
1 A simple proposition
Will you recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution in the way they want to be included?
2 Why are we talking about recognition of Indigenous people in the Constitution?
To formally recognise the special status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the First Peoples of our nation. We must recognise the distinctiveness of Indigenous identity and culture and the right of Indigenous people to preserve that heritage.
The right time: see constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians: address to the Sydney Institute, Sydney. John Howard, 11 October 2007.
3 Isn’t The Voice just a lobby group?
The question is phrased to diminish the importance of lobby groups. It thereby brushes off the rationale for The Voice. But if lobby groups were not vital to the functioning of Australian Democracy they wouldn’t exist. How is it reasonable to question the legitimacy of The Voice as a lobby group, yet accept the legitimacy of other, powerfully organised, interest groups? Example of such groups are:
Australian Christian Lobby, Australian Coal Association, Minerals Council of Australia, National Association of Forest Industries, National Farmers’ Federation, Business Council of Australia, Australian Institute of Company Directors, Australian Beverage Council, Australian food and Grocery Council, Centre for Independent Studies, Institute of Public Affairs, the HR Nicholls Society.
All of these organisations advocate for the interests of specific (narrow) segments of Australian society in the expectation of achieving desired outcomes. The Voice is designed to do exactly that and more. The Voice is Indigenous Australians’ means of influencing policy development to address their actual needs and so close the gap.
The Voice is envisioned as more than just a lobby group. It is also intended as the platform for forging greater unity in diversity among all Indigenous people, taking account of dissenting voices in pursuing their own causes within their own communities, the better to inform those elected to advocate at the national level on behalf of Australians who have been explicitly excluded from the Colonial Project.
4 The Colonial Project! What’s that!?
The Clonial Project is the dispossession of Indigenous people from their land; the murder of 90% of their number; confining the survivors in ghettos; erasing their languages and cultures; denying them agency in every aspect of their lives; stealing their wages; fomenting and maintaining an attitude of contempt towards them as people, and much, much more. This has resulted in policy making, at all levels of government and non-government enterprise, that maintains and perpetuates the material conditions that originated in dispossession. Even when policy has intended to remedy those conditions it has always been on the basis of a non-indigenous understanding of those conditions. Effective policy cannot emerge from a false consciousness of a situation. Redressing this history requires an accurately informed consciousness of the situation and that can come only from Indigenous Australians.
5 Is The Voice fair to other minority groups in Australia?
Will other minority groups such as, say, Greek Australians, be entitled to similar constitutional recognition? Greek and all other non-indigenous Australians are participants in the colonial project which has served all of their interests by dispossessing and excluding Indigenous Australians. The constitution is the formal framework by which the colonial project operates as a nation state. The constitution continued explicitly to exclude Indigenous Australians. Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is not about privileging them with something that no one else has access to. It rectifies the exclusion of Indigenous Australians from the project of Australian nationhood.
6 How will The Voice be constituted and function?
In the lead up to the referendum the structure of The Voice will be widely publicised. As it is presently conceived, it will be in two parts: Local and Regional Voices (L&RV), and a National Voice. The L&RV will provide advice to all levels of government about what’s important in communities and in the region; work in partnership with all governments to make plans on how to meet community aspirations and deliver on local priorities; and provide local views to the National Voice where this informs national issues. The National Voice will be a national body made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that will provide advice to the Australian Parliament and Government on relevant laws, policies and programs; and will engage early on with the Australian Parliament and Government in the development of relevant policies and laws. More precise detail on how the two bodies will be established and operate will be determined by the Parliament.
7 Were there predecessors to the proposed Voice to Parliament?
The Australian constitution expressly excluded First Nations people from citizenship and the other benefits of Australian nationhood. The grudging and grossly inadequate provision that was made by governments and non-government organisations was explicitly regarded as welfare rather than inclusion in the project of Australian nationhood. From the outset, therefore, First Nations people sought redress of this Singular, Exceptional, Conspicuous, Bizarre Unfairness. In 1937 William Copper petitioned King George VI for representation in Parliament; The following year, the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, a Day of Mourning called for full citizen status and equality within the community. The right to vote was achieved by the early 1960s, and since 1967 First Nations people are counted in the census. In 1968 the Gorton government took the first tentative step towards dialogue with First Nation people by establishing the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. In 1973 the Whitlam government unequivocally endorsed First Nations participation in policy development by establishing the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee. Between 1976 and 2005, there were four further representative bodies – the National Aboriginal Congress, the National Aboriginal Conference, the Aboriginal Development Commission, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission – reflecting the varying priorities of successive governments which often conflicted with the growing confidence and assertiveness of First Nations people. In 2005 the Howard government abolished and did not replace the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
8 A nation of minorities
All non-indigenous Australians already have a voice to parliament by virtue of their participation in the Colonial Project, from which Indigenous people were excluded by their dispossession, and by the constitution which continued explicitly to exclude them from the project of Australian nationhood.
If non-indigenous Australians feel unrepresented it’s not because they don’t have access but because they haven’t adequately engaged with the institutions of representation.
Non-indigenous Australians will learn much about how to use their voice when a legislated and operational Indigenous Voice to Parliament impels a paradigm shift in the identification and resolution of First Nations entitlement within the project of Australian nationhood.
Inspired by First Nations leadership in effective (because patient and morally justifiable) self organisation, people who, in any numbers, recognise a shared unmet need, will engage with the nation and the Parliament in pursuit of a more just and sustainably diverse society, in contradistinction to the contest for undue advantage by lobby groups that is characteristic of the dynamics of the Colonial Project.
All will become beneficiaries of the principle and practice of self-determination, when Australians recognise that we are a nation of minorities and reject the false, colonial dichotomy of a non-indigenous majority and an indigenous minority.
9 First Among Equals in a nation of minorities
Indigenous people are not a minority in multicultural Australia, even if numerically few in relation to immigrants and their descendants. Indigenous culture is uniquely entitled to the role of First Among Equals in the project of Australian nationhood.
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