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First Among Equals: The Voice


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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  1. Roswell

    Fabulous, Paul. So well written and packed tight with interesting points.

  2. Phil Pryor

    Courageous cultural heroic leaders, e g., Whitlam, faced up to challenges, a vision of an imaginable, achievable future. Rectum renter Howard avoided all honesty because a long list of filth from donors and patrons, and advisors and superior hidden framers came first, all to allow the little swine a spot in the books, all desired to be noticed, as warts usually are not. Whtlam to Howard is as the Rockies to a fractured pebble. Can we as a nation, divided, confused, become what we must become? BETTER.

  3. Michael Taylor

    There is so much here I can relate to. It’s all spot-on.

    Having spent years working in Aboriginal communities I doubt I’d ever met a First Nations person who’d disagree with what Paul has written.

  4. New England Cocky

    Paul Smith @ #7: I think you have overlooked the history of how & why Aboriginals were excluded from the Australian Constitution during the Australasian Constitution Conventions of the 1890s.

    The principal advocate AGAINST aboriginal franchise was the Beechworth Victorian lawyer, Isaac Isaacs who was a committed eugenics supporter. Remember South Australia had granted the franchise to both Aboriginals and European women in 1892, so Isaacs advocated disenfranchising both male & female Aborigines for reasons associated with eugenic principles of racial inferiority.

    After 1901 a South Australian Aboriginal person appealed to the High Court of Australia where Isaacs J, sitting as judge alone, dismissed that appeal and so facilitated the subsequent decades of state sponsored genocide and administrative abuse. Isaacs went on to become Chief Justice Isaacs.

    Naturally Little Johnnie Howard disbanded ATSIC in 2005 because he was a blatant racist who instituted the Black Armband attack on credible academic historical evidence because it demonstrated that his (Howard’s) view of White Supremacy was badly flawed.

  5. Lambchop Simnel

    New England Cocky.

    Comment of the week.

  6. Wam

    A very important read, Paul, After listening to the lying rodent slime his way out of recognising ‘the stolen generation’ I wrote “How ‘ard is it to say sorry’ and now
    How ‘ard is it to finally bury Terra Nullius by a simple addition to the constitution. As NEC wrote our first Aussie born GG, not only had your normal special beliefs of Aborigines as unable to complete Australian primary education beyond year 3 (a standard still active today in the NTCET and SACE) but do not give throw-backs, like Africans, so will die out in 3 generations under assimilation, but had the ability to apply those beliefs in law and in politics. Sadly, it seems so many people are frightened that Aboriginal people will get something not available to them. They can ignore the facts that parliament has made laws that affect Aborigines, as a single group, without opt in/out provisions. A voice will acknowledge the existence of Aboriginal occupancy of Australia before Cook and establish Aboriginal input to parliamentary decisions affecting them. How ‘ard is that Littleproud?

  7. New England Cocky

    @ Paul Smith: re Isaac Isaacs as Governor General. This was new information. Wikipedia advises Isaacs was GG between 1931 and 1936, thanks to nomination by James Scullin (ALP).

    The interesting irony of the Isaacs matter is that he was Jewish. Considering that in the 1890s the Zionist Movement was forming in Europe, and the subsequent horrors of Germany 1933 to 1945, the ”racial inferiorty” argument takes on a different hue.

  8. Michael Taylor

    NEC, I remember when Howard shut down ATSIC: I was with ATSIC at the time.

    He’d been trying for years to shut us down, and he would have if not for one person: Phil Ruddock. We were in Ruddock’s portfolio so he had his finger on the pulse and respected what ATSIC was doing. Going into bat for us was about the only good thing he did in his political life.

    Howard was a prick. Across the nation he had hundreds of great policy makers in ATSIC, but he would make decisions based on what he read in editorials in The Australian.

  9. LambsFry Simplex.

    The Header says it all. (Inclusive)
    First among equals, not the sort of irrational stuff coming from the Right about letting the Indigenes have control of “our” lives. The Right must be really pitching to the Alzheimer’s generation with their witless “bogy” stuff.

  10. New England Cocky

    @MT: Ruddock had a second epiphany when he prevented Family Court lawyers from accusing spouses of child abuse without any evidence, usually within three days of the custody hearing. Thanks to the Ruddock Reforms, the accusing parent had to actively demonstrate any alleged child abuse, or run the very real risk of losing all custody of the child(ren).

  11. New England Cocky

    @ Paul Smith: There is very little literature about Isaac Isaacs or that other Jewish GG Zelman Cohen, also once VC of UNE then later UQ. Similar Sir John Monash, arguably the most successful military leader of WWI is overlooked. Something about English publishers being disinterested in successful Jewish achievers.

  12. Michael Taylor

    Mr Isaacs was born just down the road from me. As you enter the little town there is a sign saying that it was his birthplace.

    Not something I’d be bragging about, me thinks.

  13. Wam

    It is not hard to label Jews as racist because they are white!
    eg Ashkinazi (interesting last 4?) jews have a list of people on which to practice prejudice, not, as reported, just the African jews and Palestinians.
    Rabbi Gil Steinlauf suggests racism is so important: “After decades of fighting to be white, let’s teach our children the fact that we are not white but simply Jewish”

  14. Paul Smith

    Wam; Sadly, it seems so many people are frightened that Aboriginal people will get something not available to them.
    PS: Yes, as though pensions, for example, are available to anyone under 65 who asks for one.

    NEC: The interesting irony of the Isaacs matter is that he was Jewish.
    PS: The equivalent in our own times: Blacks channeling the Colonial Project.

    Michael Taylor: [Howard] would have [shut us down] if not for one person: Phil Ruddock.
    PS: Ruddock had such a good reputation. Then he somehow became the cutting edge of Howard’s asylum seeker wedge.

    LambFry Simplex: …irrational stuff coming from the Right about letting the Indigenes have control of “our” lives.
    PS: Yes, like reclaiming our back yards because they’re sacred sites.

    NEC: … Something about English publishers being disinterested in successful Jewish achievers.
    PS: You touch a nerve, not by the substance of what you say but your use of the word “disinterested”. I know it is now used as though it means “uninterested”. But I am compelled, as though under the influence of past hypnosis, to say every time I hear it use that way, that by doing so we are losing the ability to say in one word: standing aside from one’s personal interests and making a decision in the interests of the common good. Thus endeth the lesson. Sorry – I can’t help myself.

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