The Voice: a risk we have to take

For all its good signs, the passage of the government’s climate bill in Canberra last week was not the most propitious development last week; we should hold the applause for that until the Senate has its say. This is instead about another promising event – Anthony Albanese’s Garma speech.

The battle-lines have already been drawn over the PM’s ideas for a referendum to enshrine in the Constitution an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. He proposes a three-part question identifying the Voice, outlining its role, and emphasising Parliament’s power to make laws about it.

On Monday, as Senate President Sue Lines asked senators to recognise traditional custodians of Canberra land, Pauline Hanson called out “No I won’t and never will” before leaving the chamber. A furious Hanson later told the Senate that the prime minister was deliberately stoking racial division and the Voice would be “Australia’s version of apartheid”.

Warlpiri woman Jacinta Price, new Coalition senator for the Northern Territory and daughter of former Territory politician Bess Price, asked how the proposed Voice “will deliver practical outcomes and unite rather than drive a wedge further between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.”

A day later, former prime minister Tony Abbott argued in The Australian that the Voice would be a “race-based body” resulting in “a country that’s more divided and less well governed. The referendum campaign, he said, “will seek to exploit guilt about the past to overcome anxieties about the future”. 

Anthony Albanese recognised that “misinformation and fear” will be present in the campaign, but enshrining a Voice in the Constitution would be a national achievement that would be “above politics”. The referendum question, he told the Garma gathering, will be “from the heart”: “We recognise the risks of failure but we choose not to dwell on them – because we see this referendum as a magnificent opportunity for Australia.”

This is as exceptional as it gets in politics, both the place – Gulkula, a ceremonial site in a eucalypt forest near the Carpentaria coast – and the challenge, that once and for all we face squarely the running sore at the heart of our nation.

But it will take something exceptional to counter the voices being raised against empowering Indigenous Australians. Those voices are redefining concepts that for decades we took for granted. “Apartheid” and “racism” were once words used to attack oppressive policies, usually against black minorities. Now they’re used against policies seeking to empower such minorities. 

A quarter of a century ago we saw much the same resentment being expressed in the 1990s at the High Court’s Mabo and Wik judgements. Then, as now, an Indigenous minority was supposedly being favoured at the expense of generations of landowners allegedly threatened with losing their right to the land they thought they owned. 

Native title remains a hugely complex legal issue involving multiple jurisdictions and the interactions of Indigenous groups with numerous other users including miners, pastoralists and even town and city administrations. Nobody said it would be easy, but for all the hullabaloo at the time, where are all those non-Indigenous victims?

The idea of the Voice and the power of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart from which it first emerged are a world away from the sovereignty of law, the European concept on which modern Australia was founded and which continues to shape the way we manage things. 

Anthony Albanese and his government have decided that all Australians should vote on a proposal that marries these strikingly different concepts such that they will enhance and strengthen each other.

Allowing barely two years to work the marriage out, the PM seeks to end centuries of argument about the place – even the existence – of the first Australians. The proposal for a Voice is truly radical – in the literal meaning of the word, not extreme but fundamental – and demands a lot of Australians. 

The tradition of parliamentary democracy that the British brought to this country, a tradition that grew over centuries in lands far removed from Australia, is as important to me as I believe it is to Tony Abbott. It evolved in Britain, but so too is it now evolving here, taking on its own Australian identity.

It will be a big step in that evolution when our constitution recognises the unique voice of our land’s first peoples, for so long left unheard. This is not without risk. Even after it is further filled out it will remain for many something of a leap in the dark. But it’s a leap we have to take. And as the PM said, “If not now, when?”

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