The Voice - Remember recognition?

As we approach October 14 the Voice referendum, the campaign is hotting up with Australians being hounded through emails and phone calls and SMSs to vote a particular way.

The problem is – this being a referendum and not the ordinary election, an email or phone call cannot do justice to what is at stake and thus may prove fruitless in the end.

The idea to recognize Indigenous people in our constitution has now been tied to a body – the Voice – to be enshrined in the constitution; which should have been a 2 separate steps process.

Recognition of Indigenous people should have happened a long time ago – even before the 2008 symbolic apology. Our Indigenous people were the first inhabitants of this land and it must be recognised in our constitution and we all should respect Australia’s Indigenous heritage.

The questions though is – is the Voice the only way and the right way to do that?

Before we examine that, it is important to note that there are three facts beyond debate:

– recognition of Indigenous people in our constitution is the minimum we can do;

– that many Indigenous people would have been victims of colonization of this continent; and thus,

– their claims for compensation[1] are worthy of attention for redressal, going forward.

On behalf of those victims, let us call it the first ‘wrong’ in Australia’s history.

And the Voice, in my view, will be the second ‘wrong.’

As they say two wrongs do not make one right, we should remedy the first wrong, not descend to commit the second wrong.

I have read all 26 pages of Uluru Statement and can tell you it is NOT about taking care of our First Nation people; it is not even about their ‘recognition’, rather – it is about sovereignty never ceded; it is about ‘non-justiciable’ power.

In its 2017 final report, the government-appointed Referendum Council recommended that the Voice amendment must be non-justiciable – beyond adjudication of any court.

And perhaps what should shock all Australians is that the constitutionally guaranteed First Nations Voice – in its scope and shape – could turn out to be non-justiciable.

I shudder to think: Is Australia descending into reverse apartheid – that shuts the door of justice on non-Indigenous people?

At least, Australia’s internationally acclaimed Human Rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson allows for ‘equality before law for all Australians’, when he argues around the legal risks of establishing the Voice in his piece he wrote for the Yes camp.

Clearly, there is potential of legal deadlocks and logjam of constitutional functionality.

His argument confirms my fears when he suggests that the Voice should not be considered “legally risky”, because it will be entrusted to a robust High Court.

If there were any details on how the Voice would work to give advice and what would be incumbent on the recipient (Parliament or Government body) of that advice, at least some of the uncertainty could be remedied.

We are being asked to vote on an imaginary framework, without coded details of its composition and functional brief, and our future may depend on the whims and fancies of the officeholder of the time.

They say the devil is in the detail…

In this case, even the devil is missing, a fact which warrants NO vote on October 14.

The effort so far:
We cannot deny that efforts have been made, starting from as far back as 1837 when a British Select Committee examined the treatment of Indigenous people and recommended that ‘Protectors of Aborigines‘ be appointed in Australia.

In the next 130 years many initiatives were undertaken for arguably the welfare of our Indigenous people.

Then there was the 1967 historic referendum with only non-Indigenous people voting. It was a resounding success – more than 90 per cent voted YES, to include Indigenous Australians in the Census and unite the whole of Australia.

Between 1967 Referendum and 2008 Apology, without going into details, various measures have been taken by governments of all persuasions, aimed at closing the gap and improving the lives of Indigenous Australians.

This whole body of work was done by successive governments, including the 2010 Constitutional Recognition process consultation, resulting in the self-ceasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act 2013, without there being any constitutional body like the proposed Voice.

The Act had a Preamble saying the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were the first inhabitants of Australia.

Recognition of Indigenous people in Australian constitution is long overdue and should have happened many decades ago.

But the 2017 Uluru Statement manoeuvred the call for recognition into a requirement of constitutional body – the Voice, parallel to the full-fledged advisory frameworks we already have and working to help improve the fortunes of our Indigenous people, running programs to close the gap.

It is public record that the proposed Voice will work with and NOT replace (not even a part of) the existing frameworks, thus adding another layer of bureaucracy and its ongoing, permanent cost to the taxpayer.

Current structures advocating for our Indigenous people:

Indigenous politicians
We have had Indigenous politicians adorning the parliament in Canberra since 1971, within 4 years of recognising them as Australians.

We have 11 Indigenous members in the current parliament of Australia.

Overall, since 1967, there have been (including the current members) not less than 97 successful politicians which includes 8 members who have claimed Indigenous heritage but are not ordinarily known as Aboriginal politicians.

On current numbers, 3.7% (980,000 2021 Census) our Indigenous Australians have 15 of 151 or 9.9% members of parliament in Canberra alone.

In addition, we have:

The department or
the National Indigenous Australians Agency is the federal government department with regional centres in the country. In 2021 it had 1286 staff, of which 300 identified as indigenous. It has 39 commercial offices and has a presence in 12 remote communities.
We also have, which connects Aboriginal people Australia wide at least 74 Indigenous communities.

Federal Ministry – Aboriginal Affairs
We have a full federal minister and staff including advisors with full perks to take care of our Indigenous people.

State Level ministers and infrastructure
We also have ministers and departments to take care of all issues relating to the needs of our Indigenous people at the state level.

These are layers of bureaucracy with government employed professionals, intellectuals advising the governments at all levels on indigenous affairs.

To put simply, serving our Indigenous people we already have:

1. members of parliaments representing them;
2. ministers in the portfolio engaged to look after them and serve them; and
3. advisors advising the governments and the departments and agencies implementing the programs aimed at helping and serving them.

the advice as ‘input’ is live and present at all the above three levels of government administration in all states and territories in Australia.

Why are these arms being seen as incapable and if so, why should they not be abolished, first?

The now abolished body, like the proposed Voice, created for and run by Indigenous people – was the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). It was created in 1990 and abolished in 2005.

I believe most of you reading this piece would be familiar with ATSIC and the reasons for its demise.

Despite having a budget of more than one billion dollars a year, it failed to deliver and improve conditions for indigenous Australians.

And because it was not enshrined in the constitution, the Howard government could put an end to this waste of resource and abolished it.

But once established, if the Voice also fails to deliver, there seems to be no mechanism to call out the waste and put a stop to it.

Clearly the problem is – abundance of advice, not the lack of it, with a myriad of advisers on Indigenous affairs.

Thus, looking at the brief for the Voice, one could be tempted to ask – are there too many specialised eager advisors, finding no outlet, looking to create a new one, by duplicating the requirement for it?

We all believe not enough has been done to close the gap and all we need to look at are two pertinent areas

1. existing Indigenous programs incorporating current advice; and
2. the personnel / advisors.

To find answers, we need to look at the functions of the NIAA / the Indigenous affairs department – which, in many ways, I believe, is the current ‘Voice.’

The Executive Order of the Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Ret’d) dated 31 may 2019 establishing the NIAA listed its functions as below.

i. to lead and coordinate Commonwealth policy development, program design and implementation and service delivery for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people;

ii. to provide advice to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Indigenous Australians on whole-of-government priorities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people;

iii. to lead and coordinate the development and implementation of Australia’s Closing the Gap targets in partnership with Indigenous Australians;

iv. to lead Commonwealth activities to promote reconciliation;

v. to build and maintain effective partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, state and territory governments and other relevant stakeholders to inform whole-of-government priorities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and enable policies, programs and services to be tailored to the unique needs of communities;

vi. to design, consult on and coordinate the delivery of community development employment projects;

vii. to analyse and monitor the effectiveness of programs and services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including programs and services delivered by bodies other than the Agency;

viii. to coordinate Indigenous portfolio agencies and advance a whole-of-government approach to improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; and

ix. to undertake other tasks the Prime Minister and the Minister require from time to time.

The above says it all and covers everything possible.

To identify the waste and unyielding programs, and to resolve and remedy the ‘imperfections’, we need to ask the following two questions of the Yes camp:

Question 1: Why can’t we simply amend the ways NIAA works rather than having an extra house like the Voice and add extra cost and complexity to how government must function in relation to Aboriginal affairs?

Question 2: Why can’t we simply replace any current, non-productive staff/advisors with the best ones from the pool of Yes Campaign advisors / leaders?

Clearly, we are NOT dealing with the recognition of Indigenous people in our constitution, which is what this referendum should have been about.

And we rightly wonder if this Uluru Statement is really a document to recognise Indigenous Australians, to help lift their lot and close the gap.

Looking at the bottom half of the page one Statement, it seems more like a cleverly designed quest for unfettered and ‘non-justiciable’ power by the Indigenous elite, manoeuvring the Yes campaign.

It is not surprising to see Yes protagonists getting irate when quizzed about details.

That technique is no less than intellectual and emotional blackmail in many ways. They at times, carrying an air of exclusionary entitlement, suggest all non-indigenous Australians are somehow guilty of base racism and do not have the right to ask any questions.

Also read: The Voice will divide Australia to be ruled by TWO powers – the Voice and the Commonwealth

That is exactly where the problem lies.

It is not disputed that wrongs have been committed in the past.

It also cannot be disputed that redressal of those wrongs should be part of the solution to close the gap.

But the question is – whether what is being proposed is the best way forward.

It should be common sense and beyond reproach to compare what we have in place with what is being proposed to see if the proposed change is necessary.

It is also imperative to do the cost benefit analysis of the measures to be undertaken, including consequential economic liabilities on future generations of Australians as a result of treaties[2], compensations and reparations[3] demanded by the head honchos of the Yes camp.

It should have been the government and the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese as its head, who is the prime custodian of taxpayers’ money, to order a detailed analysis as above (and perhaps even wider) before committing to implement the Statement in full.

Sadly, the noble sentiment of recognition of Indigenous people in the Australian constitution has been contemptuously politicised, beyond repair by tying it to the establishment of the Voice.

My Choice - The Voice
My Choice – Recognition – YES , The Voice – NO

As an Australian, who believes in the fair-go and in an Australia, which has Indigenous heritage, British foundation, and immigrant character, I passionately support recognition of Indigenous people in the Australian constitution. But I equally oppose the establishment of the Voice for its ‘ills’.

Why have I been denied this choice in the Referendum?

If opinion polls are any indication, Australians, and Australian Indians, except those with some aspirations, are more likely to vote NO.

Thus, it would not be erroneous to say that on one view, Prime Minister Albanese has done the Yes Camp a huge disservice by proceeding with the referendum in the fashion he has.

Well ahead of fixing the date of voting, it would have been prudent for Albanese government to release the details Australians are still seeking and thereby ensuring recognition of our Indigenous people.

If the Yes camp loses on October 14, all those Australians genuinely wanting to recognise Indigenous people in our constitution will be internationally painted as ‘racists’.

And we should know who to blame.

[1] BROOME DIALOGUE, 10-12 February 2017  (Referendum Council)

[2] BROOME DIALOGUE, 10-12 February 2017 (Referendum Council)

[3] BROOME DIALOGUE, 10-12 February 2017 (Referendum Council)

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