Voting on 'The Voice': Will it fight racist violence?
As the nation ramps up for a referendum on recognising First Nations people in the Constitution, its helpful to reflect on the past decade of the debate and consider what a Voice could really do.
When speaking to Aboriginal mob across the country, the campaign to entrench a “Voice” in the Constitution, is not often at the forefront of conversation. That’s not to deflect from the work done by many blackfellas who are supportive of the Voice, but it is to say that many First Nations people are instead fighting another battle: the waves of racist violence endemic from the frontier to the present. This violence is seen in the ‘justice’ system, the child protection system, the health system, the education system and many more arenas, including the workplace.
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Some would say though, it is not a separate battle, but rather the same war fought on different battlefields.
The drafting of the Australian constitution was built on erasure, exclusion and racism. The Constitution included a specific power called the ‘Race Power’, which allowed for Parliaments to discriminate on the base of a group based on race, although with the exception that it would not include the ‘Aboriginal natives’. Aboriginal people were not included in this because the states were to be responsible, not the Commonwealth. We were also not recognised as people. What happened after the historic 1967 referendum was not only the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be counted in the Census, but also for that last reference to Aboriginal peoples be removed, which paved the way for governments to make laws both for and against Aboriginal people, and specifically, for the Commonwealth to do so.
So the Constitution currently entrenches the right for Parliament to make racially discriminatory laws against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The only protection we have is the Racial Discrimination Act, which can be bypassed, and in fact has been three times - each time so that discriminatory laws could be passed against blackfellas. We really have no protection against racism in this country. In fact, that is how Australia wants it. Racial violence is how Australia was founded, and it is how the settler colony and its changing processes are maintained.
That’s why there have been prolonged calls by First Nations people and lawyers for constitutional change, prior to what become the long, drawn out process that has since characterised the campaign. The current debate around the ‘Voice’ can not be divorced from its history, not only from the past 15 something years, but prior, when there were repeated calls from First Nations people for constitutional change to remedy the devastating inequity fueled by racist violence in this country.
Through seeing the trajectory, you begin to see how the “Voice” is a compromise, and not an equal one. It is a compromise made by blackfellas who wanted to save the process from the repeated refusals of successive Australian governments - both Labor and Liberal, as well as the mainstream media as a whole. In doing that, many blackfellas also felt alienated from the process around the Voice. I want to re-shift the reason for that from the architects of the Voice, back onto who was really responsible: Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, John Howard, Malcolm Turnbull and so many others who have had a hand to play, including those in the media who are suddenly championing the Voice with no interrogation of their own complicity in the alienation of blackfellas from the movement.
The proposal for recognition which has led to the present day debate began with an eleventh hour commitment by Prime Minister John Howard, who as facing electoral demolition by the incoming ‘Me Too’ Kevin Rudd, vowed to hold a Referendum on ‘recognition’, in the form of a fluffy preamble. This was the same Howard who presided over the destruction of ATSIC, our last formidable national representative black body, and during his twelve years paved the way for the neo-liberalisation of Indigenous policy. His ‘commitment’ was nothing more than an insult to Aboriginal Australia.
Nevertheless, the new Prime Minister Rudd announced his commitment to constitutional reform, albeit only for preambular recognition, seen as symbolic and the weakest ‘reform’. After ousting him, new Prime Minister Julia Gillard tasked an expert panel of Indigenous and non-Indigenous experts to consult with blackfellas in determining the best way forward for the process. That expert panel handed its report down in January 2012, moving away from a preamble to directly addressing the racist provisions in the Constitution. It recommended repealing the race power, inserting a new head of power which would prohibit federal, state and territory governments from discriminating on the grounds of race, while also still allowing it to make laws for the purpose of overcoming disadvantage or “ameliorating the effects of past discrimination”.
There was still questions around the expert panels’ recommendations, but immediately - literally on the day it was released - that momentum was starved of oxygen. A couple of years ago, I completed a small discourse analysis of the day the expert panel was released, and the mainstream media reporting. On that day, the two front pages of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian both reported on different outcomes in their ‘straight’ news reports. While the Sydney Morning Herald suggested a referendum was ‘certain to proceed’, the Australian claimed it faced ‘certain defeat’. These two vastly different outcomes were characteristic of the muddled mainstream media reporting which has marked the entire constitutional reform debate, and which is always centered on the concessions of the non-Indigenous populace, rather than the wishes of blackfellas themselves. Nevertheless, I also found that the Australian in particular had been complicit in the stagnation of the process, by immediately centring the viewpoints of then Opposition leader Tony Abbott, who claimed the recommendations would lead to a “one clause bill of rights”. Abbott’s opposition framed news stories, and white politicians were quoted over above even the Indigenous members of the expert panel. The ALP and Coalition never fully responded to the expert panel’s recommendations.
Instead, the ALP funded a disastrous multi-million dollar smoke and mirrors campaign called ‘Recognise’, which alienated so many blackfellas by stifling our voices, and claiming we were all supportive of a question that had not even been formulated yet. The media during the Recognise era never interrogated the campaign, and the sizeable black opposition to it. Instead, they spoke of the issue only in relation to the timeline around a Referendum, as if this was a horserace, and not on the very valid questioning of Black Witnesses.
Attempts to bring back the process was always centered on getting whitefellas on board, and most notably, conservatives on board, if you consider Noel Pearson’s model that preceded the Voice consultations. In 2015, an exclusive ‘talkfest’ at Kirribilli hosted by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten further alienated mob - including Pearson himself. The Kirribilli meeting, which invited 40 blackfellas but excluded many, including the largest black representative body in the country - the NSW Aboriginal Land Council - was widely considered a ‘farce’ by blackfellas. Even Noel Pearson, who was an invitee, spoke out against it at the time. He gave an interview to 98.9 FM’s Tiga Bayles, saying the process was stage-managed and pre-determined before the meeting took place. It produced a ‘Referendum Council”, with no further detail about what it would look like.
"It’s quite astounding. I’ve been on the edges of this kind of political process for a couple of decades now,” Pearson said. “I’m quite used to how governments manage events and so on, but the processes now are very sophisticated, this is the way public policy is done. You give people opportunity to vent, say their bit, and then your team at the backroom have already drafted the press release and the parameters of what you’re going to announce are already predetermined. And also you wonder why this group of people, why you’ve invited them at all, except for them to legitimise what you’ve pre-determined.”
The reason I bring up Pearson is because this is a man who has cultivated an image which gave him unprecedented influence over those in power, and yet even he was astounded at how far the process had been taken away from blackfellas.
So when the Referendum Council began doing undertaking its talks, which culminated in Uluru, it was an attempt to bring back the issue of constitutional reform back to those who should be driving it: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And that’s why we have the proposal for the Voice. Immediately, the Voice was hindered by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who rejected it. Because of this rejection, and the lies that Turnbull and his like spread, blackfellas were again alienated from the process by the need to ‘sell’ it to wider Australia - the people who will be voting on it. Unfortunately, the road to constitutional recognition has always been centered on white aspirations, at the expense of black ones.
Now, this isn’t ancient history, and yet I feel in this debate, what proceeded Uluru is often completely forgotten. The entire process was ripped away from blackfellas so that now, when mob exercise a politics of refusal to the referendum process, and the ‘Voice’, it is seen as ‘irrational’ or ‘misconceived’. But there is a reason why it exists, and I don’t think that should be forgotten. Throughout this entire debate, blackfellas have wondered what a Voice would look like and how it would affect their fight on the everyday. They have wondered about the racist rhetoric that could be amplified by a referendum, and particularly one that is unsuccessful.
There are legal arguments around why the removal of a Race Power could be detrimental to blackfellas, especially on how it would affect Native Title or culture and heritage laws. But I want to bring the issue of racism and racial violence back to the forefront. As the momentum towards the referendum continues, I suggest we should be asking what are is the potential for a Voice in fighting the racial violence of the state? Given we have such limited protection, could it be a mechanism in which we use to fight? The Voice does not eliminate racism from the constitution, but could it be just one, small protection?
Our last national representative body - the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples - was hindered from the very beginning by a lack of funding from Labor. It was always vulnerable and eventually died. I would never vote against the idea of another black representative body but I wonder, if it is to happen, how we use it to fight the ongoing fight?
I say this knowing that the Constitution will never not be racist, just as Australia as it stands will never not be racist: it is a settler-colony whose every process is built upon white supremacy - the processes change and shift, but they still work towards the fundamental goal of the settler-colonialism, which is the elimination of Aboriginal people from Aboriginal lands. It is the founding document of the colony. We know that the fight against racism only attracts white support when they do not have to concede to much, when the fight does not impede on their interests. I don’t think Constitutional Reform could ever be the balm to solve that, and yet potentially a Voice, could provide us with one weapon, if we can figure out the best way to use it.
And to end on sovereignty, which is still at the heart of every single community today. We have never ceded our sovereignty and sovereignty will continue to exist regardless of how you define it, or regardless of any change to the Constitution. The struggle is, how do we continue to enact this in our every day living, and in our every day resistance, knowing that any government-led process will always want sovereignty to remain unspeakable, and silenced. We can continue to raise sovereignty above any Voice, because in every community in this country, we are not just one voice, but many voices, from the babies, to the elders, to the ancestors. Our embodied sovereignty reminds me what we are fighting for.
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Beware the prognostications of demographers. However, the number of Indigenous people is going from strength to strength, and this will manifest itself at the ballot box and political power. Already, more than 7% of babies born in Australia have Indigenous ancestry. During the intercensal years 2016-2021 the Indigenous population of Victoria was doubling every 11 years, and that of Australia every 15 years. This prodigious rate of increase is unsustainable, but it seems certain that most babies born in Australia this year will live to see an Indigenous population exceeding 10,000,000.
(From my settler-perspective) Wonderful article Amy. Though I'm sure you don't claim to speak for everyone, it looks like many will feel seen and heard by your article.