Recognition of Indigenous people in the Constitution was first promised by John Howard just before the 2007 election and there has been bipartisan agreement ever since that something should be done. But what exactly?
Howard’s instinct was to include in the preamble a recognition of prior occupation and of the importance of Indigenous culture and languages. Neither Kevin Rudd nor Julia Gillard really took it forward. Tony Abbott’s inclination in opposition and later as PM was to include in the preamble the characterisation of our country as having “an Indigenous heritage, a British foundation and an immigrant character” because it was true, he thought, so it should be uncontentious and had something in there that every Australian could own while not drafted to divide. …
But Abbott’s plan for a nationwide consultation process was narrowed down under [Malcolm Turnbull] to a consultation that was really just with Aboriginal people; and that culminated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, with its call for a constitutionally entrenched, separate, Indigenous voice to the parliament.
For key Indigenous leaders, it wasn’t enough any more simply to be recognised in the Constitution and to have the oversight of our constitutional founders finally corrected; it had to mean specifically creating for Indigenous people a new organ in our system of government, via a distinct body to advise parliament on all the legislation affecting them.
For as Noel Pearson saw it, with less than 5 per cent of the population Indigenous, it would never be enough just to elect more Indigenous people into the parliament itself, where their voices could be drowned out; it had to be a constitutionally entrenched separate Indigenous entity that the parliament was required to take seriously.
As prime minister, even Turnbull rejected this as doomed to fail, saying it would amount to a third chamber of the parliament reserved for just one group of Australians. On this we agree. But that hasn’t stopped the pressure building since 2017 with the main argument — at least among most Indigenous leaders — being whether the voice had to be constitutionally entrenched from the get-go or could start off merely as a legislated body and become part of the Constitution later once people were familiar with it.
But there are massive question marks over legislating the voice.
First, it’s a re-run of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the legislatively entrenched elected Indigenous body, scrapped in 2005 for corruption, nepotism and inefficiency.
Second, it’s enshrining identity politics in our governance by giving people an extra vote and a bigger say over legislation on the basis of race — just when we’d all finally accepted that people should be judged on the content of their character, not the colour of their skin. [Not any more Peta. That’s been overturned. BLM!]
Third and most important, it is fundamentally wrong to “backdoor” something by legislation to avoid voters’ likely opposition at a referendum. Yet that’s the proponents’ argument for legislation: that a referendum would fail, therefore it needs to be done by a wink and a nod through the parliament. …
Yes, this racist measure would fail at a referendum. So why do it? Haven’t we learned anything from the failure of multiracial societies around the world, when politicians exploit racial differences in group outcomes or just grab more stuff for their tribe?
What demonstrates our equality best: an Indigenous MP elected by voters from all backgrounds, making good laws for everyone; or a new body, where those elected and those who vote for them are qualified by race alone?
Color blindness, equality of opportunity for individuals, and de-emphasizing groups is the only formula that has ever worked. It’s not exactly a new or hidden truth: