Pushing the Voice in 1.3 million square kilometres

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Is she going to do herself out of a job by promoting the Voice?

Three of the Territory’s four Members in the national Parliament are Aboriginal. Are they not the voice to the government that is available to everyone, including of course to Indigenous people?

What more could the formulators of the Uluru Statement from the Heart possibly be wishing for?

That, in a nutshell, was what we put to Marion Scrymgour, Federal Member for the huge electorate of Lingiari, all of the Northern Territory except Darwin.

The Labor politician leaves no doubt that she is firmly committed to the Voice and the referendum to decide whether it should or should not be brought in.

But she has no illusions that there are lots of issues yet to be dealt with.

Ms Scrymgour spoke with Alice Springs News editor ERWIN CHLANDA.

NEWS: You are our voice to parliament. Do you regard the call for a new Voice as an expression of dissatisfaction with what you are doing as a parliamentarian?

SCRYMGOUR: Absolutely not. I see this process as an absolutely separate process. I see it as a privilege, representing an electorate which is diverse.

NEWS: How is it linked?

SCRYMGOUR: It is not linked because parliamentarians … our representation should be completely seperate from the Voice. They would advise the government in terms of policy and position.

NEWS: You advise the government as well, don’t you?

SCRYMGOUR: Only about my seat of Lingiari. I don’t speak for people in Sydney or anywhere else. There are a number of things here. There is the constitutional referendum, allowing Aboriginal people to be a part of the Australian constitution. Part of that is enshrining a voice to the Parliament [from] a group representative of the nation [advising on] policy issues.

NEWS: Should these two issues be separate, the voice to Parliament, which is shaping up as a contentious issue, and the recognition in the Constitution that Aboriginal people are Australia’s first inhabitants, which is far less controversial?

SCRYMGOUR: We need to have a discussion on all of it, Voice, treaty and truth. More information needs to go out to the community. I don’t think that process would take over or supersede my role. It’s a completely separate process.

NEWS: Do you think the voting public would be mostly in favour of recognition but less so of the Voice?

SCRYMGOUR: You can’t vote on recognition without looking at these other parts. [It is] the whole point of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This process should not be owned by politicians but by the general public. All of us need to ensure that we put the right information out to everybody, not misleading information. In fact very little information has been put out.

NEWS: Do you see that as a problem?

SCRYMGOUR: There is a working group that is sifting through all the information. This action started with the former Coalition Government. [The question is] how do we put this out so that the general Australian public can understand just what that journey is.

NEWS: It seems the Voice will be a small group of Indigenous people. Much of what they will be dealing with is going to be the use of land. Is it true that to speak about someone else’s land is strictly prohibited in Aboriginal tradition?

SCRYMGOUR: I suppose for all of us who are elected into Parliament we get the validation to stand up and represent everybody within our electorates.

NEWS: Who gives you that validation?

SCRYMGOUR: The community that elects me. I don’t know what this will mean for other places. I am interested what this will mean to the Northern Territory.

NEWS: Given the dozens of Indigenous nations in Australia, how can land issues be handled appropriately? Currently there are reservations by local Arrernte people about possibly sacred images from elsewhere being displayed in the proposed national Aboriginal art gallery in Alice Springs. Is the Voice going to throw up similar problems?

SCRYMGOUR: The national art gallery is a major issue. There has been a lot of discussion with the native title holders. I’ve had discussions with Doris Stuart and her family and other Mparntwe native title holders. There are some who are against it and there are many who are for it. If a majority have a meeting and they say we agree with this then any dispute within that group needs to be dealt with, not by politicians but by the body that represents those traditional owners.

NEWS: Projecting Alice Springs problems into the national arena, what would be the function of the Voice? How can a handful of people represent dozens of nations across Australia?

SCRYMGOUR: We’ve got to have an honest conversation. It’s got to be transparent. It’s got to be honest, [not] putting the scaremongering and the fear in people. I know people say it will just be more bureaucratic red tape. But how do we know when people don’t know what the model is? That’s coming early in the new year. We may need to run a poll. It needs to be confidential and de-identified. It’s all part of our democracy. If people aren’t happy about this … that would then be their choice. At the markets on Sunday people come up and they say that they are supportive of the Voice but they want information. That’s just something we’ve got to work through.

NEWS: Just 74% of voting age Indigenous people in the NT are enrolled. The all Australian figure is 97%. Last election Lingiari’s turnout by Aboriginal people was 67%, according to the ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Research. This was the lowest of any electorate in the nation, and significantly down from the rate of 72.85% reported for Lingiari in the 2019 federal election. On these figures just half of Aboriginal people in Lingiari voted. Do they give a hoot about politics? Is there a need for another voice and the public expenditure connected with it?

SCRYMGOUR: People have switched off, walked away. Integrity and transparency haven’t been forthcoming in politics. The trust in politicians has eroded, not just in the bush but also places like rural Darwin and some urban centres.

NEWS: Given that interest in politics is diminishing, why burden them with another political institution, the Voice?

SCRYMGOUR: People died to allow us to have a democracy. That’s something that I often say to Aboriginal people. They too have fought for it. I have spoken out about the resourcing of the Electoral Commission. We had nearly 11 positions removed in the NT. That is not good. We should be able to vote without fear or favour, and political interference.

NEWS: Apart from the reduction of staff, what other political interference is taking place?

SCRYMGOUR: I look at Lingiari. 195 booths. Getting the resources and people who understand what it needs. Having people who can speak the language to work alongside the electoral staff. These are things that are missing at the moment.

NEWS: Tourism, mining, construction have representative bodies, as well as the Chamber of Commerce, lobbying for their members. They pay membership fees. There are dozens of Aboriginal organisations. Why can’t these be the Voice?

SCRYMGOUR: I think many of these organisations have a set tasks. For instance Congress here in Alice Springs is a community controlled health organisation. Many of these organisations, through the Voice process, may decide who is a representative for the Voice. They are able to do that if they want to do that. I’m hoping for a collective of all those organisations to become the Voice to Parliament, and that the working group can work through the co-investment process and put something to the government. Then that is what is given to the Australian people to start some communication and consultations.

PHOTO (supplied): Marion Scrymgour campaigning in her huge electorate of Lingiari. With 1,348,157.94 square kilometers it is only a bee’s whisker smaller than Australia’s biggest, Durack in WA, which measures 1,383,954 square kilometers more than 54% of the landmass of Western Australia. Durack is the largest constituency in the world that practices compulsory voting, and the fourth largest single-member electorate in the world. Ms Scrymgour’s patch isn’t far behind.

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