Voice: People decide, then Parliament fills in the details

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COMMENT by BOB BEADMAN

The nation is approaching a watershed decision. Are we brave enough to try and correct the wrongs of the past?

The Voice. These two simple words have unleashed a manufactured storm. For me they set running a kaleidoscope of scenes:

  • Captain Cook’s arrival.
  • The astonishment of the people already here.
  • Cook’s abandonment of his instructions to engage with those people and reach agreements.
  • Cook’s misleading correspondence with British leadership.
  • Britain’s consequent failure to acknowledge the continent was already settled.
  • Britain’s assumption of ownership on the basis that Australia was ‘Terra Nullius’ – unoccupied!
  • And of course Britain’s failure to conclude Treaty/s with the First Nations Peoples as they did in Canada, the USA, and next door at New Zealand.
  • And the final picture of around one hundred and twenty years ago of a group of old men drafting a Constitution (were Aborigines trying to look through the windows?)
  • Prime Minister Howard being shunned by Indigenous people in Melbourne.
  • Prime Minister Rudd’s Apology.

These are the facts that dismay and gnaw at First Nations peoples. And their sense of justice has been stretched over 240 years to the limit by broken promises, endless enquiries, shifting goalposts, changing governments.

The last fifty years or so

The ideas around a national representative body for First Nations peoples, a treaty, truth telling are not new. There was talk of a Makarrata in the 1970s, Prime Minister Hawke promised a treaty in 1988. Prime Minister Howard promised a preamble to the Constitution. None of this happened. All these promises were broken; all these undertakings were reneged on.

Then we embarked on eleven separate Inquiries about how we might amend the Constitution. And finally, First Nations peoples themselves spent about five years on an exhaustive consultation program from one end of the country to the other to establish a consensus view.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is what emerged from this work.

In my view it is a beautiful document. It will be read in 1000 years’ time with wonder.

Yet politicians like Messrs. Turnbull, Morrison, Joyce (who later backflipped) and Littleproud dismissed it for crude political reasons. This was the ultimate insult imaginable to Indigenous people. Flipping the bird with both hands.

But in important ways this insulting rudeness was irrelevant. 

The Uluru Statement was not offered to politicians. 

It was and is an invitation to the Australian people.

It was and is for the people, NOT the politicians, to decide this crucial matter.

Questions for the Australian people

Prime Minister Albanese has said the referendum proposal should be about the principle, the details being a matter for the Parliament.

Opposition Leader Dutton wants the detail before he considers the principle.

Mr Littleproud, the leader of the minor party in the Coalition Opposition has declared his members – the MPs in seats held by the National Party who are there to represent particular Australians – are required to vote No.

Mr Albanese is not handling the Opposition’s peevish obstructionism well. He has pointed out there is plenty of detail in the Langton / Calma Report (but not which parts he agrees / disagrees with), and recently said more detail will be provided prior to the Referendum.

Instead of conceding Dutton’s demand, he should explain that it is for the Parliament including Mr Dutton’s and Mr Littleproud’s party members to consider, negotiate and decide the details – the shape and form of The Voice – and that will happen but only once the principle is placed into the constitution to allow it to be created. 

Let’s test the claim about ‘needing‘ the detail.

What, for example, does the Constitution say about the High Court?

“71. Judicial power and Courts. The judicial power of the Commonwealth shall be vested in the Federal Supreme Court, to be called the High Court of Australia, and in such other courts as the Parliament creates, and in such other courts it invests with federal jurisdiction. The High Court shall consist of a Chief Justice, and so many other justices, not less than two, as the Parliament prescribes.”

We can see that the Constitution simply creates the power for a body to exist – a body that cannot simply be ignored or dismantled. What shape that body takes and what specific role it has can and will change over time, and the Parliament will debate and decide that.  Today, for example, the High Court has seven not the original three judges, and Parliament has decided that.   

Let me repeat. “Parliament creates,” “Parliament prescribes”. As the Prime Minister originally said, agree the principle, the detail is for the Parliament.

A national representative body

We had many such bodies, I have worked with all of them, and they have all been ignored, perverted, dismantled and then abandoned by Governments of the time. It is reasonable, as first step towards a formal Treaty, for First Nations peoples to want to make the next body more secure, and at the same time correct history – they were here first.

It is also reasonable that they have an active role in the development of policies such as housing, education and health which currently affect many of them adversely.  Settler Australians have had 240 years of developing such policies FOR Indigenous people.  These have been very largely ineffective – if not actively damaging. It is time for Indigenous people to have direct involvement IN developing the policies that affect them. 

We all want to help ourselves, do we not? 

The politics

Given the mischievous role played by the mainstream media these days in pushing its own agenda, and some extreme elements of social media, the Government must debunk fiction with facts.

The facts are that Australians will vote directly at the referendum only on the principle of the creation of The Voice. The Parliament, the representative members, will decide on the detail of The Voice AFTER the principle is put into the Constitution. 

The referendum will decide the principle: that is all. 

The Opposition Leader Mr Dutton’s line about voting on Saturday, and finding out the details on Monday, could be very damaging but only if much of the media continues to mislead Australians by pandering to Dutton’s mischief.

So, to the Referendum

Many, many things turn on the outcome of the Referendum to be conducted later this year.

For me it holds the potential to correct the illegitimacy of the occupation of this continent, while finally connecting the three parts of our human settlement:

  • 60.000+ years of First Nations occupation.
  • 250 years of primarily British settlement.
  • 70 years of post-war immigration from around the world.

We need to do this to secure our National identity.

Will this correct all of our societal faults? Of course not, but it will remove many of the historical and psychological impediments.

PHOTOS by KIERAN FINNANE: Top – Dancers performing a Seven Sisters inma at the 2021 Desert Mob festival in Alice Springs. Rene Kulitja, who painted the framing images for the Uluru Statement canvas, is 4th from left. Middle – Arrernte Tinkerbee dancers performing at 2022 the Desert Mob.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Sorry Bob. Many of us are not happy to vote for a change in the Constitution when the detail is to be “worked out” by politicians and later, such detail can be reinterpreted by the High Court.
    You point out that the people are being asked to decide after years of political failure. Fair enough!
    But – how can they do this without knowing what they are voting for? For example, will the detail favour the rapidly growing number of urban Indigenous over Aboriginal people living within remote regions where the needs are clearly greater?
    How is the body to be elected?
    These questions are not mischievous. Rather they are fundamental to how this body will fulfil its responsibilities.
    We need hard detail not arguments based largely on questionable emotion.

  2. I’m with Dutton. To vote YES would be like entering into a contract without knowing the value or conditions.

  3. Reconciliation Australia acknowledges and pays respect to the past, present and future Traditional Custodians and Elders of this nation and the continuation of cultural, spiritual and educational practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
    We have to sing with John Farnham:
    We have the chance to turn the pages over
    We can write what we want to write
    We gotta make ends meet, before we get much older
    We’re all someone’s daughter
    We’re all someone’s son
    How long can we look at each other
    Down the barrel of a gun?

  4. From reading the Uluru Statement it would appear they want to be Constitutionally recognized as being separate to our justice system (incarceration in large numbers of their youth), to be replaced by their justice system, whatever that entails.
    We should know before we as a Nation vote on this “Substantive Constitutional change and structural reform” end of quote and “justice and self determination” end of quote.

  5. Great informed words from Bob Beadman and such a shame some but not all of the mainstream media have chosen to foment division on this important idea.
    As Bob says it is an invitation to the Australian people not to the politicians and as Bob also says the writers of our Constitution created powers for the government to then use, just as they have in relation to the High Court.
    They said it should have a chief judge and as many judges as Parliament decides.
    The Voice will similarly be shaped by the Parliament as it should be, and changed over time as needed – as the High Court has been – by Parliament.
    The choice for Australians is whether or not to give it a go seeing how 240 years of we settlers making laws for Indigenous people has achieved little that is positive.

  6. An interesting opinion from Mr Beadman who has decades of experience in Aboriginal affairs.
    He states: “Settler Australians have had 240 years of developing such policies FOR Indigenous people. These have been very largely ineffective – if not actively damaging. It is time for Indigenous people to have direct involvement IN developing the policies that affect them.”
    ATSIC was established in 1989 and intended to provide bottom-up advice to governments via elected Regional Council representatives and their regional planning process. For various reasons it was considered a failure.
    Including an enabling provision in our Constitution won’t change things overnight. If it’s passed, I predict endless conferences, talk-fests, and meetings by well-heeled “Indigenous” leaders that will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions without any definitive outcome for traditional Aborigines in remote and rural communities.
    We’ve been there, seen it before.
    All that is needed in the Constitution is a sentence that states we acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first occupants of Australia.
    If a Voice to Parliament is to be successful, it should have an expiry date, of say five years. If we can’t find out what the Indigenous want in another five years, it probably will never happen.

  7. Voting Yes in the referendum will gives our Government the power to implement an advisory group to inform policy and program delivery of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Issues that affect them directly by their peoples. The Government will legislate as the system demands. Read the report on the Voice as prepared by Ken Wyatt the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. That will give you the detail required to make an informed decision.
    Get behind this important opportunity for all Australians. To fail because of political meanderings will be tragic to the betterment of all Australian people.
    This is disappointing considering before the last election all parties were on board and participated in the preparations of a Voice, Treaty and Truth Telling.
    What changed after the election? Politics has no place in such defining moments.
    It’s an exciting time for all of us to embrace these moments in our history. Let it be done for all our sakes and for the right reasons.

  8. Before I became a teen have supported the preamble of our Constitution being amended with acknowledgment, with recognition, of the historical presence of Aboriginals before Cook or Phillip arrived.
    The Commonwealth decision to promote the voice prevents support for the preamble recognition.
    Shame on the Prime Minister and his government for rejecting the preamble amendment most voters appear happy to support.
    Particularly the Prime Minister’s rejection of the preamble amendment with his preference being to promote and widen his racial division upon all Australians.

  9. I’ve finally read this article. Thanks for the clear historical and personal explanations. Intuitively and intellectually I plan to vote YES. This article further clarifies and reminds me of reasons why.

  10. From what we know of the Attorney General’s admission for an expensive appeal to the High Court, it appears that the Voice will divide, rather than reconcile competing cultural interests.
    This is a very poor political proposal, owned by a Prime Minister who, flushed with the success of AUKUS, has demonstrated classic domestic over-reach.
    Amid the tears and hubris, the detail is to be worked out post-referendum, should it succeed, while the Solicitor General’s advice has not been revealed.
    This is reason enough to return to a legislated body, not enshrined in the Constitution, apart from recognition.
    If the referendum fails, the current eleven democratically elected Indigenous members of Parliament can continue to be publicly accountable.
    If the Voice was “modest” and to “make us feel better about ourselves” as the PM says, then there should be no reason for the current deception, especially at a time when Australians need to meet coming existential challenges to our economy and sovereign defence.

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