On October 14, the day polls close for New Zealand’s general election, Australians will vote in a referendum. Succeed or fail, it will be an historic moment. The question facing Australian voters is:
A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?
If the referendum succeeds, the Voice will advise the government on issues affecting Indigenous people and their communities. It will not have veto powers nor is there a guarantee that its advice will be followed.
The long road to the referendum
Australia’s constitution was written in 1901 when the colonies federated into the Commonwealth of Australia. It has never, nor currently, recognised First Peoples. This omission is more stark when you consider clause 6 of the constitution remains in place and leaves a pathway for New Zealand to join the federation.
Constitutional change has been rare in Australia and requires a double majority to succeed – that is, a majority of voters in a majority of states. Success of this current referendum will usher in a new era of recognition of Indigenous Australians and a parliamentary process to establish the Voice, which may take several years.
* The Voice of confusion
Failure will almost certainly make questions of Aboriginal rights politically taboo for several generations.
The referendum is an outcome of the 2017 Uluṟu Statement from the Heart developed by Indigenous Australian leaders and calling for “Voice, Treaty and Truth”. This is the most recent in a 250-year history of negotiating a place within the ‘whitefella’ system. Indigenous people have made representations to governments to gain control over their lives, families, and their unceded lands through letters, petitions, and delegations, using white allies, walk-offs, strikes, and court cases. For most of European-Australian history, there has been Aboriginal action to secure their civil rights, the vote not won until 1962.
The previous ‘Aboriginal rights’ referendum in 1967 resulted in an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote to remove clauses from the constitution and effectively shift responsibility for ‘Aboriginal affairs’ to the Commonwealth Government from the states. Since then, a variety of policies and initiatives have been developed, enacted, repealed, and withdrawn. Advisory groups have been established and disestablished. The Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCATSI) (1958-1978) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Council (1990-2005) were established under conservative and Labor governments respectively. Constitutional enshrinement would mean that while the form of the Voice could be altered by parliament, it would have to continue to exist.
Far from a fair go
In their campaigns for civil rights, Aboriginal Australians have always appealed to the benevolence of non-aboriginal Australians, the ideas of ‘a fair go’, and helping those most vulnerable. In 1927, the leader of the Native Union of Western Australia William Harris appealed to readers of The West Australian that he was “certain that the majority of people in the state have no idea how cruelly the natives are treated”, and once they did know, they would act.
At times, the New Zealand model of Indigenous seats in Parliament was raised as something to campaign for but tended to be rejected in favour of pushing for the removal of barriers to Aboriginal participation in education, politics, and the economy. Even in 1967, FCATSI observed that there had been “a general awakening on the part of the Australian public to the tragic needs of the Australian Aborigines”.
But white benevolence and the ostensible removal of barriers has not been enough. Bleak outcomes for Indigenous Australians have continued to compel a long history of campaigning and initiatives. Despite more than 50 years of Commonwealth control of Aboriginal affairs, life expectancy remains almost 10 years lower and unemployment rates are double those of non-Aboriginal Australians.
Aboriginal imprisonment rates are 15 times those of other Australians and Aboriginal women make up more than a third of the women’s prison population. Indigenous people are Australia’s most vulnerable population, subjected to violence and neglect, and systems put in place by successive governments to ‘close the gaps’ are manifestly not working.
The ‘no’ campaign has highlighted that Indigenous people themselves disagree about the Voice. There wasn’t Indigenous unanimity in the past either. David Unaipon – scholar, inventor, and the only Aboriginal figure on Australian bank notes – disagreed with the organisers of the January 26, 1938 Day of Mourning protests. He urged faith in the powers of Christianity and education, rather than confrontation, to bring Aboriginal people “into the national family”. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established on the grounds of Parliament House in 1972 as a radical protest against the McMahon government’s approach to Aboriginal land rights but was a more confrontational protest than many Indigenous Australians felt comfortable with.
Some ‘no’ campaigners also argue that Aboriginal Australians already have the same rights as all Australians and the Voice is a race-based or divisive proposal. But how can we explain the persistent gulf between Indigenous people and other Australians if not as a failure of such a claim of equal rights?
Legacies of historical injustices of land dispossession, restrictions on movement, marriage and education, child removal policies, and denial of wages all demand historic remedies. Is it not time, after nearly 125 years, to provide constitutional security for the representation of Australia’s First Peoples as a way forward?
By Isaac Butt, Samantha Jordan, Rowan Kirker, Oliver Lengyel Woodward, Caitlin Mansfield, Abigail McCaffrey, Caitlin McConchie, Strahan Wyatt, and Professor Kate Hunter