I know some people are thinking of voting No in the upcoming referendum on the Voice, so now I imagine that I am talking to some good friends who are heading in that direction.
One friend says, “The Voice is not enough, we need a treaty”. I hear you, I reply, but if you vote No, these matters will fall from the political agenda for years. Arranging treaties with the different First Nations people across the country is a complicated task. It will require political momentum and agreement from both sides. Voting No will not help.
Someone else says, “The Voice has too much power, it will cause our laws to be entangled in the High Court”. I explain that the Voice can only make “representations” and the details, its budget and operations, can be adjusted by Parliament. There is no requirement to consult it, so it cannot delay legislation – the word “representation” was carefully chosen instead of “consultation”. The Voice is just another advisory body. Legal experts agree there is no risk of it imperilling our parliamentary processes or clogging the High Court.
Another friend says, “The Voice doesn’t have enough power”. I reply, yes, its power is limited by Parliament, and it is accountable. But that is not a reason for voting No. If you vote No, you are saying no to this first step, and we go nowhere.
Then, a friend says, “I am suffering too and people like me have no special Voice. Why is there all this attention on Indigenous people when there is no Voice for me and my group”. The feeling of being left out affects all of us at some time. But it is not a reason for voting No. Society is changing. The old ways of “Might is Right” where rich and powerful elites ruled, indifferent to the cries of outsiders, is gradually changing. The more inclusive our society becomes the more all voices will be heard. This is a reason for voting Yes, not No.
Another friend says, “This will divide Australia on race. Why should one group get its own body?”. I answer that this is not about race but about closing the gap between how First Nations people fare in modern Australia, and about resolving unfinished business related to the original inhabitants of our country and the impacts Europeans have had on their lives. Usually when a new power arrives there is a war and then a treaty that effectively ends the war. That never happened in Australia because Europeans concluded that First Nations people did not really occupy fixed areas of land and thus did not need to be considered. Finally, we’ve realised that our Indigenous people, like all inhabitants of countries across the world, do need to be considered and Constitutional recognition and the Voice is a measured step.
Another friend says, “I see Indigenous people opposing the Voice. Obviously, it’s controversial”. I reply, very few Indigenous people oppose the Voice but those who do attract a lot of media attention. No group of people is ever fully in agreement on every issue, but the vast majority of Indigenous people want the Voice. Don’t be confused. Some disagreement is natural, even healthy, but it is not a reason for voting No.
Finally, a friend says, “I just don’t know, so I’ll vote no”. No?, I reply. That slogan has been used by rigidly conservative politicians opposed to change before. If you don’t know, then please find out more. Don’t be misled by doubt and confusion, you are smarter than that. Find out and make your mind up based on the evidence.
I will be voting Yes. A Yes vote will be a step in the right direction. The input from the Voice will help make better laws. There will be enhanced buy-in around these laws that affect Indigenous people, so the laws will be more effective. There will be positive impacts for Indigenous people.
I think a Yes vote will be good for all Australians. European settlement had profound effects on Indigenous people and their cultures. Cultural clashes have occurred in many countries across the world and throughout human history. We are not guilty of a unique sin here. My judgement is that Australia was neither the worst nor the best example of the meeting of two peoples. Nevertheless, the fact is Australia does have a dark history, and because of this and the later White Australia policy, our approach to refugees, and ongoing Indigenous disadvantage, we are often considered a racist country. There is a wound to heal here. A Yes vote will not only help Indigenous people, it will improve our reputation in the world, and it will be a step that helps us move forward positively and with greater confidence as a nation.
I support the Voice as an individual. My institution UNSW also supports the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its quest for a Voice to Parliament. This is not a case of a university taking a political position. To understand this the best analogy is climate change. UNSW has hosted a Climate Change Research Centre for decades. Our top researchers produce evidence that climate change is real. Because their work is good and held in high regard by academic peers, UNSW supports their work and their messages about appropriate climate policy and actions. UNSW also hosts an Indigenous Law Centre that is highly respected. Our top experts produce evidence that Indigenous disadvantage based on existing laws, policies, and societal norms, exists, and is not really improving. UNSW supports our academics to get this message out and push for appropriate change. At the same time colleagues who hold different views are welcome to express them and obviously staff and students can and will vote as they please.
Over time, fewer and fewer people deny the evidence on climate change. I am not sure how many people will vote against the Voice and time is running out to get our positive messages across. I hope for a Yes vote, because it will hurt no one, except a few politicians who are using Indigenous issues as a pollical football, again.
A No vote will leave us nowhere.