Australia’s Indigenous Voice referendum debate has been marred by fear. The ‘No’ campaign, for instance, tells voters ‘if you don’t know, vote no‘, while federal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton says the proposal will ‘re-racialise’ the Australian constitution.
The two claims clearly contradict each other: you can’t say you don’t understand how the Voice will work and, in the same breath, that it will re-racialise the country. But it highlights the extent to which democracy is, among other things, about choices.
In a democracy, you get to choose between one candidate or another; between one set of policies or another; and to act on certain emotions or feelings over others — feelings like anger and resentment versus hope and optimism.
On 14 October, Australians get to choose whether to amend the constitution to include an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament to advise government on matters affecting them.
But we also get to choose what we pay attention to. When confronted by something we don’t understand, we can choose to learn more, to ask questions, and seek answers — or not.
Neither side questions the relative disadvantage Indigenous people suffer from today when compared to the rest of the population.
The gaps in life expectancy, health, education and the over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system are all too familiar. What people disagree about is what to do about it.
Australians also can’t claim to know at least something about the history that has led to the proposal for a Voice in the first place.
That history is written into our nation’s legal and political DNA: historians like Henry Reynolds, Lyndall Ryan, David Marr and Andrew Fitzmaurice have documented Australia’s frontier wars and massacres that characterised the country’s early settlement, as well as the history of legal and philosophical justifications (and critiques) of Australian colonialism.
The Australian High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision confirmed that Australia’s Indigenous people had pre-existing, distinctive ownership of land before colonisation, overturning the assumption of Australian courts until then that dispossession was not only complete, but justified at the time of settlement.
But there have also been many Indigenous-led initiatives — from 1788 onwards — to try to resolve, peacefully, the issue of their proper place in Australia’s legal and political order. And, importantly, they have drawn on democratic tools in doing so.
In 1927, Wiradjuri elders Jimmy Clement and John Noble attended the opening of Parliament House, in the presence of the Duke and Duchess of York — later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth — to press their claims of unceded Indigenous sovereignty.
There were the 1963 Yirrkala bark petitions, the 1967 Gurindiji petition to the Governor-General, the 1972 Larrakia petition to the Queen, the 1988 Barunga Statement presented to Prime Minister Bob Hawke and the 1993 Eva Valley Statement, which proposed a principled framework for dealing with the aftermath of the Mabo decision.
The limited, hard-won advances that emerged on the back of these claims have come from Indigenous activism, rather than government initiative.
For example, the 1967 referendum, which changed the constitution to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be counted in the census and for the Commonwealth to make laws for them, emerged from a decade of Indigenous mobilisation led by activists Faith Bandler, Pearl Gibbs and Jessie Street.
The origins of the 1992 Mabo decision stretched back to the Indigenous-led Wave Hill walk-off that began in 1966, and to legal action launched by Eddie Mabo and others against the Queensland government to recognise the land rights of the Meriam people.
The 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart is yet another attempt to engage the Australian community on fundamental questions about the place of Indigenous peoples in our liberal democratic institutions.
All these initiatives called for a combination of land rights and improved political representation. They are, ultimately, calls for a deepening of Australia’s democratic conversation, rather than special pleading for a separate or illiberal set of alternative political arrangements.
But whether non-indigenous Australians have really heard these appeals is unclear. And it’s a global problem. Wherever Indigenous peoples have pressed their claims for greater equality and their rights to lands, territories and resources, they have been met with resistance.
These conversations are hard in Australia because they require us to grapple with the concrete and complex reality of the experiences of Indigenous Australians today.
The central claim of the Uluru Statement is clear: “we seek constitutional reform to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country”.
A rightful place — meaning not just any place, certainly not the place they have been relegated to since 1788.
Not a place where, as has happened time and time again, governments can ignore or override the specific concerns expressed by Indigenous people. We saw this in relation to the recommendations of the 1997 Stolen Generations Report, many of which remain unimplemented.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission
A previous representative body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, established to oversee various Indigenous programs and advise the government, was abolished by the Howard government in 2005.
And all levels of government continue struggling to meet the targets established through the Closing the Gap process to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ socio-economic wellbeing.
Thus, a rightful place requires a different way of thinking about constitutional and political change, one that offers an alternative to decades of policy failure However, this doesn’t require somehow departing from liberal democratic values or institutions. Rather, it calls for a renewal and recommitment to them.
What an Indigenous Voice to parliament is proposing to do, ultimately, is create the conditions for realising the fair value of political equality for Indigenous people.
The claim that a constitutionally recognised Indigenous consultative body introduces new racial divisions into Australian citizenship relies on an overly simplistic understanding of equality and identity, as well as our history.
There are indeed forms of identity politics that introduce and reinforce social divisions. But that isn’t the case here.
The main issues at stake are not based on vague assertions about cultural identity and self-worth, or that identity claims provide the grounds for a moral or political veto on liberal democratic outcomes.
Rather, the motivations underpinning the proposal for a Voice to parliament are informed by concrete claims about basic rights denied and injustices ignored, both in the past and in the present. That is what the long history of petitions, legal challenges and statements highlights.
But the proposal also makes clear that these issues can’t be solved overnight. History is not so easily overcome. Instead, it appeals to one of democracy’s greatest features – its relentlessly open-ended nature.
French political theorist Claude Lefort put it best when he said democracy is a system :founded upon the legitimacy of a debate as to what is legitimate and what is illegitimate” — a debate that is necessarily without guarantees and without end.
But there are still some conditions, and limits, to even the most open-ended forms of democratic debate.
The Uluru Statement speaks to one of the most important: that others shouldn’t be able to undermine the standing of fellow citizens as fundamentally free and equal.
That’s something Australia has consistently done to its Indigenous people.
A ‘No’ vote at the referendum means sticking with the status quo and the political default settings of the past century.
Saying ‘Yes’ doesn’t guarantee anything, but it keeps the democratic conversation going, now with a clear proposal for how to improve decision-making and representation regarding matters affecting Indigenous people,
The deliberative and democratic character of the Voice — including its careful embedding within Australia’s parliamentary system — is a new and innovative proposal in the long and too often sorry history of Indigenous peoples’ engagement with the Australian state.
Duncan Ivison is Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sydney.
The Voice vote is this weekend, have you made up your mind? Why not share your opinion in the comments section below?