Why Australians can’t say ‘don’t know’ in Voice debate

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.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info.

The Voice vote is this weekend, have you made up your mind? Why not share your opinion in the comments section below?

Also read: ‘I heard their voices, their love of country and their desire for respect’


  1. Another academic out of touch with reality. We don’t need a voice to advise parliament enshrined in the constitution. There are enough government, and many other non-government organisations already doing that. We certainly don’t need the cost of another bureaucratic organisation.
    What we desperately need is a true audit of every organisation that receives grants, to establish what happens to the money and where applicable, why there is no significant improvement in improving the lives of those they purport to assist. It is called accountability.
    The academics and activists exist to satisfy their own agendas.
    If the government was truly serious about listening to the people, why did the PM and the Aboriginal Affairs minister refuse to meet a delegation of Aboriginal elders who made a special visit to Canberra to talk with them, conveniently citing “other commitments”. There are about 10 Aboriginal MP’s in Federal parliament; why doesn’t the PM and the Aboriginal Affairs minister speak and LISTEN to them?

  2. I am concerned to see such a bias piece of work published on this site which is read and trusted by many retired people. Articles like this have no place on a site that should be totally neutral. Placing this article in Your Life Choices is a total disgrace.

  3. As with every Government Department, there is much that is decided on the fly. Often not to the best outcome.
    Every Australian citizen has an equal voice concerning their situation and lives. As we live in a democracy where the majority rules, not everyone gets what they want and most of us accept that there isn’t enough “free icecream” for everyone. And nor does everyone deserve a full serve of “free icecream”.
    When the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove, the indigenous peoples were a disparate mob with around 500 separate mobs, all talking their own language and dialects. Especially the inland tribes were hunter collectors forced to live semi-nomadic to nomadic life styles within very arbitrary territorial boundaries. If a mob crossed over a “boundary” without good purpose, inter-tribal warfare was common.
    There was no “frontier war”, there were skirmishes where local tribes had no hesitation in killing any unapproved visitors.
    There were recorded occasions where inland tribes attempted to engage the explorers and surveyors in the aggression against their neighbours. When this request was denied, the tribes turned against the surveyors and workers. Think about why the Repeater Stations on the Overland Telegraph had to be fully reinforced to avoid being murdered in their sleep? How the local tribes had no hesitation on killing the sheep that had been shepherded to these workers.
    Property ownership was not a natural concept to the tribes and really only gained traction as they accepted the territory alignments offered by the Colonial Governments.
    The “gaps” that are much talked about are not unique to the indigenous peoples living in remote communities and are essentially a result of self chosen lifestyles.
    The Voice as being proposed shows no aspect that would directly change the situations for those living in those environments. They have schools, they have health care centres, they have assistance in many ways but insist on clinging to their “traditional cultures”.
    The Voice would not bring them away from those values but engender a continuation of them.
    Remember that there were no written records of the history and “truth telling” can be adjusted to suit the listener.
    There is much money and effort that has gone into the indigenous communities at all levels for many decades and is sucked up by those who get hold of it first.

  4. What I do know is that this proposal does not mean what it says, and does not say what it means. Only the naive and gullible would think otherwise. I would love to see our aboriginal brothers and sisters enjoy the same standard of living, and enjoy the same rewards for effort as the other 97% of the nation. But the real causes of this disparity has not, and will not be truthfully discussed, because it is a cultural issue. Perpetuating victim-hood, or enshrining it in the constitution will not achieve anything. I also know that “First nations sovereignty’ is the real ultimate objective. Read the placards. ‘Always was, always will be’

    • I totally agree, the MEDIA are supposed to be unbiaised, but time immemorial certain news outlets only create controversy toe sell their products. In my view the SBS are the same as all the other channels.

  5. As someone who was initially undecided I became informed of the arguments on both sides, attended meetings for both sides, so there is no excuse for me to say “If you don’t know vote no”. I’d like to share what I have discovered through this process.
    The no campaign’s arguments and other organisations, and many claims I have found to be misleading, incorrect, lacking important context or otherwise have no evidence for the claim made.

    The no campaign has been campaigning based on the fear,uncertainty or doubt of voters, rather than facts, and has run scare campaigns based on things that the voice will have no power over, like changing the date of Australia Day.

    The yes campaign in comparison has more arguments backed up with examples and evidence. Even when the basis for a claim is harder to establish, such as how the voice will make a real change in closing the gap in health, education, employment, and housing, it is clear that the status quo is not working and I feel the No campaign has not presented a credible alternative to the Voice.
    Given that many experts say that the voice is not legally risky, may save taxpayer money, and can have its structure and day-to-day functions adjusted by parliament if there are any issues, I think its clear that supporting the voice is a low-risk proposal with a big potential upside – it may well improve the lives of many Indigenous Australians.

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