The Voice is on and the fix is in.
Australia will have a referendum on inserting an indigenous Voice into their Constitution, but it will be far from a fair vote. The government has announced legislation to quash the customary “yes” and “no” arguments for referendums and substitute in their place “an education campaign to assist electors understand the purpose and process of the referendum and mitigate misinformation”.
In other words: the Commonwealth itself will argue in favour of the Indigenous Voice. As will every major institution in Australian society, Quadrant excepted.
The referendum question itself has been drafted, but it has not yet been legislated. The draft question is: “Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?” This question is deeply flawed.
The referendum question is missing one key word: democratic.
The Indigenous Voice referendum is highly contentious, and rightly so. But even those conservatives and constitutionalists who reject the very idea of the Voice should support the proper wording of the Voice question. The proper question to put to the Australian electorate is: “Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes a democratic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?”
The fundamental problem with the Voice may be that it creates two classes of citizen, but if that’s what Australians want (and the referendum will test this) then that’s what Australians will get.
But a more important practical problem with the Voice referendum question is that the voice it envisages will not be democratically-constituted. And when it really comes down to it, does any Australian, indigenous or otherwise, want to hear an anti-democratic Indigenous Voice?
If there is to be an Indigenous Voice, let it be a democratic one. Let indigenous Australians vote in free and fair, open and transparent elections to select those who would speak on their behalf. Any other form of Indigenous Voice would be little better than a brown-faced Aboriginal Protection Board.
There would be difficulties in constituting an elected Voice, but not insurmountable ones. Norway has a democratically-constituted indigenous voice, the Sami Parliament. The United States has 574 democratically-constituted indigenous voices, the officially recognised Native American tribes, each of which maintains a membership roll and holds regulated elections.
Closer to home, New South Wales has a prototype of democratically-constituted indigenous voices in its 120 Local Aboriginal Land Councils. Eligibility issues arise, but they are manageable. After all, eligibility issues arise with regard to the national electoral roll, too.
One suspects—it might not be stretching intuition too far to say that one knows—that the most vociferous opponents of an elected Indigenous Voice would be the unelected indigenous intelligentsia who currently purport to speak for indigenous Australians. Like intellectuals everywhere, they gain authority from claiming to speak for “their” people.
But people do not belong to those who would speak for them. Indigenous Australians have as much a right to choose their representatives as everyone else. In what real democracy are government-nominated thought leaders empowered to speak as the voices of the people? And don’t indigenous Australians deserve real democracy? Or are they not yet “ready” for it?
Those who oppose an Indigenous Voice of any kind should oppose it. No one would argue otherwise. But even those who oppose an Indigenous Voice to Parliament should work to ensure that if one is created, it will be democratic.
Those who favour an Indigenous Voice to Parliament bear an even greater responsibility to ensure that the voice they legislate is a voice indigenous Australians can live with. If Australians move ahead with an appointed Indigenous Voice, they will in effect be imposing other people’s voices on Australia’s indigenous citizens.
Australians near-universally lament the historical infantilisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Many non-indigenous Australians nobly aspire to more fully respect the dignity of their indigenous neighbors by enshrining an Indigenous Voice in the Australian Constitution. If their motives are sincere, they can hardly accept a less democratic voice for indigenous Australians then they would demand for themselves.
Salvatore Babones is The Philistine.