The Voice

A Discordant Voice in a Culture of Consensus

In his recent Quadrant Online column, Peter Smith writes how “the Voice, if it gets up, will not be an elected body in the sense in which we usually define elected bodies on the national political stage. To wit, bodies elected by voters through a secret ballot. The Calma-Langton report envisages an abbreviated bottom-up process  … from which twenty-four members will be appointed to the constitutionally-enshrined national Voice. It’s an appointment process.”

Representative decision-making by a majority vote of elected representatives is integral to Western governance processes. Persons in positions of leadership are generally accepted as having authority to make decisions binding on all, though many may not agree with those decisions.

Langton and Calma have designed their appointment process because they are no doubt well aware that the familiar Western model of majority decision-making under an elected leader is not acceptable in Aboriginal culture. What this culture demands is dealt with in the Indigenous Governance Toolkit. This is a resource developed by The Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research  at ANU with a forward by Mick Dodson. Fundamentally, as he explains, Aboriginal culture requires decisions of the relevant group to be by consensus:

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander approach to decision making is one of consensus and occurs across the layers of networks. Consensus is created through slow agreement and can change over time….

Only the relevant group can be involved:

Problems can arise for a group’s governance when the ‘wrong’ people or layer of a network is involved in making decisions or when factional interests undermine group consensus.

Warren Mundine has explained this concept in this way:

Here’s where Voice advocates are ignorant of (or deliberately ignoring) Aboriginal cultures. No Aboriginal person can speak for another country, only their own. Where’s the proposal for a constitutional voice for the Bundjalung people (my country on my father’s side) or the Gumbaynggirr or Yuin people (my countries on my mother’s side)?

The Voice won’t, and can’t, represent Indigenous people as a group.

The Aboriginal idea of leadership differs too from that of the Western concept:

There are strong culturally-based rules and values that stress the need for leaders to only speak on behalf of (i.e. to represent) the ‘right’ people (their own mob or land-owning group), about the ‘right’ issue (i.e. their own country and own business).

The strongest expectation then is that a leader should, first and foremost, ‘look after’ and be accountable to their own family and local group.

Leaders are also expected to go back to their fellow group members to discuss information, ideas and decisions with them. …Leaders should also act on the basis of consensus.

Achieving the consensus that alone gives authority to decision-making in Aboriginal culture inevitably takes time, often a lot of time.

Just how difficult it is to procure consensus within a single small indigenous group is illustrated by the 16-year history of the Quandamooka claim to native title over North Stradbroke Island. The claimant group was small, only 12 families. The claim was lodged in 1995. By 2000, all parties – the claimant group, the Queensland government, the local council, the sand miner and the island’s white residents — were in agreement. But a planned consent determination of native title was derailed when one of the 12 families withdrew its agreement. It took another 10 years for all to finally agree. See the HEROC Native Title Report 2011 pp 107-110:

Since the first native title claimant application was lodged by the Quandamooka Peoples in 1995, the process of resolving their native title required the claim group to decide who are the people in the native title claim group, who are the person or people that are the applicant, and negotiate with multiple parties about their native title rights and interests over North Stradbroke Island and some of the surrounding islands and waters of Morton Bay. The intense pressure on the community from these processes [to select who should be the applicant] resulted in the Quandamooka peoples declining a native title settlement offer from the Queensland Government almost ten years ago.

The notion of Langton and Calma that 24 peak representatives will have the support of all indigenous peoples for whom they profess to speak is absurd. The Langton-Calma model is in truth designed to vest the power of the Voice in a small group of mostly metropolitan activists. A decision-making process that actually respected Aboriginal culture would be simply unworkable.

It’s no wonder that Prime Minister Albanese will not commit to any details about how the Voice speakers will be selected or how the Voice will work. Everywhere you look, major difficulties loom.

And if the High Court doesn’t do what so many Voice urgers and advocates confidently expect — if instead, it refuses to interpret the Voice provision in the Constitution in accordance with how Parliament in its Voice details statute tells it to and makes up its own mind on what the Constitution means — what then?

Either total paralysis of both Parliament and the executive government until the court decides or capitulation to Voice blackmail to get the machinery of government moving again.

From 1981 to 1992, Douglas Drummond was Queensland’s Special Prosecutor following the Fitzgerald Inquiry, and subsequently a judge on the Federal Court of Australia, from which he retired in 2003. He wrote most recently for Quadrant of the politicised disgrace that is Victoria Police

5 thoughts on “A Discordant Voice in a Culture of Consensus

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    Last week I got around to finding about ‘The Voice’ from an Aboriginal perspective.
    The person I spoke to has had a lot to do with the present process of Aboriginal reconciliation, his partner having already been compensated for the stolen generation and as a separate matter, abuse while in a state run orphanage.
    I opened with a recap of the recent ABC meet the press where the aboriginal advocate told her audience and anyone who watched about the process of the Voice result, ‘how we did it’.
    She went to the people themselves, no lawyers activists, politicians and asked them what they thought.
    I note she is a solicitor.
    The deepest response was that of the stress of making land claims and the argument, they wanted out.
    His response was very reserved.
    He did not know what the Voice actually meant for him.
    Together they had already been through all the stress and pain.
    The new Voice would mean they would have to take on the opinions of people they do not deal with or know, when at the moment they already had a path.
    They could end up worse off.
    My own thoughts.
    When radicalism was first appearing at Uni the cry was to put a radical on every committee so that they could be seen to be heard and so that would shut them up.
    In this Voice the pay out for those proposing it would be that it devolves direct responsibility.
    So something comes up about anything to do with Aborigine’s, it gets flicked to this new body by the federal Government, which adopts some plan. A consensus, one size fits all.
    The Government largely adopts it, subject to financial caps.
    If my friend objects through his local member, then he is referred back to The Voice and its Bureaucracy.
    Paradoxically an Aboriginal representative from WA or the Torres Strait calls the shots., not someone in NSW.
    He becomes Voiceless.
    The price for his ordinary citizenship is that he loses access that he has already received, because some groups of his own people did not like going through the stress of compensation and land claims, which lies before them.
    In the meanwhile we watch as the argument continues.

  • brandee says:

    Could it be that Aboriginal Australians might be less focused on a Voice if they were like Torres Strait Islander Australians and celebrated the Coming of the Light which is a joyous public holiday July 1 each year on Torres Strait Islands.
    On Thursday Island there is a memorial cross, and plaque on which is inscribed:
    THANK GOD FOR THE FIRST MISSIONARIES WHO ON 1ST JULY 1871 AT DARNLY ISLAND BROUGHT THE LIGHT OF CHRIST TO THE TORRES STRAIT
    On Darnley Island, which is called Erub in the native Papuan language, there is a similar memorial on a stylised ship [that brought the missionaries] and a plaque in gratitude.
    Thanks to Douglas Drummond we have a quote from Warren Mundine who speaks for Aboriginal Australians whereas Mick Dodson purports to speak for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

    • Blair says:

      Yet the “leaders” of Torres Strait Islanders are supporters of The Voice and past “leaders” supported the myth of a Stolen Generation of Torres Strait Islanders.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Thank you Douglas,

    a very important contribution.

  • pmprociv says:

    It’s good to see this run of lucid and articulate analyses of what The Voice will mean. For me, the key paragraph here just might be: “The notion of Langton and Calma that 24 peak representatives will have the support of all indigenous peoples for whom they profess to speak is absurd. The Langton-Calma model is in truth designed to vest the power of the Voice in a small group of mostly metropolitan activists. A decision-making process that actually respected Aboriginal culture would be simply unworkable.”
    The gabfest that brought forth the Uluru Statement comprised 1,200 educated, articulate people, including many lawyers and even a few professors of constitutional law, so it’s somewhat of a mystery that they stopped short of submitting possible structures for The Voice, and means for its establishment. That PM Albanese and other forceful proponents, after years to think about it, continue to deflect reasonable requests for clarification while repeatedly denouncing the questioners, should set loud alarm bells ringing. If they can’t reach consensus about such simple yet critical details, what hope is there for The Voice itself to advise meaningfully on more complex matters? If nothing else, should it come to pass, The Voice is guaranteed to gum up the wheels of government; forget about “reconciliation” or “closing any gaps”.

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