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 in which movers and shakers in existing indigenous organisations form the basis of 35 local and regional “voices” which, in turn, will coalesce into state and territory groupings, from which twenty-four members will be appointed to the constitutionally-enshrined national Voice. It’s an appointment process.
There is an irresolvable problem here, which I will lay out.
The Voice is meant to make representations to parliament on legislation which effects Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people; each and every one of them. Assuming, for the sake of the argument, that a demarcation is possible which neatly divides law into two parts; one subject to the Voice and one not, what representation is the Voice to make across multiple policy areas? On land rights, on development versus preservation, on cashless debit cards, on grog in remote communities, on social welfare and health measures, on the policing of domestic violence, on the treatment of juvenile offenders, on measures to ensure children attend school, on taking abused and neglected children into care, and so on? There is no reason to suppose unanimity among Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, is there? As among the rest of us Aussies, opinions will surely differ.
I want to go to Edmund Burke and his famous speech to the electors of Bristol. In that speech he essentially distinguished between a delegate and representative, arguing that while the interests of those electing him should always be carefully considered, his duty was to be guided by his judgement and conscience in serving the interests of the country as a whole. He was a representative. Equally, it seems clear that the Voice will comprise representatives of sort. The process of their appointment effectively excludes them from being delegates; that is, taking and acting on specific instructions from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within a prescribed geographical area or constituency. Well and good. But what is the sanction normally applied to representatives? It is being voted out. So, Burke could follow his conscience but at intervals he would have to present himself to his electorate and they could kick him out. That is the sanction. Without this sanction, representatives, unlike delegates, can end up representing no one but themselves or their clique.
What does this mean? It means the Voice cannot work properly in the interests of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people unless its members subject themselves, at pre-set, reasonably short intervals, to a vote of their constituents. But that’s not its design. And, tellingly, that is the case for sound practical reasons. How in the world could electoral rolls be developed?
Let’s assume that the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is charged with the task of making up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rolls for each local region and state and territory. According to the 2021 Census, 812,728 people self-identified as being Aboriginals or Torres Strait Islanders; well up on the previous figure. This would give the AEC ballpark figures to work with. Of course, Census information on an individual level is confidential so couldn’t be used to fill up the rolls. And, in any event, I dare say that numbers of people have been imaginative in identifying their racial and ethnic makeup.
It’s all very well to be accepted as Aboriginal by your local community, as per the Calma-Langton model, but this would be hard for the AEC to work with in any systematic way in creating well-founded electoral rolls. I fear it couldn’t be done. Not surprising. The whole business of determining rights based on race is pernicious. It never leads to well-defined, wholesome outcomes.
Citizenship is a comparatively straightforward criterion for determining eligibility to vote. One adult citizen, one vote. Once race is brought into the equation, it gets messy indeed. Who’s in, who’s out; and how exactly would it be determined? I would guess that few of those self-identifying as Aboriginal could trace their roots back to 1788 without any ancestral trace of those who’ve arrived since 1788. For the vast majority that ancestral trace would loom (very) large. For many it would predominate. And, as is always the case, it’s at the margin where difficulties multiply.
It seems totally impractical and terribly intrusive to demand DNA evidence. But then what to do about, say, Bruce Pascoe and others who claim Aboriginal ancestry, if and when their bona fides are challenged? In any event, is there a cut off point for Aboriginality on the basis of some prescribed degree of ethnic descent? That seems terribly divisive and fraught with decimal points.
It would be good to live in an Australia in which race was inconsequential. But the Voice entirely removes that prospect. Racial politics is at its heart. In turn, this means that questions which otherwise need not be asked must be asked and answered. One of those questions, a fundamental one, is who will the Voice represent?
Again, to be clear, the Voice will not be comprised of delegates. It will be comprised of “representatives.” But representatives who don’t have to present themselves and their records to eligible voters at regular intervals; even if it were practicable, which it isn’t, to delineate the body of such voters. Quite simply, this is not an acceptable model in a liberal democratic country. Democracy was described by Winston Churchill as the least worst form of government, precisely because parliamentary representatives, and therefore governments and leaders, could be voted out.
The Voice, a racist concept within the Constitution, is a bad idea per se. Run by unelected people, it has every chance of becoming a fiefdom. That would not be a benign, never mind beneficial, addition to Australia’s national life.