Simon Longstaff of The Ethics Centre recently (16 February) had what I thought an interesting pro-Voice piece in The Australian. It had merit in principle though not, I will argue, in practice. It’s a case of principle suffering the debilitation of passing time. Ronald Ryan (the last man hanged in Australia) may have had a raw deal in 1967, but we can’t retrofit a fairer trial and undo the past.
The Australian has been very good, it seems to me, in giving space to both sides of the argument; having the debate that the Prime Minister would seemingly like to avoid. Mostly I don’t find the pro-case at all convincing. I haven’t gone to the perceived racist nature of the concept, which is troubling, because this has been extensively covered. I took a different tack and put my two pennies’ worth In two QoL posts in January: First, in “No Wonder They Won’t Detail How the Voice Will Work” and second, in ‘A Shapeshifting Creature Inside the Constitution.”
In the latter piece, I put a view that we shouldn’t put anything in the Constitution with so little specificity. Having no prescribed form and function means, on paper, that it is always wholly a creature of the parliament. That’s a nonsense in the Constitution. Might as well be simply created by parliament. There’s a thought.
In the former, I put the view that as a supposed representative body, the Voice had no settled constituency, which might periodically be asked to vote on who should constitute the Voice. Who are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait people being represented? There is no way of determining this without the application of divisive and intrusive processes. It’s dead in the water before we start. So, we would have a representative body representing we don’t know who. That makes no sense. And, to the issue at hand, the dilution and dispersion of Aboriginality, which makes representation infeasible, has particular application to Longstaff’s argument.
Longstaff’s argument is that a separate Aboriginal-only voice to parliament is neither racist not exceptional when measured against history and convention. Before 1788 we had a number of clans or tribes (circa 400 to 500?) of indigenous peoples who had affinity with particular tracts of land and who fought against encroachment by other tribes. The British came and took over the land. Here is a extract of Longstaff’s argument.
The First nations had clearly defined borders… they fought wars…to defend their territory. All of this was anticipated by British law and policy. It was only blind ignorance and prejudice that stopped the colonists recognising the sophisticated array of states they encountered here…Those who put together the Constitution never finished the job. They left out those with the greatest claim to sovereignty…Now we have the chance to finish the job – to make our Constitution whole.
Let’s overlook the descriptive puffery and concede the point. Between 1788 and 1800 or even much later in the 1800s, it would not have been unreasonable for treaties to have been settled, with a mutual ceding of sovereignty over particular areas of territory. But forward to 2023 and the point completely loses its force.
I’m not an historian. I don’t know why treaties didn’t happen but I suspect that Aboriginal groupings were too small and disorganised to establish their case and perhaps to even understand that a case could be made. And so two centuries and more have gone by. Regrettable, maybe, but a fact of life and history. Most people with Aboriginal ancestry have integrated into society at large. Most people claiming Aboriginality are much more the descendants of settlers and their descendants, including immigrants who have arrived over the last one hundred years and more, than they are of the original inhabitants of the land. Indeed, some who claim Aboriginality are indistinguishable from the population at large.
Back to Longstaff’s argument. It still holds water, it seems to me, if tribes of Aborigines could be found who had preserved their ethnic integrity, their way of life and their tribal identity. A special voice to parliament and treaties specifically for such peoples, would be well in keeping with international norms, even if centuries late. But that is not the situation nor is it the proposal.
Too much integration has passed under the bridge. You can’t retro fit treaties between people who are 100 percent white and those who, say, are 75 percent white and 25 percent indigenous; and whose white antecedents came from Yorkshire; and who occupy jobs in the city and in the suburbs. It’s self-evidently nonsensical.
Longstaff, and many others in favour of the Voice and where it will inevitably lead, have allowed their fair-minded instincts to overwhelm their common sense. That’s no good recipe for running the country.