The Voice

Aboriginality with Settler Characteristics

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.

13 thoughts on “Aboriginality with Settler Characteristics

  • Adelagado says:

    I though Paul Kelly’s commentary in The Australian today was excellent. He’s normally too long winded to maintain my interest but today he was spot on.
    Oddly, I thought, my comment below was rejected by The Australian today even though it was a copy and paste of exactly the same comment that was accepted a few days ago.

    “” It will become an aboriginal House of Lords. Activist, highly political, radically far left, and, sooner or later, hereditary, with an endless ability to sabotage the workings of any government.”‘

    • BalancedObservation says:

      In reply to Adelagado.

      Neither of your comments surprises me.
      The Australian has a lot of good stuff in it. It often puts valid and fair points of view across in articles which you’d never see in the left-of-centre press.
      It may be fashionable in some quarters to attack Rupert Murdoch but we in Australia can be thankful to him for adding to the diversity of media coverage in our country. Without him we’d be fed a virtually 100% media diet of left-of-centre views and angles.
      However – and it’s a big however – to me The Australian’s moderation of comments leaves a lot to be desired. So much so that I refuse to subscribe to it or any media outlet which frequently censors what I believe to be valid comments of mine – particularly when my comments could never be described as extreme in any way.
      But I do often buy a weekend hard copy edition of The Australian though. It’s good value and moderation of comments is not an issue then.
      Incidentally I disagree with your comment even though it’s quite an interesting and arguable analogy. You were entitled to put your point of view. That’s I assume one of the reasons you subscribe. In my view your comment should not have been censored on its second appearance.

  • geoff_brown1 says:

    Isn’t Lidia Thorpe’s claim to Aboriginal status based on an Aboriginal great – great Grandmother?

  • Daffy says:

    The anachronistic transmogrification of kin-clans or tribes into ‘nations’ or ‘states’ as per the Longstaff quote is risible, to say the best. At the time of European and British discovery tribal people would have been seen as not only much lesser developed than the sophisticated, productive societies the discoverers came from, but also also, possibly, the individuals as primitive to Euro-celts in the ‘great chain of being’. While ideas of transmutative evolution were in the air, it was not until the mid 1800s that Darwin’s ideas really gave them a boost. With them, less advanced natives, whatever the location, would have been seen, as per the ‘best science’ of the day, as lesser than human.
    Such views would have been reinforced in the discoverer’s minds by Australian Aborigines’ lack of any sophistication of artifacts, clothing, settlements, foodstuffs, weapons. As they became better known, the degrading poverty they lived in and their practices of abuse of women and children (Tench and Brendt and Brendt), infanticide and cannibalism would have been confirming. Today we would attribute that state to isolation, but then, ‘primitive’ would have been the observation and the judgement. All, at the time, quite understandable. Certainly not a group that could be considered able to form governments, exercise sovereignty and be able to conduct treaty negotiations. Users of the land they dwelt upon, with no articulated concept or practice of ownership.
    So where we are today, is where we have landed. Aborigines seem to be fully reconciled to a modern culture that has for long encouraged their full participation and enjoyment of social intercourse and comradely aid. We are all people together and should continue to seek a commonwealth of mutual endeavour, not a suspicious competition for the fruits of others’ labour and selective exclusion from an obviously shared land.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Remote areas of rural Tasmania in the C19th saw a lot of cohabitation between Irish settlers and local aboriginal people. Historians have pointed out how the material conditions of existence weren’t all that different, with Irish people learning hunting and how to find native plant foods, and aboriginal people learning settlement and rudimentary farming. Neither had much in the way of Western technology beyond the Irish having iron tools that were hard to come by, including a cooking pot. Their children often assimilated into white society; some did not. This happened all over Australia.

    Much of what I saw in the 1970’s in rural New South Wales while visiting some ‘aboriginal’ towns such as Dubbo, Wellington, Brewarrina, was a working class culture of itinerant labourers, ‘black and white and brindle’ as they would say, which became the ‘aboriginal’ culture of ‘mobs’ that we see today. It was essentially what anthropologists such as Oscar Lewis describe finding world-wide as ‘a culture of poverty’ with its own signifiers, symbols, language elements and reliance on an extended kinship system of ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’. Nothing particularly aboriginal about it, as the white population also expressed it in exactly the same way. It may be that earlier ‘classificatory’ systems of aboriginal kinship survived as cultural remnants, which ensured these terms remained in popular usage for the utility that they had during itinerant labour as an ‘insurance’ against hard times when kin could be leaned on to be ‘helpful’. It’s a pretty degraded system of parasitism now though, keeping aspirational savings from growing due to the demands of others asking for them due to ‘traditional’ rights.

    Most working class Australian families of my generation can recall numerous classificatory Aunties and Uncles, who were often local neighbours, who helped out in various ways. My older sister married a part-aboriginal man who looked not unlike the man third from the right in that photo above. There was no discrimination. They had a son, my nephew. Both he and his son are deceased now, but neither ever claimed aboriginality nor do their descendants, to whom I am Great Aunt, simply ‘Auntie’ to all. Nor should they make such a claim for such a small proportion of their ancestry, their one part-aboriginal
    grandmother now three or four generations ago. It may be a point of interest but it is not a life’s determinant in any way. Except, it seems, for those who wish to make hay from such a remote connection.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    ‘the debilitation of time’ – such a redolent and useful way of viewing things, Peter.
    Thank you for your sensible perspectives on the mooted ‘shape-shifting’ Voice. If it is ever put, this bad idea is a Referendum that has to fail, for the sake of us all no matter of what heritage. Unity of us all under the Constitution is the only way forward now, not extremely divisive ancestor-seeking.


    ” 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;”
    In other words, aboriginality is pro rata. But when it comes to filling out those official tick a box forms like the census and others pertaining to some kind of benefit where a person can identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, pro rata percentages don’ apply, and, just like that, people are one hundred percent the ethnicity they are claiming.

  • brandee says:

    Thankfully Peter Smith has not had his common sense overwhelmed like Simon Longstaff. The comments by Elizabeth Beare, Daffy, g-b, and Adelagado all reveal much insight and the common sense so seldom seen in the Yes campaign.
    A clever reference to the photo caption and the DNA of the Uluru authors and the later sentence “some who claim Aboriginality are indistinguishable from the population at large”. It is a clear demonstration of racial reconciliation!
    Aboriginal culture broke down so quickly when exposed to the new settler culture and Aboriginal stockmen were much valued. Itinerant miner and author Ion L Idriess writes that:
    “Not only did the {tribal] young men seek the whites, but soon the young girls did too, though these would return to camp loaded with what spoils they had won – an also, alas, in so many cases, with the germs of disease”
    “Thus, almost every Stone Age tribe eventually helped to detribalise itself, by giving permission for the women, hitherto so jealously guarded and the cause of so much strife, to associate with white men, subject to return and reward. This fact has, I understand been overlooked by the folk who study aboriginal decline”.
    Idriess wrote this from his experience in Australia’s north both before and after his ANZAC service in WW1. These quotes are from OUR LIVING STONE AGE, published in 1963

  • brandee says:

    When looking at the well clad Uluru authors in the photo it is easy to forget that their tribal ancestors with whom they identify would have posed for such an event completely naked.
    In a myriad of ways Aboriginal Australians have benefited from adopting settler culture, and they benefit most when they fully integrate.

  • Phillip says:

    Hi, I am a First Nations person. My country was founded upon its first federal parliament in 1901 with a Constitution that gave birth to the First Nation on earth to occupy a whole continent. Before 1901 the continent was inhabited by a collective of British style colonies, each colony centred upon a major river for freshwater supply. And before the British style colonies arrived, I have been informed that the continent had a splattering of nomadic groups of people wandering about the continent. The nomadic groups apparently were independent self-sufficient tribes who took no interest in annual meetings to address the welfare of continents inhabitants. And definitely not, in protecting the continent from foreign invasive forces. I can’t find any evidence of those nomadic people building any uniform nation or government or army. There is certainly zero evidence of any industrial, educational, engineering, or sovereign systems in place and operating before the British colony. Hence the premise to call a collective of nomadic independent self-sufficient people with no form of government or Constitution, as the First Nation(s) is offensive.
    The true First Nation on this continent, being the citizens of Australia, was cemented by Federation in 1901.
    As a member of the First Nation and being a First Nations person, I am comfortable with the current wording of the Constitution and do not agree with any change to promote a minority group on a racist agenda.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Perusal of the Australian colonial newspapers reveals a remarkable fact about the early colonists. Fully aware that settlement must inexorably destroy the Aboriginal way of life, they believed that the correct solution was assimilation. The colonists were not stupid. They were there on the ground. Broadly speaking, that was their assessment.
    And what happened? Assimilation.
    But what is happening now? Hard on the heels of the fake pandemic and the fake climate emergency we have the campaign for the Voice. This is not (though it purports to be) the Voice of a dispossessed and abused race. This is a fake Voice. It is the Voice of the politically active descendants (real or imaginary) of a people already largely assimilated, whom their forebears would scarcely recognise. The proposed Voice, like the whole Aboriginal industry, is nothing but smoke and mirrors.

  • pmprociv says:

    Thanks, Peter, for yet more common sense, as well as the comments you’ve provoked. While I fully agree with your sentiments, there’s an even more fundamental point to all this which inexplicably seems to be escaping attention, explaining my incessant harping on about it. This clamouring for a Voice, threatening irreparable damage to the nation’s essential instruction manual, implies that ATSI people don’t yet have one, that nobody is listening to them, after so many years of white colonialist oppression.
    This could not be further from the truth. In addition to voting, as citizens, for parliamentary representatives, they also have countless indigenous organisations, entirely publicly-funded, whose main, if not sole, purpose, is to lobby governments. More widely-known ones include Empowered Communities/NIAA, NACCHO, and, to top them all off, the Coalition of Peaks, representing only about the 80 LEADING groups. Its highly informative, sophisticated website ( reveals that it is “made up of over 80 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled peak and member organisations across Australia. The Coalition of Peak members have their own unique histories, needs and priorities, and share a commitment to legitimate community-controlled representation of our communities on matters that are important to our people. We came together as an act of self-determination to work together with Australian governments on Closing the Gap.” Now, isn’t that a powerful voice, covering all the salient issues? It’s telling the government how to Close the Gap. And it seems to have the ear of Minister Linda Burnie, judging by the cover photo. Is she not listening?
    What possible use could there be for an additional, socially disruptive and inevitably expensive constitutional voice? (OK, cynics might say it will enlarge the already lucrative trough for all those well-known snouts that have become addicted to this sort of thing.)
    If The Voice does get up, will all these other voices be made redundant, and shut down? (just joking . . .)

  • rickhurst says:

    Thank you Phillip for putting the viewpoint of a First Nations person so well!
    You express my thoughts exactly having been born in WA in 1944..despite my Anglo Celtic DNA I agree we are the real First Nation people.
    Thanks Albo for bringing on the Voice as it has stimulated my reading on aboriginal issues.
    Books by Peter B English are informative and have led me to believe that Aborigines really only recognise as Aboriginal those whose father is a full blood Aboriginal..Where Aboriginal DNA has come down through the maternal side the person is considered an outsider. If the Voice (God forbid) gets up giving Australia effectively apartheid then this definition of an Aboriginal has much to commend it.
    Especially in view of the increase in so called indigenous has exceeded that biologically possible in recent years.
    Ric Hurst

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