The Voice

Indigenous Australians Deserve a Democratic Voice

In a democracy, everyone deserves a voice. For most Australians, that voice is formally expressed at the polls: once every three or four years, they cast secret ballots to decide who will represent them at various levels of government. A select few have other, more influential voices, publishing their views in newspapers or whispering them in closed-door meetings.

Of course, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have the same electoral voice as everyone else, but very few of them have a direct line to the powers that be. The proposed indigenous Voice to Parliament and Executive Government is an opportunity to change that. An opportunity that, unfortunately, has already been all but lost.

There are many valid arguments for and against enshrining an indigenous Voice in the Australian Constitution, but no one can argue that prominent indigenous intellectuals and businesspeople lack access to the media—or entry to the closed doors that line the halls of power. They have highly influential voices, and they are listened to.

What Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are missing is the democratic voice of the ballot box.

Of course, indigenous Australians have the right and responsibility to vote, just like everyone else. But in a country where much government attention is focused on specifically indigenous issues, the opinions of ordinary indigenous Australians about how they should be governed are overwhelmed by the preferences of the general public.

General elections are won or lost on broad issues like housing policy or climate change. Arguably, indigenous Australians should have a separate say regarding policies that apply only to them under the ‘race powers’ embedded in section 51 of the Australian Constitution.

But the proposed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice would do nothing to give voice to ordinary indigenous Australians. It will instead further empower the relatively elite officers of indigenous organisations to speak on behalf of indigenous Australians. It represents power to the already powerful, not power to the people.

It is theoretically possible that, should the referendum succeed, Parliament would decide to set up a system of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elections based on a indigenous electoral roll. But the government has never suggested that it would.

The official government Voice website elides the issue, saying that “to ensure cultural legitimacy, the way that members of the Voice are chosen would suit the wishes of local communities”. But what are those wishes?

In democratic countries, we ascertain the wishes of local communities via secret balloting based on universal suffrage. But that is not the mechanism envisaged for Australia’s indigenous Voice. In fact, the Indigenous Voice Co-design Process never even considered it. Their two models were that unelected regional Voices would either meet behind closed doors to select members of the national Voice, or vote for members of the national Voice.

They opted for closed doors.

Indigenous Australians deserve better. They deserve what indigenous peoples in the United States, Canada, Norway, Finland, and New Zealand all take for granted: a vote. Every other country that has formal representative mechanisms for indigenous peoples organises them on the basis of one person, one vote.

Some people suggest (and indeed the Co-design committee report implied) that Western-style representative democracy does not align with the cultural values of indigenous Australians. On that argument, we should stop criticising China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia for not adhering to international standards of democracy and human rights. We don’t trust foreign leaders who say that their people don’t value democracy; why should we trust would-be indigenous leaders who say the same about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians?

The proposed Voice would make Australia the first democratic country to formally relegate its indigenous citizens to second-class status by denying them the dignity of voting for their own representatives.

Granted, the referendum question does not preclude the possibility of indigenous democracy. But neither side in this debate has so much as raised the issue, and the historical treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians gives no reason to believe that Australia’s governing elites—indigenous or non-indigenous—are likely to legislate a democratic Voice.

Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney

12 thoughts on “Indigenous Australians Deserve a Democratic Voice

  • Alistair says:

    The two most telling aspects of the legal advice that the Government has had from its Constitutional lawyers, High Court judges, and political luminaries is their complete disregard for allowing Aborigines the same right to the liberal democratic structures and English-style legal process – favouring instead the imposition of “stone-age” political structures and a “stone-age” legal system – a rule by an unelected and unaccountable Indigenous elite. It is a complete slap in the face to liberal democracy, and the Enlightenment in general. It is clear that they are comfortable allowing indigenous people to be denied those rights. And, by extension, no doubt they are just as ready to deny the mainstream population the benefits of the Enlightenment as well. Its as if they see liberal democracy as a failed experiment not worth persevering with and are preparing the way for a rule by elites.

  • rosross says:

    They have it, as Australians.

  • leabrae says:

    Perhaps Dr. Babones might consider the roles and functions of the various land councils. One that might be pertinent is the Central Lands Council, whose last annual report appears to be dated 2019–20. The privileges that the author here wishes for Aboriginals are not available to ordinary folk. If we write to a government department or agency or even MP a reply is extremely likely. We do have the right to vote but, increasingly, so what? What will be new, and doubtless with the approval of Dr. Babones, is the forthcoming regime of censorship. I pulled from my shelves the other day and purely at random an edition (September 1979) of “Encounter”. The back cover has an advertisement: “Index on Censorship”, vol. 8, no. 5. Who will provide such a volume in Australia? Will it be legal? Probably not.

  • Stephen Due says:

    The argument for a properly democratic Voice rather than the elitist structure proposed by the government (albeit in rather vague terms) is a good one. However this still seems to me to be a solution in search of a problem.
    Perhaps a case could be made, if the referendum fails, for a Royal Commision to determine what exactly are the problems facing Aboriginal Australians as such, and what might be done to address them. We hear a lot about the importance of preserving Aboriginal culture, including Aboriginal languages, traditional knowledge, and customs. Is that need being addressed effectively? We are dimly aware of significant health and social problems in Aboriginal communities. What can be done to address those?
    It is unlikely that a rational process of inquiry would conclude that a Voice as envisaged in the referendum was the best way to address the actual problems ‘on the ground’. But if there is to be an effective process to address real problems, the government must take control. Among its other deficiencies, including its evident redundancy, the Voice could well prove to be just another convenient way for the government to evade its responsibilities in this arena.

  • Adelagado says:

    Its all about tribalism, clans, hereditary power, bloodlines, mobs – everything but democracy – and we know how well that has worked out for every black country that has gone down that track.

  • Ceres says:

    Correct about the elites like Noel, Marcia, Thomas etc salivating at the thought of probably ensconcing themselves as unelected ‘representatives’.
    Can’t agree that “the opinions of ordinary indigenous Australians about how they should be governed are overwhelmed by the preferences of the general public”
    Other Australians can’t overwhelm the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, the NIAA and the hundreds of organisations and “Voices” specific to aborigines. and not the rest of us. Plus the $30 billion specially allocated for aborigines and which is overdue for a forensic examination as to where it’s going.
    Would also like the specific aboriginal issues defined as many Australians also suffer from what seem to be the exact same issues.

  • Russell Gray says:

    I am over all this concern about how approximately 3% of Australians aren’t having their opinions heard in Canberra! Well what about me? An active Liberal Party member? I email my LNP MPs regularly about issues that concern me that needs their action, but I may get a coherent response from 1% of them!
    My point is that The Voice will give the average aboriginal a similar result, especially via the handful of selected Voice representatives!
    That is why I am voting NO because I am following Jacinta and Warren’s practical and first-hand advice!

  • Peejay says:

    I don’t agree with Mr Babones that there are many valid arguments for and against the Voice. I can think of not one good reason for voting YES.
    The crux of the matter to me is that a YES Constitution would divide the country forever on the basis of race. Aborigines in one camp ((3%) would have special provileges denied to the rest of us (97%). I don’t care who got here first, it’s irrelevant to me, but a democracy must be led by the will of the majority.
    Throughout my long life I’ve noted that because of the invasive media we have that issues are often won by the minority views. How can this be? It’s been getting worse of course over the decades with instant reporting (much of it fake news).and very skewed to the left.

    The majority of people (ie at least 51%) are mentally lazy, apathetic,disconnected with current affairs and their views are shaped by the self-appointed opinion makers (radio, TV, on line, social media and even newspapers)!
    I can only pray that the lazy brains out there can spark up enough neurones to see the Voice for what it is – a communist inspired revolution of zealots who want more power than they already have. They will decide how the treaties will be negotiated and the reparations distributed.
    Adelagado has said it well.
    “Its all about tribalism, clans, hereditary power, bloodlines, mobs – everything but democracy – and we know how well that has worked out for every black country that has gone down that track.”

    Can you think of one African country except the Republic of Sth Africa that has created a fair and equitable country for its people and shared the mostly valuable natural resources?

    Can you imagine if the zealots get what they want?- a sovereign nation of their own or as Keith Windshuttle coined it “The Breakup of Australia” It’s scary stuff.

    I’ll give my neurones a rest for a

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