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Indigenous voice to parliament: much gusto, no detail

By Jack Wilkie-Jans - posted Thursday, 19 September 2019

August brought with it the well-known, annual Garma Festival that takes place in the Northern Territory. Being one of the most popular Indigenous events in the country, social and political leaders flock there to espouse their views on the latest in Indigenous affairs to attendees. Naturally, the topic of constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians was chief among such leaders during speeches, discussions and other forums. Therein, proposals such as negotiating a treaty and establishing an Indigenous "voice" to the Federal Parliament, as stemming from the Uluru Statement from the Heart (2017), were the cornerstone details to much of the calls heard at the festival. While they didn't play a key role in the most recent election, calls for such proposals has grown considerable over the last two years and seems almost universally supported among the Indigenous academia and urban bourgeoisie. Though I am not convinced that these proposals will be the resolution to racial disharmony that they are framed as becoming, as more blatantly they show themselves to be less about reconciliation and more about a separatism of sorts.

Monday 19th of August's airing of ABC's Q&A episode "The Indigenous Voice" saw these topics and the Uluru Statement being discussed with much passion among what was without a doubt the best behaved panel for some time. The panel featured the obligatory Co-Chair of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition, Julian Leeser, and Sally Scales, who is an Uluru Statement Delegate. More interestingly the panel featured stellar leaders like Indigenous affairs veteran, Pat Turner, relative newcomer, Jacinta Price, and Linda Burney, Labor's Shadow Indigenous Affairs Minister.

We were treated to some very insightful views on Indigenous affairs across a decent scope, sure, but while the issues outlined in the Uluru Statement were discussed they weren't really dissected.


Price admirably led the charge on what can easily be considered the 'common sense case' on the proposed, constitutionally-enshrined voice to parliament and what is being called a Truth Commission. She questioned their would-be function and structure. The best thing about her approach on Q&A was that she definitely respected the panel and even exclaimed her support for the proposals of the Uluru Statement, were they merely theoretical. She didn't attack but she did critique.

I can count nobody in the Indigenous affairs field - at the national level - who is entirely against the recommendations of the Uluru Statement but I can count on only one those who query them. So far that list comprises of Ken Wyatt and Jacinta Price.

Price made mention of the fact that her language group was not invited to be represented at the Alice Springs summit in 2017 and, as such, she questioned how comprehensive are these proposals in terms of their representational reach. It's a good point. Nobody from my tribal groups were present from the Western Cape of Cape York Peninsula. If I'm to believe what I'm being told by the wide raft of Indigenous leaders, being that the government does not represent me, then does the Uluru Statement?

All I know is that when we did have nation-wide representative bodies such as ATSIC they didn't represent me. They didn't represent anybody successfully. The National Congress of First Nations Peoples was supposed to be a belated answer to fill the space left behind by ATSIC, which was otherwise filled unduly by regional Land Councils. However, with the tens of millions sunk into the now in voluntary administration National Congress how will a "voice" work or be managed any different? If the Uluru Statement delegation was not truly representational of all language groups, how will it be structured in terms of its leadership hierarchy?

Such questions are entirely valid if we are to go to a referendum and ask the Australian people to vote on amending our national document without all the information.

These failed institutions of Indigenous success, that succumbed to mismanagement are ghosts of a failure to recognise the right to fail. For too long these organisations were the figurative dead horse being flogged out of desperation and white guilt, ignoring the fact that Indigenous Australians, much like any other, sometimes just don't make the cut.


While I know it will never happen, what does trouble me deeply is that this so-called "voice" to parliament is expected to function less like an advocacy body and more as a Third Chamber. It's been commented that the "voice" ought to have veto power of certain, I guess Indigenous, specific legislation. The Indigenous elite curry billions of dollars in annual funding for projects that by and large haven't had much of a success rate over the last twenty years. For them to now want a separate, Third Chamber for about three percent of the population is absolute tosh.

Such a thing would not do anything for my racial or cultural identity as an Australian with an Aboriginal mother and a British father.

Sceptical as Price seems to be regarding the representational structure of the "voice", I'd hasten a guess that all it would do is centre power over Indigenous affairs away from Traditional Owners across the remote regions and outside of the power of the politicians we elect. On the latter, I see the controversies around this as being similar to those of the Medevac Bill; that such a body would undermine the office of relevant ministers and place government power in the hands of the unscrutinised, unelected officials.

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About the Author

Jack is a Traditional Owner from the Western Cape, Cape York Peninsula, an Aboriginal Affairs advocate and he sits on the board of the Cape's peak body organisation for social, economic and environmental development, Cape York Sustainable Futures Inc.

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