Rights and wrongs

| October 5, 2023

Indigenous leader and Lawyer, Noel Pearson, is one of the architects of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. He has been quoted as saying indigenous communities must take greater care of their children. He warned that the quest for self-determination is being undermined by ongoing neglect and abuse.

Of course, anything that improves the lives of children is to be encouraged and supported. However, recognition of Indigenous people and improving the lives of their children can be achieved without amending the constitution of Australia. The delivery of government services to citizens is a matter for the legislature and the bureaucracy. Therefore, in practice, “The Voice” would be subject to the same political forces and bureaucratic shortcomings as existing and previous attempts to address disadvantage.

The Constitution is silent about our freedom of speech, but The High Court of Australia has ruled that our freedom of expression is inferred in the democratic principles set out in The Constitution.

Likewise, The High Court has already decided that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had rights to the land before the British arrived. Clearly, Indigenous peoples are already recognized and have the same rights as other Australians. Albeit unnecessary, recognition could be confirmed by a separate referendum question which would almost certainly succeed.

In the mid-20th century, a large number of children were ‘stolen’ from their British families and sent to Australia. Should they and the descendants of convicts unjustly transported to Australia or ‘soldier settlers’ and ‘susso’s’ devastated by government policies be treated as exceptional? The answer is not so straightforward as the question. A weakness in the argument for reconciling past wrongs is that many of us are descendants of both the perpetrators and the victims of injustice.

The National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) website states: “We work directly to and support the Minister for Indigenous Australians. We work to influence policy across the entire Australian Government. We also liaise closely with State and Territory governments to ensure that Indigenous programs and services are delivering for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as intended.”

It is interesting to speculate on what the response would be if the Voice were to advise government to revive the failed ATSIC or introduce a program, based on achievement of measurable ‘Gap’ indicators, to replace the existing bureaucratic agencies with decentralised, indigenous self-governance.

The “Yes” case would be greatly strengthened if the Hon. Linda Burney MP, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, explained how a separate ‘Voice to Parliament’ would interact with the NIAA and what could “The Voice” achieve that cannot be done through the existing agency.

I agree with broadcaster and academic, Waleed Aly, who contends that proponents of the Voice are mistakenly promoting it as an “antidote to history, not the future”. He further argues that the debate on the merits of a constitutional advisory body has “given way to a contest over grander narratives of national history and identity”.

‘Closing the Gap’ focuses on Indigenous life expectancy without acknowledging strong evidence that in the early 19th century, Indigenous life expectancy may have been up to 60 years, which is 20 years longer than it was in Britain and for most non-indigenous colonists*. In other words, Closing the Gap aims to increase indigenous life expectancy by at least 20 years longer than it was prior to colonisation.

I contend that the quality of life has not improved in proportion to the increase in longevity for non-indigenous Australians. I would also argue that quality of life objectives should be paramount in public policy, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity.

The Prime Minister unwisely presumed that Australians would support constitutional change without question. He must have considered the historic difficulty of convincing a majority in most states to vote ‘yes’.

The ‘yes’ campaign now appears to be about avoiding the consequences of failure for the PM and the nation. Should the referendum fail, it will severely embarrass the government. Far worse, it will bring shame, division and national disgrace onto Australia.

* Reflections, Memories, and Sources: Healthier Times: Revisiting Indigenous Australian Health History.

Blyton G.

Health and History,

Vol. 11, No. 2 (2009), pp. 116-135