The fate of future generations is in the balance
‘A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?’
Australians will vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on this question in late 2023, and it will be their first referendum since 1999 when they were asked if they supported Australia becoming a republic. That was 23 years ago, almost a quarter of a century.
The Australian Republican Movement lost that referendum in 1999 because then prime minister John Howard confused the ‘Yes’ voters into believing that there was a better model; they should vote ‘No’ for the question being put to them and wait for the next referendum to vote for a better model. They are now boomers and it is highly unlikely they will see Australia become a republic.
Young Australians who have come of age and obtained the right to vote a few years ago will have no memory of that tortured, tricky debate. Yet they are witnessing the same tactics now, with Opposition Leader Peter Dutton proposing that his party room supports a different model for the Voice and has committed to advocating a hard ‘No’ for the question that will be put to Australians later this year.
The proposed law that Australians are being asked to approve at the referendum would insert a new section into the Constitution:
‘Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
1. There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
2. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
3. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.
This is a modest proposal, designed over many years of consultation, research and debate to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have a say in the laws and policies that affect them. History shows, the Close the Gap reports show, successive royal commission reports show, and the statistics show, that for most Indigenous people those laws and policies have failed to improve their lives—and in many cases, further marginalised them from the opportunities enjoyed by other Australians.
Dutton’s special trick in his drive to persuade Australians to vote ‘No’ relies on several old hacks that former prime minister John Howard turned into weapons of war against decency and humanity. He learnt the dark arts of misleading the voters to retain power, not only from his Australian-born backroom boys, but also from an emerging class of influencers who respectively succeeded in winning power for their masters by getting Donald Trump elected to the presidency in the United States and Boris Johnson to the prime ministership in the United Kingdom. They also persuaded the British to vote against their own economic interests in the Brexit plebiscite with the result that the UK has fallen to the bottom of the OECD economic rankings and ordinary Britons are sacrificing meals for heating. The Financial Times reported in November 2022 that the economy ‘is set to be the worst performer in the G20 bar Russia over the next two years’.
Just as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson conned the voters into voting for a fantasy about the Britannia of their private school days, so Dutton is appealing to the old frontier days beloved of Queenslanders who remember when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were kept in their place by Joh Bjelke-Petersen. I remember too. I grew up in that racist system that classed me and every other Indigenous person as a ‘ward of the state’. That authoritarian control of our lives may have lessened, and the formal racist laws ended two or three decades ago, but the logic of paternalist control lives on in Dutton’s Liberal Party, and alarmingly in what he says is the policy position of his party room on the Voice proposal.
The Opposition Leader has announced that his frontbench is bound to the ‘No’ case as he has outlined it, and indicated that backbenchers would be free to have a conscience vote. It is clear that some members of his party room dispute the outcome, and several are refusing to advocate the ‘No’ case. Premier of Tasmania Jeremy Rockliff has also refused to advocate for the ‘No’ case. Dutton represents the hard right of Queensland Liberal and National Party members, and this is his strategic error.
Rather than John Howard’s much cruder lies about ‘children overboard’ in demonising the 433 refugees on Norwegian freighter MV Tampa and refusing to accept them, Dutton is purporting not concern for the children of the despised Muslims on boats but instead concern for the remote Aboriginal people who are being manipulated by a ‘Canberra elite’, ‘24 academics’. He purports to support closing the gap on our disadvantages but insults all 25 of us serving on the Referendum Working Group as the ‘Canberra elite’. This was especially shocking since one of our members was the great Dr Yunupingu, elder and statesman from northeast Arnhem Land who died just days before Dutton made these disgusting statements. Moreover, only three of our members live in Canberra, and all are Elders born and raised in the Northern Territory: Professor Tom Calma AO, and Senior Australian of the Year; Pat Anderson AO, former ACT Senior Australian of the Year; and Pat Turner AM, CEO of NACCHO and the Chair of the Coalition of Peaks. The majority of the members live in and represent Indigenous constituencies in the Torres Strait Islands (Pedro Stephen), the Kimberley (Peter Yu) and Quandamooka, south-east Queensland (Dean Parkin), as well as the Kaurareg Aboriginal and Kalkalgal, Erubamle Torres Strait Islander, living in Darwin (Thomas Mayo) and the list goes on, with the contributions of each outclassing Dutton’s in compassion and good works manifold times.
Let’s think also for a moment about his insult to his parliamentary colleagues who serve on the Referendum Working Group. The Referendum Working Group is co-chaired by Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney and Special Envoy Senator Patrick Dodson, and especially his former cabinet colleague Ken Wyatt, who resigned his membership of the Liberal Party after Dutton and Ley announced their opposition. The full list of non-parliamentary members insulted by Peter Dutton can be read here:
Mr Dale Agius, SA Commissioner for First Nations Voice
Ms Pat Anderson AO, Co-chair of Uluru Dialogue; Chairperson, Batchelor Institute
Ms Geraldine Atkinson, Co-chair (outgoing), First People’s Assembly of Victoria; Member of Indigenous Voice Co-design groups
Professor Tom Calma AO, Co-chair, Indigenous Voice Co-design groups; Chancellor, University of Canberra; and Co-chair, Reconciliation Australia
Professor Megan Davis, Co-chair of Uluru Dialogue; Balnaves Chair in Constitutional Law UNSW
Mr Rodney Dillon, Chair, Tasmanian Aboriginal Heritage Council; Co-chair, Tasmanian Regional Aboriginal Community Alliance
Mr Sean Gordon, Managing Director, Gidgee Group; Councillor, University of Newcastle
Dr Jackie Huggins AM FAHA, Co-chair, QLD Treaty Advancement Committee; Co-chair, National Apology Foundation
Professor Dr Marcia Langton AO, Co-chair, Indigenous Voice Co-design groups; Associate Provost, University of Melbourne
Mr Thomas Mayo, National Indigenous Officer, Maritime Union of Australia; From the Heart
Mr Tony McAvoy SC, NT Treaty Commissioner; Barrister
Ms June Oscar AO (ex officio), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
Mr Dean Parkin, From the Heart
Mr Noel Pearson, Founder of Cape York Institute; From the Heart; and Member of Indigenous Voice Co-design groups
Ms Sally Scales, Uluru Dialogue member; APY Artist
Mr Napau Pedro Stephen AM, Chairperson, Torres Strait Regional Authority
Mr Marcus Stewart, Co-chair, First People’s Assembly of Victoria; Member of Indigenous Voice Co-design groups
Ms Pat Turner AM, Convenor of Coalition of Peaks; CEO, National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation; and Member of Indigenous Voice Co-design groups
The Hon Ken Wyatt AM, former minister for Indigenous Australians
Professor Peter Yu AM, Vice President, First Nations at ANU; Member of Indigenous Voice Co-design groups
Yunupingu (1948–2023), Chairman, Yothu Yindi Foundation; Member of Indigenous Voice Co-design groups.
Leaving aside Dutton’s utter ignorance of the biographies of the members of the Referendum Working Group and the parliamentary process, there is the chilling innuendo in his statements that send a very nasty message: those of us who have managed to close the gap in our own lifetimes by standing up to racism and working hard against the odds are now ‘manipulating’ the vulnerable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have not closed the gap, even though each one of our life stories demonstrates decades of hard work to improve their lives. It is worth reminding readers that Professor Tom Calma AO was the main protagonist who convinced Australian governments to formalise the Close the Gap strategy. Pat Turner AM convinced Australian governments to sign the national partnership to Close the Gap and collaborate to achieve the new targets.
This hack of the ‘real Aborigines’ versus the alleged frauds has been borrowed from a long line of politicians, haters, shock jocks, grifters and Murdoch opinion writers, including Pauline Hanson, Mark Latham, John Howard, Alan Jones, Gary Johns and Andrew Bolt. The stock in trade of the racist who purports to love the ‘real Aborigines’ is to cast all the Indigenous people they hate as frauds, as Andrew Bolt did in his famous ‘It’s Hip to be Black’ articles that were found by Federal Court Justice Bromberg to be racist and based on lies, and ordered to be removed permanently from the internet. Dutton’s sneaky version of this is ‘We shouldn’t be voting for a divisive Canberra voice, that’s the issue. We should be listening to what people are saying on the ground’, as reported in most of the media, including on the ABC’s 7.30 in an interview by Sarah Ferguson with me on Thursday 6 April 2023.
The announcement of the Liberals’ party room opposition to the Voice question by Peter Dutton and Sussan Ley was a jumble of deceitful propositions, glued together with the usual contempt for Indigenous people who won’t bend over and smile while being punched down on with their paternalism. Lucky for them there are a few who will.
There are several obvious points to make about their announcement and its messaging. The first is that it came just days after the Liberal Party lost the seat of Aston, creating a historic record—it was the first time in 103 years that a federal government had won a seat from the Opposition in a by-election. The swing against the Liberals shocked even Labor; at more than 6%, it demonstrated that the Liberal Party had lost touch with its traditional constituency and also everyone else, including most women, young Australians, the children of migrants, Chinese Australians, and other ethnic groups that had been demonised in the brutal years of rule by Howard, Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison. As Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney MP said on the ABC, ‘Today’s decision is about Liberal Party internals. It has nothing to do with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people or taking Australia forward together.’
At the core of the Liberal Party opposition to the Voice is the very idea of the recognition of Indigenous Australians, even if Dutton denies this. His slippery, two-faced approach is to pretend to support a ‘symbolic recognition’ and the ‘practical implementation’ of local and regional bodies to give advice. Dutton has tried to deceive Australians into believing that the Liberal Party supported the Voice. He has lied about this in several ways. He is banking on most Australians being ignorant of the fact that every Coalition government for the past ten years—and he served as a cabinet minister in every one of them—deliberately and viciously opposed both. Former minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt took the Interim Report and the Final Report of the Indigenous Voice Co-Design process (led by Professor Tom Calma AO and me) to Cabinet in 2020 and 2021, and both times, Cabinet declined to approve the implementation of the regional and local voices. Further, Dutton now claims incorrectly that the proposed Voice to Parliament will be a ‘new arm of the government’ and will require ‘thousands of new public servants’ and ‘cost billions to run, without improving outcomes for Indigenous Australians’. These matters will be settled by the Parliament should the referendum be successful, and he knows that. The question itself does not concern these matters.
Dutton plainly set out to deceive Australians on his claim to support what is now referred to as the Calma–Langton Report, suggesting that I support his contention about regional bodies being preferable over the national Voice. That is not supported by the evidence. The Calma–Langton Report recommends an integrated system of regional bodies that would appoint a National Voice. Our terms of reference explicitly ruled out any consideration of constitutional matters. Our report was devised by a group of 52 people, mostly Indigenous, relying on consultations with thousands of people, and is largely technical in its recommendations. Dutton has misrepresented our recommendations. They are there for all to see in our Final Report on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice website.
This will be the basis for parliamentary debates following the referendum, should it be successful. We include: a summary of our recommendations; and a graphic overview of the local/regional Voice arrangements which would nominate members to the National Voice; that the Voice would have no responsibilities for funding or programs; it would be advisory only; it would provide advice to the Parliament and to government. We accommodated remote regions, youth, people who live with disabilities and Torres Strait Islanders who live on the mainland; ethics and a system for determining who is a fit and proper person; and how the Voice would give advice.
Sarah Ferguson noted that Dutton says his decision to oppose the Voice to Parliament is based on his view that it is an elitist ‘and I quote, “Canberra” model, that it won’t improve the lives of Indigenous Australians’. She asked me to respond to that, and I replied: ‘He couldn’t be further from the truth, and I deeply resent that deceitful opinion that he’s expressed.’
Tom Calma and I were co-chairs of the senior advisory group in the Voice co-design process appointed by Ken Wyatt, and we chaired meetings of 52 people including a National Voice Co-design group and a Local and Regional Voice Co-design group from all over the country, from rural and remote Australia and from the cities, from every state and territory. It was a collaborative effort—and yet a lot of people say it was a government report. No, it was not. It is the report of the 52 people on that Voice Co-design Committee, and we presented two reports to Ken Wyatt.
He has explained this in public a number of times. He took the Interim Report to Cabinet: no comment. He took the Final Report to Cabinet: no comment. It was my view, shared by several informed observers of federal politics, that Peter Dutton would never support the proposition for constitutional recognition through the enshrinement of the Voice. His early days in the Queensland Police Force shaped his world view and his approach to Indigenous Australians, as he himself admits. I made my views clear to Sarah Ferguson:
At no time in our history has Peter Dutton ever acted in a way that has, you know, resulted in a measure that would close the gap on our disadvantages, that would benefit us, that would enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to fully participate in Australian society. That’s just not his track record.
In fact, to the contrary—many of his decisions, including walking out rudely on the apology to the Stolen Generations, rather typifies his history, and even though he much, much later apologised for that, one, of course, has the feeling that he did so under pressure to rehabilitate his reputation.
In contrast, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has been positive and transparent in his commitment to the principle of constitutional recognition through the enshrinement of a Voice for Indigenous Australians: ‘We’ve waited 122 years to recognise in our Constitution the privilege that we have of sharing this continent with the oldest continuous culture on Earth. I say to Australians, do not miss this opportunity.’
I have been particularly surprised at the way that Julian Leeser, as the former shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, twisted history and participated in a lie-fest to oppose the Voice, given he co-chaired with Senator Patrick Dodson the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. It shows some integrity on Mr Leeser’s part to have resigned the shadow ministry to move to the backbench, knowing that it took more than a decade of work to propose constitutional recognition of First Peoples by ensuring the Voice. He shows some familiarity with the Calma–Langton report, which results from the recommendations he made when co-chairing the Joint Select Committee with Senator Patrick Dodson. However, he insists that he will push for changing the referendum question. He has not made the task of advocating for a ‘Yes’ vote easier. I will be interested to see his submission to the present Joint Select Committee considering the Bill. He remains confused and unable to arrive at the logical position of supporting the Bill as it is, despite his protestations about his positive commitment arrived at ten years ago.
Dutton also claims that the Solicitor-General argued against the Voice being able to make representations to executive government. It is central to the case that Dutton is making. He is not correct, and is devising a false case to frighten the voters. He is relying on voters to believe his web of deceit and ignore the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders who are advocating for constitutional recognition through the enshrinement of the Voice.
The Solicitor-General gave us a briefing on a particular set of words. Some of the members of the Referendum Working Group were concerned about the wording and how those words might confuse voters, and especially the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were relying on us to settle the referendum question to their satisfaction, after years of consultations. We debated a second set of words proposed by Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. After debating this proposal, I believe that we settled on a constitutionally sound referendum question that clarified the scope of the Voice and the powers of Parliament that does not derogate from the power of the Voice to make representations to Parliament and the executive government, while also clarifying and confirming the powers of Parliament. The question is clear and comprehensible to anybody in the community and we are able to defend it. The constitutional alteration defines the powers of the Parliament to design the Voice in legislation and, should we be successful in the referendum, it will become the subject of a parliamentary committee and a design process. The Second Reading Speech, which will be relied on by courts, makes this clear, but it has been misrepresented by Dutton.
Australians will be consulted, and parliamentarians will have their say in the House of Representatives and the Senate on the design of the Voice. The referendum can still succeed without bipartisan support. The electorate has changed over the past two decades, and I believe that Dutton has made a strategic error in banking on the confusion and contempt that Barnaby Joyce, Andrew Bolt, Pauline Hanson and others are causing with conspiracy theories that are not justified by the Constitution Alteration Bill and the Second Reading Speech. These are now the subject of a Joint Select Committee, and any member of the public can make a submission.
Most Australians rejected the hard-right policies at the last federal election, in the NSW election and in the Aston by-election. The constituency of the Liberal Party has changed dramatically. Dutton seems unaware or cavalier in his misreading of the electorate, hoping for a swing to the ‘No’ case based on fear-mongering and contempt for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We who advocate for the ‘Yes’ case are hoping that Australians are better than this, and more aware than ever before of the case for empowering us to make representations to Parliament and government that have historically imposed laws and policies that continually fail us, and fail all Australians. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people deserve better than Dutton’s gaming of a very straightforward and modest proposal.
Marcia Langton AO is a descendant of the Yiman people of Queensland. She is the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne.