A quick note to my international readers, this article represents a rare break from my typical focus (stories of psychology and mental health) to write about something of incredible importance in the life of my home country, Australia — the upcoming referendum on the Indigenous Voice To Parliament. Rest assured, normal programming will resume post-referendum, Oct 14.
Your gut says Yes. Your head says But.
Is this you? Your gut’s telling you that the Indigenous Voice to Parliament is a good idea, but then there’s a “but” — a tiny seed of doubt.
I get it. After all, there’s been a lot of doubt sown in the lead-up to the referendum on Oct 14, by many different people who have many different agendas at stake. Which has left the honest people who just want to do the right thing, stuck in the middle, unsure if their gut instinct is the right instinct.
I feel like no one’s talking to this kind of person. That’s why I’ve prepared this article — to fill that void and, hopefully, help you see that your gut’s got it right.
I’d also encourage you to lean in to Indigenous Australian writers and speakers to understand the Voice more fully, and nib your qualms more completely.
… But we shouldn’t even be voting on this. Isn’t that disrespectful?”
You’re right. In an ideal world, it shouldn’t be for non-Indigenous people to say if Indigenous people have a right to self determine. Sadly though, we don’t live in an ideal world — this is the system we’ve got. And working tirelessly within that system, Indigenous Australians have asked if their voices can be written into the Constitution, where they should’ve been from the get-go. The only way to do that is via a Referendum. Ideal? No. But the best possible thing we can do in the system we’ve got? Yes.
… But there’s no details on how the Voice will operate.”
There’s actually clear and extensive ideas for the legislation that could end up determining the scope, structure, and processes of the Voice — but that’s kinda putting the cart before the horse.
On Oct 14 we’re being asked to vote on principle. Should this be in our Constitution or not? Should we make space for Indigenous Australians, and their voices, in our founding document, or not? That’s all a Constitution is after all — a list of principles that we the People agree on. (We wouldn’t want every nitty gritty detail from 1901 frozen in our Constitution — just the broad principles.)
If it’s a Yes, it’ll then be Parliament’s job to squabble over the details that determine how that principle comes to life in the law. That’s also why it’s a bit disingenuous for the ‘No’ side to demand “details” — they know they’ll get a significant say post-Referendum, to help determine the final powers of the Voice during the legislation process.
As Noel Pearson has said, we have to decide first if we want to build a bridge, before we bicker over which nuts and bolts to use on it.
… But I think the Government’s up to something.”
The Government has actually had very little to do with the Voice. The idea for it came directly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 1,200 Indigenous communities engaged in extensive dialogues with the Referendum Council over 2015–16, to form what would become the Uluru Statement From The Heart. This Statement is kinda like Indigenous Australia saying, “Hey, here’s our truth. And here’s what we think could make things better. What do you think?”. All Albo’s done is to support it.
… But there should be a Treaty first.”
Ideally. But who will the Treaty-writers negotiate with? Who’ll represent the many voices of Australia’s First People at the negotiating table? In part, the Voice is also a means to create a body of fair representation that can enter into a Treaty agreement with the Commonwealth. That’s why the pathway outlined by Indigenous Australians in the Uluru Statement is Voice → Treaty → Truth.
This path is proven too — it’s what was followed in NZ to establish the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975, who, even without veto powers, promptly negotiated a Treaty via a fair and due process for both sides. No runs for the bank. No rushes for people’s property. Just calm and civil process.
… But there’s no guarantee our politicians will even listen to the Voice.”
Our politicians have varying degrees of tone deafness. But this is why it’s so important that the Voice should be constitutionally protected. That way its presence is permanent, not precarious. So that it can’t be binned by a future Government, like previous Voice-like bodies have been (e.g. just look at how the ATSIC was decommissioned by the Coalition in 2005).
But the bigger reason for constitutional enshrinement is so that the Voice can be honest, a voice of truth without fear of retribution — a true co-author of our democracy.
… But even Indigenous Australians don’t want the Voice.”
A small minority don’t. The vast majority do. After all, Indigenous Australians aren’t just one homogenous bloc. And as with every community in our society, there’s never just one point of view. Different communities. Different views.
Weirdly though, that’s why the Voice is a really good idea, because it’s to be proposed that on the advisory body that acts as the Voice To Parliament, there’ll be many different reps from many different Indigenous communities, each voicing ideas to solve their specific community’s challenges.
… But shouldn’t everyone have a Voice? Where’s the Chinese-Australian Voice? Or the Iranian-Australian Voice?”
This is a separate issue. Indigenous Australians were here 65,000+ years before our founding document was written. This Referendum is an attempt to right a historic wrong, an absence in our Constitution that should’ve always been present (if only Captain Cook and co had done things right, if at all). Everyone deserves a voice in our democracy, that’s true, but Indigenous Australians, as the people who were here first, deserved and do deserve the right to be co-authors in the society that instead tried to supplant them.
… But Australia Day will get cancelled and they’ll come for our homes!”
Cast your mind back to 2017. Australia was being asked to vote on same-sex marriage, and the ‘No’ campaign said that if same-sex marriage was made legal, people would then be able to “marry horses”.
Well, same-sex marriage is legal, and has been legal for six years, and as of yet, no marriages to any horses.
I know from my personal life that fear (and the slippery slope it sends you down) can feel psychologically compelling in the moment, but it is always a terrible predictor of the future. Our political system, imperfect as it is, has failsafes that mean, unless the bulk of us agreed they were good ideas, the ‘doomsday prophesies’ being projected by the No camp simply wouldn’t come to pass.
… But it’ll divide us along racial lines.”
I think this whole ‘racial division’ thing is a bit of gaslighting on behalf of the Coalition and Newscorp (who largely control the media agenda in this country). For one, when you look overseas at legally similar bodies in other post-colonial countries, they’ve always worked to heal historical divides, not create new ones. But moreover, and again from Noel Pearson, Indigenous people aren’t a ‘race’ (in some parts of the world, Indigenous people are blonde-haired and blue-eyed) — indigeneity is actually about ‘firstness’.
… But I don’t understand what the Voice will even voice.”
The British Empire’s actions in the 1770s kicked off an intergenerational cascade of events that Indigenous Australians are still feeling today.
But Indigenous Australians did just fine for the 65,000+ years before the Brits rocked up — with a land and people sustained through what Bruce Pascoe describes as a “jigsaw mutualism”, a knowledge borne of deep time, with a baked-in lean toward ecological sustainability and social harmony.
The Voice will air ideas from this cultural and intellectual tradition, to propose Indigenous community-led solutions to the challenges faced by those communities today.
… But, I still can’t shake the feeling that the Yes campaign is just going off vibes.”
I agree, there’s a gap in the communications coming out of the Yes side right now. It feels like they’re saying the Voice is ‘good, good, good, good…’ without saying ‘because, because, because, because…’. That said, that doesn’t mean those becauses don’t exist (I hope this article has brought some of them to you).
I’d also encourage you to probe the seemingly more ‘logical’ arguments coming from the No camp. If you strip away their veneer, you’ll find they’re rather baseless appeals to our negative emotions — “the Voice will do this… the Voice will do that…” — hypotheticals based on a mix of fear and cynicism.
If the Yes side is pushing warm and fuzzies, the No side is pushing cold and sharpies.
But then there are the facts. Historical facts, statistical facts, legal facts, political facts, psychological facts. It’s these I hope I’ve outlined here. And by doing so, I hope you can proudly vote Yes on Oct 14, knowing that only the Yes side aligns with both your feelings and the facts.
Your gut has got it right.
If you found this article compelling, you have my permission to share it and reproduce it in full wherever you wish. I only ask that you please credit me as the author if you do.