Celeste Liddle on the Voice: ‘Truth-telling is the first important step’

September 12, 2023
Invasion Day rally in Gadi/Sydney. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Arrente woman Celeste Liddle told Radio National’s The Minefield program on August 31 that since the referendum date was announced, the mainstream discussion has turned more racist.

Rather than truth-telling, it has turned into an ugly discussion about First Nations peoples’ “worthiness”.

“Part of my biggest frustration, and it’s why I say fear seems to be winning the day, is that a lot of the campaign has been playing on public ignorance of political mechanisms: the Voice itself; the constitution itself; and the history where things have come from, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked in the past,” Liddle said.

This has had such a huge impact that help lines have now been installed to assist Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander communities that are feeling under siege from the Voice referendum.

The interview, by Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens, was framed around the question: “When is a referendum an unethical way of resolving a political question?”

Liddle was still undecided on her vote, saying a big reason is the process leading up to the referendum.

“I have questions about ideas of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community consensus on whether the Voice is the right way forward.”

She said both the Yes and No camps are presenting “quite simplistic ideas”. They are “wallpapering” over the more discerning conversations happening in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities about “whether we want a Voice, how we want a Voice, how it should be constructed, what should be the order of business”.

“From the Yes camp, we hear a lot about how this Voice is going to be democratically selected: it’s going to be representative of gender balance and age balance, remote communities, as part of its make-up.

“But the reality is that that’s not what we’re being asked at the referendum.

“We are being asked a Yes or No question about whether there should be a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice that can be installed in the Constitution and then make representations.

“The actual constitutional amendment still gives the government the power to decide the structure of that Voice.

“Really, all of these things that they’re promising us are legislative changes that are not going to the referendum.”

Liddle said it is true that if the Voice is enshrined in the constitution, it would be unlikely to be removed.

However, she noted that its structure could be. All the government needs to do is decide the structure, get the legislation through and “we could be left with them deciding one person is going to be the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”.

The Yes side is making “a lot of promises” but “there’s not a lot of truth to what is on the table and how simple and conservative it is.

“By design, [the Voice] was made that way — to give it the highest chance of it being voted up.”

Relying on ignorance

Liddle is critical of the mainstream No campaign for “relying on community ignorance”. Saying that the referendum will give First Nations people “more rights” over other Australians and “it’ll divide the country by race” is wrong.

“There is this real sentiment around the Constitution itself and how ‘precious’ it is to Australian democracy. There’s not a lot of truth to that.”

The Constitution was “written by people who also wrote the White Australia policy” on the understanding of Terra Nullius. “It is already divided by race in three different parts.”

In addition, the official No campaign is asking whether First Nations people even deserve a Voice.

Added to a widespread lack of understanding about First Nations peoples’ lives today is the trope that past First Nations bodies, such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), were corrupt and this is why there was bipartisan support to close it down.

“There has been this idea that ATSIC was a complete failure. But it’s not really the truth of the matter,” Liddle said.

“It became a political football for governments, and we’re seeing recycling of that.”

Yet, as Liddle pointed out, ATSIC had “some degree of self-determined decision-making. We did have democratic elections attached to ATSIC: I’m old enough to have voted in a couple of the last ones.

“That’s not remotely what we’re looking at with the Voice,” she added.

“It states very plainly, in the proposed constitutional amendment, that the Voice may make representations to the government and the executive with regards to matters that they deem necessary, and the government may listen to them.

“ATSIC was delivering programs; ATSIC was building communities.”

Truth telling should come first

Liddle is adamant that the nation would have a lot to gain from engaging in a truth-telling process first.

If we had truth telling first, what would change?

For a start, it would mean not having “the same debates” on ATSI rights and politics “for decades now”, Liddle said.

“We come around to January 26 every year and it’s the same old discussion. You ask the average Australian what happened on the 26th of January and they don’t actually know, beyond it being an important day for Australian pride and that those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are trying to take this away.”

While Liddle believes “things have shifted slightly” since she was in formal education, “they haven’t shifted enough”.

Generations are “still being brought up with a very sort of White Australia understanding” of the country.

She said a process of truth telling would “put us in a better position to do things like have a treaty and then have things, like a Voice, installed in some sort of way without a community being completely torn apart every time”.

The interviewers put to Liddle that the “tragedy” of the current debate is its “polarisation”: on one side there is a fear the Voice will be powerless and will accede too much power to the government, and on the opposite side is a fear that the Voice is not at all moderate, giving “too many rights” to one group of people.

“The reality is that this is a highly conservative reform, by its very design, because it’s an amendment in the Constitution,” Liddle responded. Furthermore, everything that it will and won’t do “has been set out”.

“The fact is that the parliament has the right to decide on the structure of what this Voice is. It’s not upsetting any status quos. In fact, it’s reinforcing them, because it is reinforcing the Constitution as the key founding document of this country.

“To see [Prime Minister] Anthony Albanese reiterate over and over again that there will be no power of veto does say an awful lot about the politics of fear.

“His message has been: ‘Oh, we’re giving them rights, but we’re not giving them any real rights’.”

According to Liddle, all this stems from “Australia’s lack of ability to reconcile with its past and its present”. It also arises from “the ongoing legacy of colonisation and the … very real impacts that they have on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.

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