Notes of an Arrernte ‘Undecided’

September 26, 2023
Celeste Liddle. Photo: Celeste Liddle – Arrernte writer & Commentator/Facebook

In the public sphere, I have now stated several times that I am an “undecided voter” when it comes to the Referendum on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.

My views haven’t shifted as we move closer to this referendum.

Indeed, right now I feel like I want to distance myself as much from it and the surrounding societal discourse as I possibly can. Unfortunately, this is not possible. In mere weeks, I, like most other registered voters in this country, will walk into a polling booth and make my mark on the ballot.

My stance of being “undecided” has a long history. It’s not merely coming from the current Yes or No campaigns (though I will say more on both of these later). Rather, it’s coming from being a child brought up in the land rights movement, who remembers the then Hawke government reneging on treaties, who remembers the Mabo decision, who was old enough to vote in the 1999 Republican referendum, and who remembers John Howard’s proposal of “practical reconciliation”.

In my late twenties, I heard the incredibly moving words of The Apology, followed by the dashing of any hopes there might have been compensation for survivors. I witnessed the Northern Territory Intervention, followed by Stronger Futures and heard entire communities be demonised by Julia Gillard’s “rivers of grog” comment in the press.

I’ve seen the hand-wringing and resignation of governments every year when the Closing the Gap report is tabled in parliament.

Promises and lies

I’m at a time in my life where I have seen a lot of promises, a lot of lies, a lot of attacks on Indigenous communities and not a lot of change. I therefore lack faith in the current political system and its ability to ever be that agent of change.

When I’m asked if I believe a Voice enshrined permanently in the Australian Constitution will change the current system I lack so much faith in, my answer is an immediate “no”. I say this because, by its very design, it is not meant to.

The government has been clear on this in its proposed constitutional amendment should Australia vote Yes.

As stated in the amendment, the parliament will decide the structure of the Voice via legislation, and the Voice may make representations to the government. There is nothing stating that the government is obliged to listen and act according to those representations.

At this point, it is proposed that, should the referendum be successful, the structural legislation for the Voice will see it elected by Indigenous communities, contain gender and age balance, and be representative of remote, regional and urban voices to best address disadvantage. This sounds good and has come directly from items such as the Marcia Langton–Tom Calma report and the Expert Panel.

However, we need to remember two things: firstly, that it is merely a legislative proposal that could be either quashed on the floor of parliament or changed the minute the current government loses power; and secondly, that, as has been clear from the very beginning, the Voice will have no power of veto over legislation which will impact our communities.

Many questions

This proposal raises so many questions for me.

What measurements will governments use to determine whether proposed legislation impacts Indigenous people?

Will the Voice only be consulted if the proposed legislation specifically names us, or will there be ability to feedback on other legislation which tends to disproportionately impact our communities such as disability, education, mining and exploration, climate change and so on?

If advice is sought from the Voice and that advice is ignored, will governments shoulder the blame or will the Indigenous people in this body be demonised (as has tended to happen many times over history)?

Just a couple of days ago, I found myself again lamenting that when the Uluru Statement had been developed, it should have laid the order of business out in a different order, namely “truth, treaty then Voice”.

My original reason for stating this was simple: it made the most sense to me that Australia needed to come to terms with its history first, then enter into agreements that protected the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples based on being a more informed populace, and then finally, once our rights were protected, a Voice could be constructed via these treaty agreements.

This is a view I still hold.

The Constitution is an instrument of the colonial powers to solidify their rule over lands Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have never ceded.

What’s more, to this day, the Constitution still contains remnants of the White Australia Policy, which informed it. It may be Australia’s “founding document”, but it also is a relic, and one that states people can be banned from voting due to their race and can be barred from running for parliament due to their dual citizenship, and it allows for discriminatory laws to be made specifically impacting Indigenous people.

My reason for reiterating “truth first” the other day, though, was more cynical. As the campaigns from both the Yes and the No camps heat up, I am seeing a lot of lies and half-truths being circulated from both sides.

Indeed, I am now of the belief that the referendum is likely to fail due to these continual lies leading to a thoroughly misinformed public.

On trawling through the social media pages of prominent No campaigners such as Advance Australia, Jacinta Price, Pauline Hanson, Kerrynne Liddle, Peter Dutton and the like, the misinformation hits you like a freight train.

There is no chance, for example, that inserting a Voice with no power of veto and no permanent structure into the Constitution will “divide the country by race”. If this were the case, what exactly are any of these campaigners doing about the racially divisive sections already contained within the Constitution?

The Voice is also not a communist plot, nor is it capable of being one if it centres the constitutional status quo. I’m just going to leave that there so people can laugh at this ridiculous claim in their own time.

I see the No camp parroting the claim “If you don’t know, vote ‘No’” continuously yet what is there actually to know?

The referendum question is deliberately simple to give it the greatest chance of success at the booths. What may happen afterwards — while there have been ideas put forward — remains in the power of the government.

The government could choose to construct a robust and representative Voice, yet never listen to it. They could listen to the representations made by a Voice, but never act upon them. They could attempt to act upon these representations on the floor of parliament only to have proposed legislation quashed by an opposition with the support of the crossbench.

Such is the nature of our democratic structure. Truly, when it boils down to it, the only thing that this referendum is going to do is insert a Voice to Parliament in the Constitution.

What happens next will be business as usual, but potentially with some advice.

Voice undoing a great wrong?

For all I have said about that particular section of the No campaign though, many members of the Yes side are not helping matters.

It’s irresponsible, for example, to state that this Voice is about undoing a great historical wrong when it won’t be. Including a Voice in the Constitution is, by nature, a status quo position because it accepts this document as Australia’s foundational document without challenge.

It’s an act of working within the system, rather than seeking to overthrow it or change it. It’s also irresponsible for them to make any claims on what the structure of the Voice will be and how it will be formed when this information is not a part of the proposed constitutional amendment. Times change, governments change and legislation changes.

By far what has been the most challenging part of this debate for me to stomach, though, is the enforced duality of the debate, whereby the Yes side is framing itself as the progressive and anti-racist side, while framing the No side as the regressive and racist side.

The impacts of this have been manifold.

For one, they have effectively silenced discussions from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who may be voting No, or be undecided, because we question the order of priorities, the claims that the Uluru Convention was actually representative, see proper recognition of Indigenous sovereignty as the real item of pressing business, or any number of other things.

It’s more convenient to claim that some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people don’t know what’s good for them and therefore are aligning with the “real racists” rather than sit back and listen to some of the very robust discussions happening in our communities.

I also have to say that I am yet to see any real evidence that the Yes side is, in fact, anti-racist. You cannot vilify Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, or silence our diverse voices, particularly when we’re raising questions about sovereignty and self-determination, whilst claiming an anti-racist standpoint.

It simply doesn’t work.

As an Arrernte “undecided”, I have heard many make claims as to why my vote should shift to one of support. I remain undecided because I am yet to come across a view that truly convinces me.

I don’t, for example, believe that the Voice is a step towards treaty, as outlined in the Uluru Statement and argued by some Indigenous supporters of the Yes vote.

Indeed, if I had my way, I would suggest scrapping the Voice today in favour of creating a body to develop a “national treaty framework” outlining the basic principles and non-negotiable elements.

This framework could then be taken to the communities and grassroots levels to be used as the basis of local agreement-making with governments. In other words, I would prefer our rights, nationally, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, were protected before we were incorporated into the primary governing document of the colonial powers.

I also don’t necessarily buy that losing this referendum will set our movement back decades. In fact, the reality, as I see it, is that regardless of whether a Yes or No vote is successful when the referendum eventually happens, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will still have to fight continuously to be heard and to have our views respected as the Original Peoples of this land.

Fights such as land rights will continue. We will still be pushing to have the recommendations from both the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Bringing Them Home report instituted.

We will still have to fight for cultural rights, for language rights. I doubt very much our need to gather on the street every 26 January to mark the Day of Mourning will be diminished.

A Voice may be able to advise on all these matters, but only governments will have the power to do something about them, so the fight will be far from over. We could end up with another Northern Territory Intervention tomorrow, regardless of what a Voice advises the government.

If I had any advice for the Australian public at large right now, it would be to stop, sit back and engage in some deep listening when it comes to the conversations happening in Indigenous communities.

Shortly, you will have an important decision to make at the ballot box. You owe it to yourselves, to our communities and to future generations to be as informed on this decision as you possibly can be.

Block out the lies, the half-truths and the misinformation and instead think about what kind of country this is, and what kind of country you would like it to become. Perhaps then, you will gain a better perspective with regard to how we can all, constructively, move forward.

[Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman, an opinion writer, social commentator and critic based in Naarm. This piece was first published in Arena Quarterly no.15 and republished with permission.]

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