‘Voice is a distraction — we are entitled to a treaty’

September 14, 2022
Sydney Invasion Day rally in January. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

The proposed Voice to Parliament would mean little “meaningful change” for First Nations people, according to Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre president Graeme Gardner.

Gardner withdrew from the referendum working group, appointed by federal Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, after discovering participation implied support for the Voice proposal.

The panel is made up of more than 20 First Nations leaders from across the country.

“I thought my participation was to allow for debate about whether the voice is appropriate,” Gardner said on September 9, the day the Referendum Working Group met in Canberra.

“It became clear that I was required to ‘advocate for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice enshrined in the Australia constitution’, whether I supported it or not.”

Gardner told Green Left that the Voice would be “only symbolic”.

“What we really need, is to be able to ask where the rights of Aboriginal people [are] at. We should be talking treaty and truth-telling, rather than appeasing the white majority of Australians,” he said.

The federal government has been pushing for the Voice since it was elected in May, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese saying a referendum will be held this term.

There is resistance from prominent First Nations’ leaders to the Voice proposal, including Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe. The Gunnai Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman told Sydney Criminal Lawyers in August that the proposal would mean “ceding sovereignty”.

The Voice proposal stems back to the Uluru Statement — from the heart, written after the 2017 First Nations National Constitutional Convention.

Gardner, who was nominated to represent Tasmania at the convention, said the proposal does not “take into account the whole essence” of the statement.

“It’s just picking at elements of it,” he said. “People think it’s the first step towards treaty, but we have got to be careful because the Voice is just an advisory body that can be ignored by the minister.

“Do you think the Liberals will listen to the advisory body if they win the next election?

“We need nominated seats in parliament, not just a powerless voice,” he said. “Besides, we don’t need a referendum for an advisory panel.”

Gardner said the Albanese government should be clear on what the Voice would “actually mean”: “Give us precise wording, tell us what it is.”

Gardner acknowledged that proponents of the Voice have “good intent”, but said that much of the discussion around the proposal is “a distraction”.

“Albo and his government are taking a soft approach because there is fear that it won’t work,” he said.

“They have a combative [Peter Dutton-led] opposition, but the hard words aren’t there and accepting crumbs is frustrating.

“We are entitled to have a treaty,” Gardner said. “It’s not a new idea; previous treaties have been ignored by governments.

“What a treaty contains is up for discussion, but it should be authored by Aboriginal people.”

It is hypocritical for federal and state governments, that have presided over damage to significant First Nations sites through mining and other developments while talking up the Voice proposal, he said.

“Companies have been able to get away with destruction because governments are pro-developer,” Gardner said. “But we don’t see demolitions of European history.”

Gardner has called on Burney to fund a first Nations-led “No” campaign against the Voice proposal. “The government should facilitate debate, not just show one view.”

“Is the Albanese government still committed to a treaty if the referendum fails?” he asked. “We need to make sure that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people get their say.”

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