The idea of a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in our constitution is one meant to empower our people more than ever before. It is meant to give us an irrevocable voice in the halls of power and separate Indigenous affairs from regular political brawls.
But the proposals the government has presented will not achieve any of that. They are a failure to realise our future and support our ambitions. The government does have time to fix this situation, and for the sake of us all, it must get it right.
As I have written previously for this paper, an attempt to achieve a First Nations Voice without constitutional enshrinement would be a betrayal of the process and consensus around the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and will result in a flawed and failed Voice. I said at the time that "a toothless, revocable, and uninspiring Breath to Bureaucracy is just not going to cut it", and this fear about the government's proposals has come to fruition.
I am aware that I and others like me advocating a constitutionally protected Voice are likely to repeat at length the dangers of this body being legislated or incorporated, but it is an important point that needs belabouring. Placing this body in the constitution isn't just about symbolism, it also has practical legal and political outcomes.
Constitutional enshrinement protects a Voice from the ebbs and flows of day-to-day politics, allowing it to function without fear of retaliation from government and to present frank and full advice. It creates an opportunity for truly reforming the politics of First Nations issues, by taking them out of the regular political melee. This was the entire point of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, to radically rethink our approach to First Nations affairs. Something the government seems determined to ignore
We have lived through the government giving us similar such bodies, whether they be ATSIC or the National Congress; bodies that have sailed on the political winds, only to be ignored and removed when they became difficult. The government didn't listen to these bodies, and there is no reason to think anything will be different this time without constitutional protection.
The government is well aware of this, and even prevented its co-design groups from examining the merits of constitutional protection, among other Uluru Statement reforms. They deliberately hamstrung this process, knowing the risks of doing so, and they are proceeding anyway.
The government would argue that the Australian people would not support a referendum on a Voice to Parliament, and we need to legislate first. This is simply not true. According to research by the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the ANU, "70-75 per cent of Australian voters [...] support a First Nations Voice to Parliament", and those who support a voice "outnumber opponents in a majority of states".
Simply put, it is not just First Nations people who want a constitutionally protected Voice, but an overwhelming majority of Australians. Progressing with the government's proposals in spite of this does not reflect the will of the Australian people or a desire to truly see meaningful change.
The details of such proposals, while less relevant than the government's failure to act on Constitutional enshrinement, are equally uninspiring and bland. The status quo in Indigenous affairs lives to fight another day, where government can continue to ignore advice when given. The proposals cobble together aspects of previous failed bodies, and elements thoroughly rejected at the Uluru Convention. Funding for the Voice, meanwhile, is as existent as the government's commitment to a referendum.
What is the point of a Voice if it will function as, and indeed contains elements of, the failed bodies that has gone before? What is the point of a Voice if it isn't funded to function?
If we are to judge this work by the Voice's ability to advocate best for our issues with Parliament and the government, and its ability to be fearless in its work, these proposals will achieve very little. What is most important is that we move toward a body which is enshrined in the constitution. That is what will give us the necessary power and leverage for change.
We must urge the government to push forward with a referendum on a Voice, and put forward a proposal that reflects our wishes. Only that will give a Voice the greatest chance of success for First Nations people.
Failure to get this right isn't an option here. If we don't, we will be back at the beginning, more battered and bruised, and not better off.
- James Blackwell is a proud Wiradjuri man and a research fellow in Indigenous policy for the Centre for Social Impact at the University of NSW. He is an adviser to the ulurustatement.org education project.