I have written for this paper a number of times over the past year on the issue of a First Nations Voice, and the importance of allowing the issue to go to the Australian people via a referendum to place such a body within the constitution. Yet the more I write, and the more we hear from First Nations people and communities around the country about their desires for a referendum and the benefits an enshrined Voice will bring them, the more the government moves in the opposite direction.
The government, under Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt, seems determined to legislate a Voice to Parliament, and not hold a referendum. The Prime Minister has insisted there will not be a referendum, despite commitments at the last election to hold one pending design of a model. The co-design groups commissioned by Wyatt to work on such a model have been publicly in favour of a legislate-first approach, despite it being against their terms of reference to make any recommendation one way or the other.
If the government tries to ram through a legislated Voice to Parliament within this parliamentary term, something they seem committed to doing, the Voice that First Nations people end up with as a result will not only be ineffectual, it will also have zero credibility - with the First Nations community, but also with the broader Australian public.
The development of a First Nations Voice to Parliament is the most important constitutional reform issue this country has faced in many decades. It represents a moment to fundamentally reshape the dynamic between First Nations people and the Commonwealth. Why are we seeking to rush it through legislation?
The arguments for such an enshrined Voice are clear, concise, and consistent. It will empower First Nations people and communities by giving us a say over our own affairs, allowing our Voice to be heard more than it ever has been before, and in a way which will not be subject to the whims of government. A First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution will be a truly empowering and inspiring moment, and not just for First Nations people. It will also represent a changing moment for Australian society. Enshrinement is essential to the function of a Voice.
Such a vote, despite many in government doubting its ability to succeed, is likely to enjoy almost as wide a success as the 1967 referendum concerning First Nations people, based on current opinion data analysed by the Australian National University. Furthermore, analysis by UNSW's Indigenous Law Centre shows close to 90 per cent of submissions to the government's own consultations for the Voice, which occurred in the first half of this year, favour an enshrined Voice and implementation by referendum.
The government's own confidential consultation summary also reflects this, with the overwhelming feeling of community being that "There needs to be a guarantee that governments can't change the National Voice as they like," and "Without a guarantee, people won't buy into it unless they are sure it will last." All of this is to say that support for an enshrined Voice is significantly higher than the government is portraying, and any attempts to frame a referendum as doomed to fail will only contribute to this self-fulfilling prophecy.
Furthermore, a Voice that is legislated first will kill off any attempts to later enshrine the body in the constitution. A successful legislated body will not be enshrined, because no government is going to want to spend the political capital a second time, especially to give further power to an existing Voice it cannot later revoke, as has happened with previous bodies. If the legislated Voice is unsuccessful, however, it goes without saying that it will never make it to a referendum. The momentum for change is here now. The momentum of the Australian people is here now. The momentum to create a First Nations Voice, and realise the dream of the Uluru Statement, is here now.
Any attempt by the government to rush through a First Nations Voice to Parliament will not just kill off this momentum - it will also be a betrayal of its election commitments. It will leave this country with an ineffectual Voice that will have no credibility with First Nations communities, or with the Australian people.
- James Blackwell is a proud Wiradjuri man and research fellow in Indigenous policy at UNSW's Centre for Social Impact.