There's a real risk that everyone may lose from the referendum - Australia as a whole, the government, the Liberal Party and, most importantly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
No one should run away with the idea that a "no" vote will enhance Australia's reputation with its nearest neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region. Equally, if part at least of the motivation for the Liberal Party was to take the shine off the Prime Minister and the government, that is certainly happening.
But it is hard to see how the Liberal Party's stance will help them recapture heartland seats lost at the last election to the teals, Greens and Labor, seats which cost them government. So the government and the Liberals may both end up losing from the referendum. And the cost to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may be measured in increased racism, divisiveness and continuing lack of progress in Closing the Gap.
But it need not be like this because behind the din of partisan battle there may be a core of consensus on where we, as a country, need to end up. At the moment, all the attention is focused on the referendum itself as if a "yes" or a "no" vote is the end of the story. But it isn't, and it is what follows the referendum that really counts.
No one is arguing that there should be more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dying in their 30s, 40s and 50s of preventable conditions. Or continuation of the unnecessary deaths in early childhood, unacceptable levels of children with hearing defects, adults hooked up to dialysis machines and more. There is no general acceptance of the proportions of children not learning to read and adults unable to achieve their potential, or of the levels of poor housing, high suicide rates and imprisonment rates that are off the planet. Everyone agrees that these and other gaps are unacceptable, aren't closing as they should, that what we are doing at the moment isn't working.
The focus ought to be on what needs to be done to turn things around. There are those who argue that a "yes" vote could be a symbolic act with little practical benefit to Aboriginal people on the ground. And they could have a point because while symbolic actions can have a beneficial effect, turning things around means figuring out what is necessary by way of practical action to achieve the desired results - and actually doing it, not just talking about it. And that would require fundamental reform of flawed government and other processes.
But anyone who believes that the necessary action to turn things around can be achieved without the Voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is kidding themselves and ignoring both the lessons of history and the fundamental principles of program delivery. And while regional and local Voices are important, a national Voice is required for a national issue. History also shows that legislated Voices are prey to the whims of elected governments and stop start voices won't cut it for long-term national issues requiring continuity and sustained effort and action.
What about treaties? While the countries most like Australia - Canada, New Zealand and the USA - also struggle with the continuing legacy of their own histories and the drive for greater equality for their Indigenous peoples, Australia stands alone as the only one of those four countries without a treaty with its Indigenous peoples and arguably, in health at least, is the worst for it. But while treaties can play a useful role, they are not magic and have often been simply ignored by governments. But not entirely. Treaties have led to health and other programs for First Nations peoples and the Innuit people in Canada, to the Indian Health Service in the USA, and the Treaty of Waitangi and the associated tribunal, (which perhaps has somewhat overlapping functions to the proposed Voice) has had some positive broad health and social benefits. But no one believes that history has shown that treaties have solved all problems. Far from it. And given the divisiveness, fear and misrepresentation that has surrounded the Voice referendum, introduction of a treaty process in Australia would face an uncertain future at best.
So where might a national consensus lie? What might unite rather than divide Australians and their political parties? There is already broad national agreement amongst political parties and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on national goals and targets on health, social, economic and other issues. And there really is no getting away from the fundamental principle that no program can work without the full, active and continuing involvement of the people who are supposed to benefit from that program and that means a Voice.
At some level, that is not really in dispute as the Coalition has supported legislated Voices including local and regional Voices. Importantly, for understandable and compelling reasons, most Aboriginal people urge that the Voice be enshrined in the constitution both as a non-binding Voice and as recognition of the place of Australia's First Nations peoples in Australia today.
So if Australia is to gain from the referendum, whatever its outcome, all political parties should now publicly commit to undertaking the necessary action to finally do what is required to close the gaps. To listen to the voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people no matter how constituted, to adopt the principle of needs based funding whereby Aboriginal people receive the same level of funding as anyone else in the population with equivalent need, no more and no less, and to a fundamental reform of government and other processes, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership, recruitment of staff with service delivery experience and the requisite skills, and a national training program for all those involved - service providers, bureaucrats, administrators and board members. With these actions, victory for all might still be snatched from the jaws of defeat.
- Ian Ring AO is an occasional commentator and former academic and public servant.