Will a Voice to Parliament deliver change—and is there any alternative?

Solidarity answers key questions about the Voice to Parliament, what it would mean, and whether there is any alternative to it

What powers would the Voice have?

The proposed Voice to Parliament is simply a powerless advisory body. It would have no control over government funding for Indigenous programs and no veto over government actions. It would be a far weaker body than previous Indigenous advisory bodies such as ATSIC, which had control over some government funding in areas like Indigenous health and housing.

The Voice is a far cry from the demands for self-determination and Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs that have been central to the Indigenous rights movement.

As Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell has explained, “It cannot legislate, administer any revenue, provide services, raise taxes or stop parliament from passing racist laws. It can only advise.”

Anthony Albanese consistently makes the point it would be completely “subordinate to parliament”.

Where did the idea for the Voice come from?

The Voice was never the demand of any grassroots movement. The proposal came from a working group backed by conservative Indigenous figure Noel Pearson that included members of the Liberal Party. It was the result of a government-funded process designed to deliver token constitutional recognition of Indigenous people.

The call for a Voice was endorsed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart at a nationwide convention of Indigenous delegates in 2017. Nineteen delegates walked out, arguing that the gathering was being used to rubber stamp Pearson’s proposal.

Many of the Indigenous delegates at Uluru also wanted a Voice with real powers.

A working group was elected at the convention to take forward its demands. Josie Crawshaw, one of its members, argued afterwards that, “Pearson’s model, the advisory body … has been ruled out by every dialogue and Uluru. It needs to have … powers to make policies and programs. And we need a guaranteed source of revenue.”

Do Indigenous people want the Voice?

Supporters of the Voice have produced opinion polls showing that the majority of Indigenous people will vote Yes and most major Indigenous organisations such as Land Councils and health services are calling for a Yes vote. A number of Indigenous activists connected to grassroots protest movements will vote No, including Senator Lidia Thorpe, Wayne Wharton, Boe Spearim and Reverend Djiniyini Gondarra from north-east Arnhem Land.

Many others will vote Yes without any enthusiasm, not convinced it will deliver any real change.

Will the Voice improve outcomes for Indigenous people?

Albanese claims that access to better advice through a Voice will improve Indigenous lives. All the shameful government failure to address Indigenous over-imprisonment, poverty, child removals, deaths in custody and lack of jobs are “not because of a shortage of goodwill or good intentions on any side of politics”, he says, but a lack of consultation.

This is nonsense. There have been numerous Indigenous advisory bodies in the past, including at least five national bodies since 1973. The problem is that governments have simply refused to listen.

Will putting it in the Constitution make it permanent?

Governments abolished previous national advisory bodies after they became too critical of their policies. Supporters of the Voice say that putting it in the Constitution will prevent this happening again.

In fact, the Voice would be able to be abolished or dissolved by governments, too. The proposed constitutional amendment gives the parliament complete power to determine and change the membership and role of the Voice. It simply provides that there “shall be a Voice” able to make representations to government. It says that the Parliament will have the power to legislate about the Voice “including its composition, functions, powers and procedures”.

A future government could even refuse to fund or set up a Voice to Parliament at all.

Can we trust Albanese to listen to Indigenous communities?

Consultation won’t be enough to get governments to act on the demands of Indigenous people. Even as it is championing the Voice to Parliament, Albanese’s Labor government is still ignoring Indigenous voices. Albanese himself has publicly supported Santos’s Pilliga gas project despite overwhelming opposition from the Gomeroi people.

As Lidia Thorpe has put it, “They are pushing ahead with mining projects against the rights and voices of traditional custodians. They are overseeing the removal of our babies at record rates—almost 23,000 in out of home care. They are pushing the incarceration of our children with record cruelty—Queensland has just overridden its own Human Rights Act for the second time this year.”

After 18 months in power the Labor government has done nothing to implement the 30-year-old recommendations of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, even as the number of deaths in the last year equalled the highest on record. There is a major crisis of over-imprisonment, with Indigenous people an appalling 29.7 per cent of the NSW prison population in February, the highest proportion on record. Yet Albanese has refused to act.

The government has even abandoned its own election promise to end compulsory income management for Indigenous people.

Why won’t governments listen?

Real action on Indigenous rights would mean challenging the rich and powerful. Delivering land rights with the power to stop mining projects on Indigenous land would threaten the profits of the massive mining corporations.

Ending racist policing and over-imprisonment requires confronting the violent institutions our rulers rely on to protect their wealth and standing up to business owners, like the racists in Alice Springs demanding a greater crackdown on Indigenous youth.

Seriously dealing with poverty, lack of housing and unemployment in Indigenous communities would require a massive boost in government funding for community controlled services. It would mean creating jobs in areas where Indigenous people want to live on their traditional lands, which are often remote from major economic centres.

Corporations and the rich would face higher taxes or demands for reparations to pay for all this, in a further challenge to their wealth and profits.

And it would mean challenging the racism that is central to Australian nationalism, which denies the impacts of dispossession, continuing state brutality and inter-generational trauma. All this threatens the interests of Australian capitalism.

Isn’t it a small step forward for Indigenous rights?

The Voice will not deliver any greater rights or power for Indigenous people. The Albanese government wants the Voice to cover up its ongoing failures on Indigenous rights, and as an excuse to avoid any real action.

As the Blak Sovereign Movement has put it, “The Voice debate has created the illusion that the government is taking positive action when it is actually continuing the violence against our people and Country.”

Albanese is already making it clear that the Voice will not lead to any significant action on Indigenous rights. He has declared it will focus exclusively on Indigenous health, education, housing and employment.

He’s said it will not lead to any shift of national celebrations from Invasion Day on 26 January, that there would be no discussion about reparations, and has ruled out any national Treaty process.

Indigenous Minister Linda Burney says the Voice would have no role in policy over climate change, or mining projects and military bases on Indigenous land.

What happens if the referendum fails?

Peter Dutton and racists everywhere would celebrate if the referendum was defeated. But the main responsibility lies with Albanese. He has insisted on pressing ahead with the referendum despite the hopeless failure of the Yes campaign and the drop in support for the Voice.

He has demoralised and confused many people initially supportive of the Voice by retreating in the face of Dutton’s smear campaign and emphasising how powerless the Voice would be.

He has refused to show any good faith through starting to listen to Indigenous people and introducing real change ahead of the referendum. Albanese is putting his own political interests and his desire to win an undeserved progressive image through the pretence of acting to support Indigenous people above all else.

So how should I vote?

Solidarity members are voting Yes. Most of the people campaigning for Yes from the unions and the wider left see it as a statement of support for Indigenous people and a vote against Dutton’s racist No campaign. But a Voice to Parliament won’t bring real change.

What’s the alternative to the Voice?

The Voice has been designed to win corporate support and pose no threat to how power operates in Australia. But real gains on Indigenous rights have been won only through struggle against powerful interests. Indigenous people campaigned from the 1920s and 1930s to end the Protection Acts through exposing the racism and abuses of the system. The Freedom Ride in NSW in 1965 and direct action by trade unions helped end racial segregation.

It was the Pilbara strike, the Gurindji walk-off and other strikes that won equal wages and encouraged a large-scale protest movement from the early 1970s that put the issue of land rights on the agenda. This resulted in limited returns of land in the NT and other areas through state-based Land Rights Acts and eventually through watered-down Native Title.

The modest moves towards a form of self-determination in the 1970s began with the creation of Indigenous-run legal and health services that fought for government funding.

Those struggles won support from non-Indigenous workers, who had built their power through strikes and industrial action against the Vietnam War, uranium mining or for land rights.

Mass protests and direct action have stopped unwanted development, like the Mirrar-led campaign against Jabiluka uranium mine in the late 1990s.

Unions have continued to support struggles today such as the Gomeroi fight against coal seam gas mining in NSW.

The wide support from non-Indigenous people for the Black Lives Matter marches in 2020 and the growing numbers rallying on Invasion Day show the possibility of building a new Indigenous rights movement.

We need a mass protest movement uniting Black and non-Indigenous workers to fight for justice.


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