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Michael Bradley

I believe in the Voice but I’m still listening, as should we all

White annoyance with Black discordance has been a standing feature of race relations in Australia since Indigenous peoples first found any voice at all. Now that we’re talking about the Voice proper, we need to get comfortable with the fact that not all First Nations peoples are going to like it.

The media’s role isn’t to just publicise every objection to the Voice, but to critically analyse it and help the public form assessments of each argument’s validity.

Powerful Indigenous voices are raising some objections. At Invasion Day rallies around the country last week, the Voice was finding little popular support but a lot of anger (although polling indicates that 80% of First Nations peoples currently intend to vote Yes in the referendum). This should cause neither surprise nor concern, but curiosity.

Speaking at the Melbourne rally, Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe maintained her position of ambivalence, saying she would “entertain” the Voice, subject to one condition that has not yet been satisfied: “I have not [been] guaranteed our sovereignty will not be ceded.”

Thorpe’s concern is that a byproduct of the amendment of the constitution to include the establishment of a permanent Indigenous Voice to Parliament would be an implicit sublimation of Aboriginal sovereignty to that of the Commonwealth of Australia.

It is a fact that the British settlement of Australia was imposed by force and that the sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was displaced without their consent or agreement in any form. It has never been ceded. That much was recognised, formally and finally, by the High Court’s Mabo judgment.

The constitution legally entrenches the sovereignty of the Crown, through the Commonwealth, as the ruler of this land. That is inconsistent with Aboriginal sovereignty, and Mabo’s compromise is an uncomfortable one.

If Indigenous peoples are given any status in the constitution’s structural governance arrangements, does that mean they become part of the architecture, and in doing so lose their sovereignty altogether (because the inconsistency becomes complete)?

Various constitutional scholars have said no, definitely not, and I agree. You can’t surrender sovereignty by accident. More importantly, it can’t be lost by means of the amendment of a document that never had any relationship to your sovereignty in the first place. Australia’s system of government has always ignored Aboriginal sovereignty, and the Voice won’t change that. To the extent that it exists at all, it will continue.

That leads to a second ground of objection, raised by Thorpe and others: that it makes no sense to talk about anything except treaty first. Treaty is the only legitimate path to reconciliation of the competing claims to sovereignty because it can rectify the 235-year-old failure to make terms.

That is a perfectly valid argument. The Uluru Statement calls for Voice-Treaty-Truth, in that order, because the wise minds that negotiated its form believed it was the best and surest path to reconciliation. It’s open to debate, and the Uluru process’ attempt to allow and then conclude that debate clearly didn’t quite succeed.

There are good points on each side of the argument — principled, practical and political. They boil down to one question: would the Voice make a treaty more likely, or would a treaty make the Voice unnecessary? My answer is that either outcome points to the Voice being the best option to pursue, because it will change the conversation permanently. Then, and only then, is a treaty potentially going to come into realistic view.

A different objection is that articulated by Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts in Guardian Australia this week: “We have always had a voice, but we have never been listened to.” Turnbull-Roberts, a passionate and uncompromising human rights advocate, sees the Voice proposal as a “gesture”; “we don’t need gestures”, she argues, “we need genuine change and our community already has the solution”.

This is a more sophisticated variation on the simplistic “symbolism” objection being promoted by Warren Mundine and Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa-Price and disingenuously championed by the Coalition parties. The pre-existing “voice” Turnbull-Roberts is referring to is contained in “the demands we have been urgently calling on for too long” — detailed in the “stories and pain” recorded by “royal commissions, reports, consultation and community organisation submissions to Parliament”.

Turnbull-Roberts predicts “a shift in voting towards a Yes majority” for the Voice if the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987) and the Bringing Them Home report (1997) were finally implemented. That’s the solution she means.

It’s a subtle and worthy argument, whether or not one accepts the premise that the Uluru process was insufficiently representative of Indigenous peoples’ interests and views. What will a constitutionally enshrined “Voice”, which by design will be powerless but advisory only, be able to achieve that royal commissions and parliamentary reports have not? Are Indigenous peoples about to fall into an age-old trap?

I don’t think so, because in the end I have placed my trust in the people of goodwill and good faith who spoke from the heart of Australia to all of us, and I’d rather take whatever risks are entailed in grasping that open hand. I believe, all things considered, that the Voice is the best next step.

But I’m still listening, as should we all.

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