Enshrining race in the political system
30 May 2022
Can anyone look objectively at the past two and a half years and wonder if the government of this nation could get any worse? Objectively speaking, the answer is a decided yes!
During the course of the next three years, an attempt will be made to add another constitutional chamber to the Commonwealth Parliament. The sole defining characteristic for membership of the new chamber, known colloquially as the ‘Voice’, will be a person’s race.
The idea has the full support of the Labor Party. One of the very first things Prime Minister Albanese said in his new role was that he supported a constitutional amendment that would enshrine the Indigenous Voice and would be calling for a referendum on the issue.
We also know that Australian church leaders have endorsed the idea of a constitutionally enshrined ethnic advisory chamber. It is not known whether or from whom church leaders sought advice or whether they simply relied on the power of prayer, but the introduction of a third, racially based chamber into our colour-blind Constitution suggests a complete absence of reflection on its likely effects.
Perhaps it is an example of how the gods destroy by first sending men mad. Or less theatrically, these exceedingly pious individuals have demonstrated once again that, by relying on their feelings and avoiding any careful thought as to what they are supporting, the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.
Some other well-intentioned people might claim that we should wait and see what the amendment will contain before we rush to judgment. This does seem to bear out my point that that detail is usually where the devil will be found. By the time this detail arrives, it will probably be too late. There will be no referendum unless the polls tell Mr Albanese that the likelihood of success is high.
It is probably impossible to overlook the inherent racism of a separate, constitutionally protected voice for Indigenous Australians; particularly when those same Australians can also vote for and participate in the national and state Parliaments. That would, at my reckoning, give them two voices.
Is it possible for a democracy to overlook a proposal that would give an ethnic group a separate advisory voice which is denied to the rest of the nation?
Perhaps someone should ask each state government whether they can see the benefit for a separately enshrined state Indigenous chamber? My bet is the suggestion would be met with a resounding raspberry. Power is only shared when it is compelled to be shared. That was the principle of the Commonwealth Constitution, before the 1920 High Court decided to change it.
So, if we set the racism apart, the most obvious reason why such an advisory chamber will not lead to good government is because Indigenous advisory bodies in each state have been failing Indigenous peoples for a century. The reason for that failure is the calibre of the people chosen to sit on those councils.
For every worthy soul like Noel Pearson, whose strategies have been the most successful, there are a hundred who are only there for the wages and the hubris. That will not change with an elected council. It will likely be worse. And the Voice they want will appeal above the elected Parliament directly to the media. The advice may go to the government, but the media will amplify any negative aspects throughout the country.
That combination of Indigenous Voice and the media megaphone will ensure government entente if only to silence the baying viewers.
There are many good reasons to oppose this mooted change to our Constitution, but the most important must surely be the democratic principle on which it is based, a principle expressed by the equality of representation among our citizens, shared across two parliamentary chambers.
The Uluru Statement envisages a third chamber of Indigenous representatives elected by Indigenous Australians. In its haste to repair pandemic indigenous problems, the Uluru Statement proposes to introduce apartheid into our Constitution and to dilute the equality on which it stands. It is not a louder voice that Indigenous peoples need, just more effective action.
We cannot say where the Liberal Party stands on this issue, but there will be many in the party who will oppose it, as they did Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘republican’ constitutional reform some twenty years ago. Given the electoral results in New South Wales, where so many woke Liberal members were voted from office, I am hopeful that the new leader, Peter Dutton, will be courageous enough to confront this constitutional ignorance.