A Voice for the Well-Heeled
Good luck if you’ve tried to navigate your way around the latest 2021 Census statistics. Opaque doesn’t quite describe the myriad of interrelated series and data bases. Nonetheless, I tried at a superficial level. My quest was information on the state of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples. Who are they, I pondered, who would have rights greater than mine if the indigenous Voice were to become enshrined in the Constitution.
Incidentally, if you google ‘the Voice’ you are met with an international singing competition, including its Australian version. I mention that for the record. Search engine optimisation is something that the indigenous Voice advocates might next turn their attention to. Back to business.
A first point to make is that a great many more people will be involved in electing and/or appointing representatives to the envisaged third (advisory) chamber of federal parliament than would have been the case some years ago. In the 1971 Census (the first after the 1967 referendum), those identifying as indigenous accounted for around 0.9 percent of Australia’s population. By 2011 this percentage had increased to 2.5 percent, in 2016 to 2.8 percent and in 2021 to 3.2 percent. In 1971, 115,993 people identified as being indigenous; in 2021, 812,728. So, while the population as a whole doubled; the indigenous population (apparently) increased by seven times. Remarkable, you might think, for a cohort suffering discrimination and disadvantage.
Now, putting cynicism aside; to be clear, many indigenous people suffer disadvantage in terms of their everyday circumstances, their health, their life expectancy, their education and employment. There are gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians which call for the application of effective remedies. The problem, over decades of trying, is to discover exactly what those remedies are. How a Voice in the Constitution will help is totally and completely beyond me. But that is by the way.
What isn’t by the way is that while relatively fewer non-indigenous Australians suffer material and onerous disadvantage, many still do. No Voice for them. Relevantly, many Australians who identify as being indigenous are much better off than poor non-indigenous Australians, yet they will be given political leverage not available to their poorer fellow citizens. How is that fair and reasonable, you might ask? Risking the charge of racism.
I wanted to find statistics on employment occupations broken down in a such way as to indicate how many indigenous people occupied well-paid positions in the workforce. I couldn’t find them. However, its clear that universities and public services, as examples, have a fair quota of indigenous people in their employment. It’s hard to see why they would need a third chamber of parliament to voice their interests, or how their lived experience is in any way comparable to disadvantaged Australians of whatever ethnicity.
On a general level, the census figures show that 51 percent of indigenous people between the ages of 16 and 64 are employed compared with 76 percent of non-indigenous people. An indigenous gap to be sure. At the same time, it’s worth considering the other gap. The gap between all Australians gainfully employed and those who have fallen by the wayside. It’s arguable that there is far more in common between poor indigenous and non-indigenous people, particularly in urban settings, struggling to live, than there is between well-heeled and poor indigenous people.
Take housing. The Census figures report on the numbers occupying “appropriate, affordable housing that is aligned with priorities and need.” Once again there is a gap.
Ninety-three of non-indigenous people occupy such housing, against 79 per cent of indigenous people. Clearly 21 percent of indigenous people need help in this area but, hold on, so do 7 percent of non-indigenous people. Why elevate the needs of one group over another. Why should one group have special representation in parliament and, even more to the point, why should the 79 percent of indigenous Australians in adequate housing have a say denied to the 7 percent of non-indigenous Australians who have inadequate shelter from the blasts of winter? Doesn’t seem right to me.
Don’t want to get tearfully sentimental but my argument comes down to The Seekers song.
We are one
But we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We’ll share a dream
And sing with one voice
I am, you are, we are Australian
Let’s reject this discriminatory Voice, while adopting Tony Abbott’s suggestions of including something in the preamble to the Constitution honouring the first Australians while pursuing practical policies appropriately geared to improving the lot of any disadvantaged Australian, whatever their ethnicity, wherever they’re living. Soberly, keeping in mind that ultimately only so much can be done for those who lack resolve to help themselves. Utopia is not within our reach.