Why I will be voting No on Saturday in Australia’s referendum on the Aboriginal Voice to Parliament
Saturday, October 14, is the final day of voting in the referendum to amend the Australian constitution to create a Voice to Parliament for the indigenous population. For months Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has led a passionate and sometimes divisive campaign to vote Yes.
I’d like to vote Yes. The gap between the living standards of Aborigines and non-indigenous Australians is huge. Life expectancy is about eight years lower. An indigenous Australian is 14 times more likely to be incarcerated.
I’d like to vote Yes. Its supporters promise that the Voice will recognise 65,000 years of indigenous culture; that governments will make better decisions if they are advised by people who understand indigenous culture; and that it will close the gap in health, education, employment and housing.
I’d like to vote Yes. Voting No sounds churlish and mean-spirited. But, apart from constitutional issues, I’m simply not persuaded that an indigenous Voice to Parliament will close the gap.
I must preface my remarks by acknowledging that I am profoundly ignorant about Aboriginal affairs. I have never been to the remote towns of Outback Australia where the gap is widest. I am not familiar with Aboriginal customs. I have not read widely about Aboriginal anthropology and sociology.
But most of the pundits in parliament and the media are just as ignorant as I am. And yet Mr Albanese has given the 96 percent of Australia which is not indigenous the responsibility for determining the future of the 4 percent which is. You could even describe the $450 million referendum an exercise in the paternalistic colonialism which has existed since the British arrived in 1788. We 96% have identified your problems and we know how to fix them.
So, in my ignorance, I shall narrow my considerations to one word: Wadeye.
Wadeye is a remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory, about 400 kilometres southwest of Darwin and 15 kilometres inland from the Timor Sea. The roads in and out are unsealed and the town is inaccessible in the rainy season. Its history as a settlement began in 1935 as a Catholic mission called Port Keats. Gradually nomadic Aboriginal groups drifted in, attracted by flour, tea, sugar, tobacco and other Western goods. The 2000 to 3000 inhabitants speak seven different local languages and belong to 22 different clans. English is a second language.
Wadeye was remote and unknown to urban Australians until last year when horrendous violence broke out between rival gangs. Dozens of homes were burned down; refugees fled into the surrounding bush and to Darwin. One man died after being speared in the head.
Lurid reports in the media shone a light on Wadeye’s misery. In 2017, the town was 92 percent Aboriginal; the Aboriginal unemployment rate was 58 percent. School attendance is abysmal.
There’s no point in rattling off more of these dismal statistics. That’s why we’re having a referendum – to turn them around.
But it seems inconceivable that the Voice will change them.
First, the very notion of a representative Voice to Parliament may be incomprehensible in communities like Wadeye. If a $30 billion per year bureaucracy has not come up with solutions, how are they going to do it?
Second, the underlying theme of the Yes vote is to give communities more funding and more technology. It’s hard to imagine that more laptops in the schools at Wadeye will turn employment statistics around.
The architects of the Voice are ignoring the most effective technology that Western culture has ever produced – the family. A married couple with their biological children is the safest and most stable environment for children. Together families build communities. Yet, as we reported in Mercator in August, “In the Northern Territory, 96 percent of Aboriginal children were born out of wedlock. For 46 percent of NT Aboriginal children, the father is not acknowledged. The very notion of a mum-dad-and-kids family has ceased to exist.”
Will the Voice promote families? Almost certainly not. It’s more than likely that Canberra bureaucrats will argue that the nuclear family is an oppressive tool of white colonisers.
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Third, the Voice is doomed to fail because it ignores a fundamental principle of a thriving society, the principle of subsidiarity.
This idea is a powerful concept advanced by the Catholic Church and integrated into the constitutional arrangements of the European Union. It states that the EU should act “only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States”. The Catholic Church frames it like this: "neither the state nor any larger society should substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and intermediary bodies."
This implies that change should start from the bottom – from families. But the Voice echoes the paternalistic, colonialist rhetoric of the past 200 years. There are no intermediary bodies between the individual and the government. The Voice will reinforce the atomised, autonomous Western vision of society and impose it upon indigenous communities. What Wadeye needs is vigorous promotion of mum-dad-and-kids families. Consider the young men who rioted in Wadeye last year. Their mindless violence was the result of a lack of civic virtues: kindness, civility, compromise, respect, justice and so on. These qualities can only be taught in a home -- not in a school or by government nudges or on the internet. And not by a Voice.
Fourth, the Voice ignores the importance of a work ethic. How can a community support family stability unless there are opportunities for employment? Work gives dignity and self-respect. Sit-down money – unemployment benefits – are soul-destroying. Indigenous people may have their own culture and approach to Western notions of employment. But depending on the dole is not just demoralising; it’s inhumane.
Will a Voice will be open to radical changes to promote an indigenous work ethic in remote communities? Will it consider drastic changes in unemployment benefits? Will it examine the possibility of abandoning or relocating communities? Will it study how to create incentives to push indigenous people into employment? Probably not.
Pollsters are predicting that the No vote will win. Even though I support a No vote, it will be a tragedy if Australians return to business as usual. The campaign for the referendum has exposed the disgraceful conditions in which people are forced to live in outback communities. It should signal fresh determination to find creative solutions to this misery.
Michael Cook is editor of Mercator
Image credit: The Northern Territory Aboriginal community of Aputula (formerly Finke) is in the geographical center of Australia / Unsplash
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