by Mark Bonanno
Australia’s major political parties are on a unity ticket to spend $37 billion on submarines we won’t see for 15 years, if at all; yet there is a battle over a referendum to allow Indigenous Australians to have a Voice to Parliament, recognised in the Constitution.
This is surprising. Since the 1967 referendum to recognise Indigenous Australians as citizens to be counted and accommodated under the Commonwealth Constitution, all major parties have been on a unity ticket of sorts concerning the rights of Indigenous Australians. Certainly, there have been quite vicious battles over policy, but no serious party for government is now assimilationist; and all major parties have the manners to look shamefaced and embarrassed whenever the Closing the Gap report shows that it isn’t (closing, that is).
What is puzzling is that the 1967 referendum was a Liberal Party initiative. Menzies himself had met with Indigenous leaders throughout his premiership, and although he had retired by the time of the referendum, he was present and active throughout the legislative preparation for the vote. Much of the lobbying for the measure had built up over years by a wide variety of groups, including Labor and progressives generally, but do not forget that the referendum itself was championed by the Liberal Party at the height of its powers. A ‘No’ at that point would have meant ‘No’ for a generation.
Liberal Prime Minster Harold Holt in supporting the enabling legislation had stated the simple truth is that section 127 (one of the relevant sections being amended by the referendum) is completely out of harmony with our national attitudes and modern thinking. It has no place in our Constitution in this age (Hansard, House of Representatives, 1 March 1967 page 263).
The welfare and rights of First Nations people was not then, and should not now, be a matter of ‘us versus them’, of progressives versus conservatives. The Liberal Party in Australia has a proud record of championship of Indigenous causes. Jagera elder Neville Bonner was the first Aboriginal Member of Federal Parliament and the first Indigenous Senator. He joined the Liberal Party in 1967 and took up the seat vacated by Senator Annabelle Rankin in 1971 and went on to win the Senate seat in his own right in 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1980.
Ken Wyatt, a proud Noongar, Yamatji and Wongi man occupied the Federal seat of Hasluck from 2010, to become the first Indigenous member of the Federal Executive, becoming Assistant Health Minister in 2015, before becoming the very first Indigenous Aboriginal Affairs Minister in 2017. Again, a Liberal, not a Labor first.
Wyatt left the party that he had represented in Parliament over the Voice issue, but why did he have to? Thousands of loyal Liberals (and even, dare I say, Nationals) have expressed their personal preference to support the Voice. Who do they stand against?
The No campaign appears to be an unlikely alliance of those who argue the Voice does not go far enough (Treaty Now! Really? If the referendum fails will they be pushing for a treaty then?); and those who say it goes too far (These are the people who say that it gives aboriginal people special, unwarranted recognition, more rights than they deserve. After two centuries of it, most First Nations people are sick of the “special attention”).
For more than two centuries we (white Australia) have governed aboriginal people for their own good. We have killed them; stolen their children; pretended they didn’t exist; organised policies ‘for’ them.
The Voice does nothing more than posit a simple question: would it be OK if, before visiting some new legislative regime on First Nations Peoples; if prior to enacting some well-meant and intentioned law upon people who have lived here for 65,000 years without our apparent assistance, that we actually asked them what they thought of our great new idea to improve their lot?
Because that’s all it is. A body elected and appointed by the governed themselves to advise on whether our brilliant ideas for their welfare are actually as genius as we think they are.
Are we scared because they might actually point out the mistakes in our otherwise perfect solutions? Are we concerned that the governed might actually have some thoughts about how they should be governed?
Finally, can I appeal to the genuine conservatives, those who stand for a political viewpoint that wishes to preserve those things that are good and positive in the body politic. I say this as a person who thinks himself a progressive but recognising that there are people who disagree for sound reasons: both sides of politics bemoan the fact that the quality of debate has for some decades been debased by vindictive personality politics.
Conservatives have a proud and positive record of pressing for improvement in the lives of First Nations people. The Voice is the next logical step on the way to social justice for the first Australians.
Do not be the rump dragging society back to the abyss.
Be the leaders you were in 1967.
About the author
Secretary of the NSW Fabians since 2019 and current National Secretary, Mark Bonanno is the Senior Planning Lawyer at Canterbury Bankstown Council in Sydney’s South West and formerly Major of Ashfield. He is an Accredited Specialist in Property Law and a PhD candidate at Macquarie University.