Government Runs Risk of Silencing the Voice

Government Runs Risk of Silencing the Voice

Most of us are sick and tired of hearing about the culture wars being pushed by a small but vocal group of activists. Whether it’s in pubs, clubs or boardrooms, Australians will tell you they’re fed up with what they call “woke nonsense”. And now the Prime Minister’s culture-war talking points – where he accuses anyone who asks questions about the Voice of waging a “culture war” – threatens to completely corrupt the debate surrounding the upcoming referendum on a Voice to Parliament.

We are rightly proud of our democratic institutions and system of government, which is enshrined in our constitution. We should not risk changing them without serious consideration. Which is why I am so concerned about Anthony Albanese’s reluctance to provide detail about what the Voice looks like and what it will do.

I’m concerned because our constitution, and consequently our democracy, is too important to be changed on the ‘vibe’. My concern is deeply rooted in my experience in working to improve outcomes for Indigenous Australians. Prior to becoming an Australian Senator, I worked for Andrew and Nicola Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation.

The Foundation’s motto was ‘Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime’. I was deeply moved by that motto and its focus on practical outcomes for Indigenous communities.

While working with the Forrests, we started Generation One, an initiative to create Indigenous employment opportunities. One of my defining moments with Generation One was when I found myself in Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley on an early project. During my visit, a huge storm broke out and it rained so much that Fitzroy Crossing became an island (although not as devastating as the recent flood event).

With spare time on my hands, I walked down to the football oval and had a kick of the footy with a group of Indigenous teenage boys. Afterwards, I asked them what they wanted to do when they finished school.

They looked at me like I was from another planet. “School?” They asked. “We don’t go to school.” “Well, what do you want to do when you get a bit older?” I asked. “We’ll just go on CDEP,” they said, which was basically the Work for the Dole program.

These were smart, funny, athletic kids who should not have their aspirations cut short but they couldn’t see much beyond welfare dependency for their future. For me, the conversation marked a turning point.

My goal was to give hope and aspiration to kids like these. This gets to the heart of why the Prime Minister’s approach to the Voice debate is so flawed. No one pretends solving the problem of Indigenous disadvantage is easy. But we also know – and my experience at Generation One demonstrated – there are some solutions that already work: school, work, self-sufficiency, economic participation.

So how will the Voice help, or hinder, those outcomes? And just how compromised will our democracy and constitution be in the process? Albanese accused Peter Dutton of engaging in a “cheap culture war stunt” when the Opposition Leader recently asked for more information about the Voice proposal.

Peter Dutton asked sensible, logical, reasonable questions such as: “How will members be chosen, elected or appointed?” “Who will oversee the body and ensure that it is accountable?” “How will it effectively address the real issues that impact people’s lives daily on the ground in the community?”.

 Asking the government to outline the practical outcomes for Indigenous communities from the Voice proposal should not be viewed as some right-wing talking point, it should be the cornerstone of public debate. And no one occupies the moral high ground on this issue and, as Peter Dutton has said, every Australian wants to see better outcomes and improvements for indigenous Australians.

Likewise, Australians need to know just how our democracy and the authority of the Parliament will be changed if this is locked into our constitution. We don’t want to look back in 10 years time with a Voice to Parliament implemented, our constitution irreversibly changed but no improvements for Indigenous communities, and say “I told you so.”

The Prime Minister’s approach risks doing just that. The outcome of a national referendum will be decided by a large number of Australians who want to see real outcomes and don’t want to see our constitution trashed in the process.

It is the quiet Australians who will make the final decision on the Voice and Anthony Albanese’s attempts at a culture war will not fool them.