Why the Voice is (probably) a Good Idea for anyone who wants a treaty

I’ve been listening to the ABC Radio National podcast The Voice Referendum Explained, hosted by Fran Kelly and Carly Williams (an indigenous person), for the last few weeks. It tries to represent the whole picture rather than coming down on one side.

I’ll be up front and say that I plan to vote yes, for at least the following reason. I don’t want to be the one person who gets in the way of better communication between Australia’s indigenous people and the Australian government.

Even though it’s often said that not much is known about the details of how the Voice will operate, there is actually plenty of detail about the broad principles by which it is likely to, in a July 2021, 256 page document: Indigenous Voice Co-design Process: Final Report to the Australian Government.

If implemented, the final proposals outlined in this report would lay a solid foundation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to work in partnership with all levels of government and have a greater say in legislation, policies, programs and service delivery.

Most of us don’t have the time or motivation to read such a report (one reason why 10 minute episode podcasts like The Voice Referendum Explained are a good thing), and I will admit that I have not read much of it, but you get a good sense of the report from the Executive Summary and skimming sections.

While the Yes campaign has a fairly simple message about the Voice just being an advisory body that could lead to positive change, the No campaign‘s strategy seems to be to employ FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) about various issues.

Of course, individuals have many reasons for choosing to vote either way that go beyond what the campaigns say or are motivated by.

On the September 27 2023 episode of The Voice Referendum Explained, the subject of Treaty came up. This is another thing that I suspect is not well understood by many, myself included.

Fran Kelly: Treaty is a big one. Carly, Because Australia is one of the few colonial Commonwealth nations that doesn’t have a treaty with its first nations people, right?

Carly Williams: So Canada has one. We know New Zealand has one. 

Fran Kelly went on to say:

…when we think about what was outlined in the Uluru statement, what were those reforms that were called for? It was “Voice, Treaty, Truth” in that order. So Treaty is meant to come after the voice and that’s what the Uluru statement called for back in 2017. That’s what the Government’s promised.

Some say they will vote no because they want a treaty now.

Warren Mundine, who’s one of the Indigenous leaders of the Conservative No camp says Australians should reject the voice in order to speed up the treaty process…. Meanwhile, supporters of Yes, like Pat Dodson say to be talking treaty without a voice first will lead nowhere.

Pat Dodson, a federal senator, who many regard as the father of reconciliation in Australia thinks you need a Voice to make a treaty work. On the podcast he was heard to say:

Well, who are you going to deal with? That’s the first question I’d ask. And if you go down the track of dealing with 300 or 400 different Aboriginal nation groups, how are you going to do that and how do you determine it? And that will take you a couple of years to get that all sorted.

The Government needs to deal with an entity, a body that’s capable of putting forward the process by which these matters can go forward. It just can’t walk out there willy nilly and say, Well, okay, here’s three natives. We’ll have a discussion with them and we’ll have an agreement. There has to be structure and the voice is the beginning of that.

Treaties are a bit of a new concept in Australia. Most of us grew up seeing treaties of the cowboys and Indians and broken treaties and Indians marched off to reserves and we’ve known about the Maori treaty in New Zealand, but treaties are about … agreements … it’s about the recognition that they have legitimate concerns that have to be accommodated within the polity of the environment they find themselves within, and that will be a negotiation and an accommodation, not of all things, but of those things that are agreeable, that are not going to shatter or rip apart the foundation of the democracy.

This seems like a good argument for why those who want the focus to be on a treaty sooner rather than later, should vote yes for the Voice, and that a no vote may actually hinder the process.

Something else I wonder about is that I’ve also heard people talk about multiple treaties. If there was just one Treaty, then the Voice would make sense as an important, even necessary, precursor. Is the same true for multiple treaties?

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