A Left Critique of the Voice – And Why I’ll Vote Yes

Somewhat shockingly, the anarchist has some concerns about the state and the implementation of the First Nations’ Voice to Parliament, something that has been a long-time coming since Turnbull rejected the Uluru Statement in 2017. Just as shockingly, the world is not an ideal place for idealism, so pragmatism must take some precedence in the short-term. But I still thought it worth discussing briefly how the Voice, in its current form, is flawed and limited from an anarchic perspective, followed by a fall to reality that stresses the urgency of ensuring its passing later this year.

I have previously written about the role of the state in Indigenous politics from an anarchist perspective in an essay from last year – which I would recommend reading as it also covered some commentary on the Voice and more. There are a few salient points I would like to reiterate before I continue, however, which puts this into perspective, so I’ll simply copy them from the essay:

“The first is that I, as a white man who possesses the perspective and privilege inherent to that group, cannot speak for Indigenous peoples, nor can I claim to have or prescribe a particular solution to their struggle. The second is that by taking an anarchic approach to this topic, it is not my intention to attach the label of anarchism to it, nor, in the words of Marquis Bey, “absorb various thinkers into the fold of anarchism.””

That said, what I wish to do here is show the proposed Voice does not go far enough, contrary to the conservative backlash calling any First Nations’ Voice a “racist” and radical proposal. In fact, it’s quite clear that what has been put forward for the upcoming referendum is the conservative Constitutional change they should be happy with. It is not a third chamber of Parliament, it holds no power of its own, cannot propose or vote on legislation, and its advisory role is contained to Parliament and the Executive (i.e. not the High Court).

It really is what the box says it is: it is a Voice to Parliament. Nothing more, nothing less. While they do need to politely explain why, the government of the day would not even be obligated to follow the advice given and can do whatever it wants. The Voice would have no ability to argue or veto any decision passed by Parliament.

Which is where the anarchic lens comes into play. Given that First Nations’ sovereignty was never ceded, the simplest criticism is that the current white patriarchal nation state is illegitimate. Inserting an acknowledgement of First Nations’ peoples in the Constitution and giving them a Voice in this manner has been, correctly I believe, criticised as a major concession to the sovereignty of the reigning state, to an extent legitimising it and placing Indigenous voices into a merely advisory role. Not to mention that, as a referendum, even this is not guaranteed to pass. The campaigns haven’t yet begun, but recalling the same sex marriage plebiscite farce should offer a taste of what to expect.

This is why the likes of Lidia Thorpe have criticised the Voice, wanting firm assurances the sovereignty will not be affected, assurances Labor has only given verbal promises of and which the Greens failed to fight for. It should be noted that some sections of the Greens’ membership, particularly it’s Indigenous membership, backed Thorpe when she left the party, with the co-conveners of the Blak Greens stating:

“We do not feel it is necessary to ask the whole country, through a referendum, to approve the establishment of an advisory body that is subservient to the Australian parliament and gives us no rights of self-determination as outlined in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People.”

This was similar to my initial response to the third point of the proposed Constitutional amendments:

“The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.”

Earlier this year, Albanese blatantly stated that the Voice would remain “subservient” to Parliament. Essentially what this is doing is saying you have a voice, but we control it.

To be fair, from what I have read, those who are involved in the Voice will be from the community – Indigenous approaches to such things have largely been bottom-up rather than top-down. Having the grassroots deliberation which is then passed upwards to be brought to Parliament is definitely a positive aspect of the Voice that should not be ignored. But given the wording of the amendment, First Nations’ peoples may not even have much say in how their Voice is represented or heard, and could very well have future governments take what few teeth it has been oh so benevolently gifted.

That leads onto another concern, which is whose voice, exactly, will be heard. While the deliberative focus largely inherent to Indigenous politics is laudable, it is supposed to act as a Voice for all Indigenous Australians. While I’m happy to be corrected on this point, I believe it causes the Voice to fall into the trap of viewing Indigenous people as a monolith with a single stance on matters that will be brought to Parliament and the general public for approval. The fact that there is no concrete and unified opinion on the Voice itself is proof enough.

This is also true of the push for Treaty first, which in principle I agree with, but one needs to be careful how they approach this. In particular, one must recognise First Nations – plural – rather than just a single bloc. When the Federal or State governments talk about treaties, one needs to ask who this treaty is with – who gets to be heard at the table, who gets to decide what such a treaty would entail, etc. When Thorpe says she wants to push for sovereignty and treaty, she has my support – but this won’t happen overnight, or even over a few months. It is likely a process that, if done properly (again, as a white man I can’t pretend to know what this would look like exactly, just providing possible outlines), would take years.

Given Albanese seemed to give Labor a pretty clear mandate on the Voice this year, clearly this is not possible.

Basically, my opinion of the Voice comes down to it being a weak vehicle for change. It is held within the confines of the existing white system and everything about it is dictated to it by that system. In my view, on matters that concern First Nations’ peoples, it very much should have power. Legislation that directly or disproportionately affects Indigenous lives and Country should be scrutinised by them, and they should be afforded the autonomy and power to decide for themselves how they ought to be governed. Obviously there will need to compromises to an extent, but after centuries of colonial onslaught, the white nation state clearly has no legitimacy or expertise on these issues.

While Indigenous peoples globally have been crying out for action on climate change, the Albanese government continues to placate and endorse the fossil fuel industry. When Indigenous communities face the crime and incarceration rate, rather than listening to these communities we have had decades of brutal suppression and heavy-handed policing from both sides, including blanket alcohol bans that don’t work and compulsory income management.

The outrage merchants of the mainstream press might bridle with anger at the very suggestion of black power, but frankly I would not feel even the least bit “oppressed” if the oppressed demanded to govern themselves and protect the land they’ve inhabited for millennia.

And now we reach the pragmatic part. For all the flaws and limitations mentioned above, I will still be voting yes in the upcoming referendum, and it is for the same reason I voted yes in the same sex marriage plebiscite years ago.

That is, while it is not something the state should have any power over, in the world in which we live they very much do. With the referendum taking place later this year, to vote no at this juncture would, I believe, drastically harm Indigenous politics for the next decade at least. Having a Voice is better than having no Voice, and while the principled position would be to oppose the current Voice for the reasons above and demanding more, this simple yes/no binary does not offer itself up for the required nuance.

A no vote, should it succeed, has very clear consequences given where the majority of the opposition actually comes from. It would be seen as a rejection of the Voice and the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and for the more unsavoury circles it would vindicate their “crusade” against their divisive perception of “race politics”. While the fight for Indigenous rights would not collapse, it would send a damning signal that the majority of Australians do not see Indigenous politics as a concern, or worse, as a detriment. Progress would be stalled or, again, go backwards as it would not be politically convenient to champion those causes.

An imperfect, heavily conceded Voice is simply better than the only available alternative. I know some people who have treated this issue like an election – they support the Voice because the Coalition opposes it, or because Labor supports it. I recommend casting aside that rather childish sports-team view and actually critically approach these matters. I am obviously going to advise voting for the Voice, but not because your team is.

If the Voice is to have any tangible impact, we need to allow it passage and then fight like hell to ensure it’s heard and improved. We can’t do that if it gets torn apart before the start line.

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