Debate around the Voice to Parliament has continued to expose and agitate many dark fault lines in Australian society. Whether Yes or No prevails, the last weeks of the campaign have made it miserably clear that there will be considerable social, emotional, psychological and political fallout.
One striking aspect of the Albanese government’s most recent strategic posturing has been the invocation of an attitude of settler innocence. The mantra ‘It’s just an advisory body’, adopted by Yes advocates in their desperate attempt to defuse the No scare campaign, is the most obvious example of this.
To fudge the question of settler-colonial structural reckoning in such glib terms indicates that the government lacks the insight, capacity and inclination to intervene in the toxic politics that have exploded in recent weeks. Neo-assimilationism and the brutal politics of racialised hatred and disregard have acquired a chilling, newly supercharged lease on life. The possibility of reasoned national discussion about Australia’s enduring colonial legacies has been missed, again. The dizzying spectrum of interpretation over what the Voice might or might not give rise to reveals the deeply fraught status of ‘truth-telling’ in the present.
If we look squarely at the phrase ‘It’s just an advisory body’, there are other reasons to be muted in enthusiasm for the potential success of Yes.
One determining element of any future arrangements for a Voice that debate has largely ignored is the cultured workings of government. For all the euphoric transformative potential that has been loaded onto the Voice, history shows that advocacy guarantees very little in the politics of policy-making, with the obvious exception of the fossil fuel and defence lobbyists.
Kevin Rudd was the first Australian prime minister to make a discursive artform of the idea that his government practised ‘evidence-based policy making’. It was a public narrative cover for doing the opposite. In Indigenous affairs, as in all other policy areas, governments enlist the advice and advocacy that supports decisions they have already made—or, as is well-worn neoliberal practice, outsource responsibility to other actors who will simultaneously be constrained in their ability to act.
In an editorial in Arena Quarterly No. 14, Jon Altman and I wrote that the best possible hope for the Voice, if it gets up, is that will be is a Trojan Horse—a holding-place for a set of political arrangements to come, of a kind we have not yet seen in Australia. In other words, there is plenty of reason to cynically expect that the Voice will indeed be ‘just an advisory body’.
John Howard and Tony Abbott have recently ventured into the fray to dismiss the Voice on the grounds that the Northern Territory is a failed state. The same men deployed the same claim to justify their launch of the Northern Territory Emergency Response in 2007. Fifteen years after their government seized control of the ‘prescribed communities’, and with no sense of irony whatsoever, these two ex-prime ministers suggest that little has changed on the ground. It is their federal legislation that has deepened and entrenched impoverishment, disenchantment and despair across those communities. The Rudd and Gillard ALP governments that followed shifted the discourse from ‘intervention’ to ‘stronger futures’, but did not in any tangible way change those terms of engagement. While making the Voice referendum a central platform of its election, since coming to power—apart from a short and disastrously managed repeal of laws controlling alcohol consumption—the Albanese government has not dismantled any of the still-lingering Intervention legislation.
Such observations suggest that loading responsibility for transformative governance onto a new advisory body might be a cynical political exercise. The Voice won’t change the landscape of First Nations people’s circumstances because, regardless of whichever side of politics is in power, it will be given neither the independence nor the power to do so. Yet the prospect of a No outcome is very bleak. No leaves a negative vacuum, policy nihilism—an absence of optimistic space for fresh thinking or the making of new relationships. The government that brought us the referendum has not assumed the courageous leadership that would be vital to refocusing the community at large and helping us to see things differently. Once again, predictably, it will be First Nations people who will bear the heaviest consequences.