Flat White

Why conservatives shouldn’t support an Indigenous Voice to Parliament

10 August 2021

6:04 PM

10 August 2021

6:04 PM

Yesterday, Flat White ran a piece by Senator Andrew Bragg explaining why conservatives should support the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Let me now offer my thoughts as to why conservatives should shun this idea.

There are two reasons the Voice is not a good idea. Firstly, claims that it will be advisory only and that it will not become a third chamber of Parliament are specious at best. And secondly, it will not work.

Let me begin with the first point. Senator Bragg cites a number of examples where government has a formal mechanism to receive advice – the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Joint Standing Committees on Corporations and Intelligence and Security. Notice anything about these bodies?  That’s right. They are embedded within the parliament. There are, of course, many external bodies that proffer advice to government – industry associations and so on – that is not binding, but they do not attract the wide public support, and therefore political attention, that Aboriginal affairs does. The advice of these organizations is considered by governments but since they are essentially self-interested, albeit enlightened, their advice can safely be ignored by government if it adversely impacts other considerations.

That will not be the case with the Voice.

Conservative commentator Chris Kenny also is a vocal proponent of the Voice – even arguing for its inclusion in the Constitution and also claiming that, as it is advisory only, it will not become a third chamber. I note that Kenny is a vigorous critic of the docile acquiescence of both sides of politics – but particularly of the supposedly conservatives – to the strident demands of the CAGW lobby. Does he imagine that the same thing would not happen in the case of the Indigenous Voice, particularly if it were enshrined in the Constitution, as he advocates? Will its advice (demands) be less compelling politically than the calls to dismantle our energy sector and condemn us to third world status? In practical terms they will be a damn sight easier to accommodate than destruction of our coal industry. But agreeing to something simply in order to satisfy a very small but vocal minority and because it doesn’t break the bank, is not good government.

Kenny has also railed against the meek acceptance by governments of all persuasion of ‘health advice’ during the Covid crisis. We see little or no evidence that medical advice is tempered with any balanced consideration of competing priorities, like balancing the books or saving small businesses.  It seems to me that, right now, the various State Health Departments are extra chambers of their respective Parliaments.

Senator Bragg says:

Eighteen laws are on our statute books which are specifically directed at Indigenous Australians; heritage protection, land rights, native title and Aboriginal corporations to name a few. No other group is treated in this way, for better or worse.

The Indigenous Voice to Parliament is based around a simple proposition: that Indigenous people have a right to be consulted about laws which are directed specifically at them.

At the moment, we have a thoroughly illiberal system where we have these 18 special laws without any system of management.

If we make special laws for Aborigines on the basis that they were here first, then that is racism and divisive, pure and simple. However, if we make them – as was originally intended in 1967 – in order to redress inequality and degradation, then that is done on the basis that Aboriginal people cannot achieve the required results solely through their own efforts and the agencies available to all other Australians. That is paternalism – an uncomfortable label admittedly – but, as such, it requires that decisions be made that may not accord with the feelings and wishes of the particular groups affected. In fact, we should no longer be making special laws for the benefit of educated urban Aboriginals who have the wherewithal to advance themselves based on their own initiative and the agencies that available to all other Australians.

Much of the demand for special laws is based on the claim of entrenched racism in Australian society. And no doubt many largely urban Aboriginals of my generation suffered varying degrees of discrimination, but most of them seem to have left it behind. Warren Mundine comes immediately to mind. It strikes me that the stridency of these claims of racism and discrimination we hear daily from Aboriginal activists has increased in direct proportion to the degree of recognition and acceptance of Indigenous people, history and culture that we now, as a society, extend to them.

Governments should, by all means, listen to advice but should never put themselves into a position where they feel compelled to accept such advice. I have no doubt that the moral pressure that will be brought to bear by an ill-informed public, based on rhetoric from strident activists, will achieve a level of intensity by a legislated Voice that will be difficult to resist.

Which brings me to my second objection, viz that, in any case, the Voice will not work. Does Senator Bragg really imagine that advice from the grass roots is likely to survive – unfiltered, unaggregated and still targeted – through the hierarchy of a tiered elected nationwide apparatus, better than it would from the lips of, say, Jacinta Price?  If grassroots advice is useful, and I’m sure it is, then surely it should go direct from the local elected parliamentary representative to the relevant Ministerial department?

My thoughts on this aspect are largely informed by Pastor Paul Albrecht AM who was born and grew up on the Hermannsburg Mission in Central Australia and, after graduation as a Lutheran pastor spent his entire working life in that area. His views pre-date the current debate but are beautifully expounded in a paper titled Relhiperra – about Aborigines, published by the Bennelong Society in 2008.

Albrecht is a qualified sociologist, and his paper is really a series of essays examining various aspects of human society from a sociological perspective. These theoretical essays are interspersed with corresponding essays on the specific nature of Arrarnta culture. Albrecht concedes that his expert knowledge is based on the Arrarnta people of Central Australia, but it seems a reasonable proposition to extrapolate his views to the wider north and central Australian Aboriginal population.  These are the ones most disadvantaged and they should be the primary focus of any government initiative in support of Aboriginal people.

One of the most important points Pastor Albrecht makes is that not all Aboriginal people are the same and the problems that they themselves perceive are not uniform. He explains that Aboriginal people occupy a cultural spectrum, which ranges from people living within a traditional lifestyle right up to modern urban Aborigines, many (if not most) of whom understand less about real Aboriginal culture than he does himself. It is this latter group that is most vocal and influential in promoting the idea of the Voice and it is they who will dominate its workings and deliberations. Albrecht notes that there are Aboriginal communities at various stages of development between these two extremes.

He explains that the reason for the plight of traditional and near-traditional Aboriginal people is that they are not able to enter the Australian economy. The mindset that underpins that economy is incompatible with the kinship-based values that are ingrained into traditional Aboriginal children. Put simply, Albrecht maintains that traditional Aboriginal people do not understand the concept of paid work and kinship obligations trump loyalty to the employer.

Aboriginal culture, termed ‘law’ by them, is known by the Arrarnta as tjurrunga and covers every aspect of their lives. Tjurrunga is handed down from the spiritual ancestors and is immutable.  It cannot be changed by man and as a result, traditional Aboriginals, despite their reputed spirituality, are never called upon to develop innovative philosophical concepts in order to deal with new things.  If something is not covered by tjurrunga, for example paid work, then there is no rigorous, consistent and enforceable response to managing it. The same thing applies to the proposed elected Voice supposedly representing all Aboriginal people. There is no such mechanism in traditional Aboriginal culture and those most in need of help will not understand or buy into its deliberations. They will find themselves marginalized by the articulate, activist, largely urban class. Let me give an example of how this works.

Senator Bragg congratulates the Liberals on granting land rights to Northern Territory Aborigines courtesy of the Fraser government’s 1976 legislation.

That initiative was no doubt well-intentioned but Pastor Albrecht points out that its implementation i.e, management of land rights through regional Land Councils, was seriously flawed because Land Councils have no standing in traditional culture.  They completely bypass the real traditional owners – kinship groups with strong spiritual connection to a well-defined area of land over which they, traditionally, exercised total control. The same is true of remote townships, inhabited by a number of different kinship groups, the concept of which is totally foreign to traditional land tenure.Pastor Albrecht has found, over many years, that the elders of these small kinship groups have been marginalized and their authority undermined.

Albrecht maintains, contrary to popular dogma, that culture is not sacrosanct. I imagine that is because he believes that it is human life that is sacrosanct and that blind adherence to an obsolete no longer fit-for-purpose culture is not a great way to preserve and enhance human life.But he stresses that culture must be taken into account when dealing with genuine traditional Aboriginal communities.

The Voice will not work because it is a one-size-fits-all solution to what are, essentially, cultural problems affecting a culturally diverse range of people. The vocal majority might blackmail and browbeat government into giving them the baubles they want – change the date, change the flag, constitutional recognition etc, etc – but the real disadvantage, the real stain on our nation, will continue until we find a way to do what needs to be done. We already know what that is – get the children educated and the adults into proper work. Apparently, we don’t yet know how to do that, but one thing is certain. The answer will not come from the Voice.

Government could do a lot worse than reading Pastor Albrecht’s guidelines for eliminating Aboriginal disadvantage.  Here they are in summary:

The first guideline relates to communication. Currently, governments depend on Aboriginal organisations established under legislation to advise them on Aboriginal issues, and then also on their help to implement their (the governments’) policies and programmes. Now this may well be the only practical way for governments to interact with Aborigines who have lost and/or abandoned their culture, but are still deemed to need assistance. However, it should be clear from earlier analysis that these organisations do not represent the views of the more traditional Aborigines, and that their policy advice to governments is unhelpful to the more traditional Aborigines.
If governments are genuine in their desire to hear what the more traditional Aborigines have to say, then they have to make contact with the legitimate Aboriginal leaders.
The second guideline relates to respecting and working through traditional Aboriginal authority where it still exists, and wherever possible enhancing this authority through appropriate policies. These are the persons with whom governments and agencies need to talk about the problems facing Aboriginal groups. When governments recognise the authority of these persons, they also provide themselves, and the groups, with persons who are in a position to implement, or at least strongly support, programmes intended to improve the groups’ socio/economic situation.
The third guideline relates to cross-cultural education for Aboriginal group leaders and their groups. The purpose of this would be to help them understand the working of the Australian market/contract economy in terms of their own concepts. For such an education programme to have any chance of success, the educator would have to demonstrate a knowledge and acceptance of traditional Aboriginal concepts.
The fourth guideline relates to the schooling of children. Without the skills needed to find employment in the Australian market/contract economy, most Aboriginal children on reaching adulthood will be doomed to exist on welfare benefits—and the results of such a life can be seen in the lives of current Aboriginal welfare recipients.
School attendance for Aboriginal children should be compulsory, as it is for all Australian children, and this should be enforced as a matter of great importance for the future of Aborigines. As an incentive to force compliance, government may need to consider withdrawing family allowance payments from those parents who do not send their children to school regularly. In other words, parents need to know that something is expected in return for financial assistance. This would be something Aborigines would understand.
The fifth guideline concerns Aboriginal townships. These townships inevitably comprise Aborigines with different land and family affiliations. As was pointed out in the analysis of Aboriginal culture, the more traditional Aboriginal people do not have mechanisms for co-operation in day-to-day matters. This is largely the reason why, as the Minister for Local Government in the Northern Territory Government pointed out in 2002, there isn’t one functioning Aboriginal township in the Northern Territory.
It is not possible to have effective Aboriginal local government for cultural reasons, and governments should therefore directly run all essential services in Aboriginal townships.
The sixth guideline concerns the employment of Aboriginal health workers in communities made up of more traditional Aborigines. These people, like their counterparts working among non-traditional Aborigines, play a valuable role in isolated communities, diagnosing medical conditions, and then either dispensing the correct medicine or sending the patient to a hospital. However, kinship constraints, which dictate who can say what and to whom, limit their role in the areas of environmental health, preventative health education and cultural behaviour which impacts on medical treatment. This needs to be noted so that there are no false expectations regarding the role that Aboriginal health workers can play in more traditional Aboriginal groups. Their role and functions need to be augmented by Australian health workers who are not constrained by kinship factors.
The seventh guideline relates to alcohol and drugs. It is generally recognised that the excessive consumption of alcohol (and drugs) is causing grave problems in Aboriginal societies—domestic violence, rape, incest, child neglect, etc. If unchecked, it could lead to genocide. For a number of reasons, Aborigines find themselves at a serious disadvantage, compared with Australians, when it comes to dealing with this problem. Never having had access to alcohol before the European brought it to this continent, there are no ‘laws’ in the blueprint for living that their supernatural beings gave them, to guide them in their use of alcohol. Any laws they introduce now do not carry the ‘divine’ command of the ‘Dreamtime’ and so can’t be enforced by their own societies. Consequently, laws brought in by Aboriginal communities are flouted with impunity.
Given this situation, governments have a responsibility to act for, as Noel Pearson, among others, has pointed out, unless the alcohol problem is controlled, there will be no progress in addressing Aboriginal socio/economic disadvantage. In combating this problem, governments may have to look seriously at solutions such as prohibition and giving food vouchers in lieu of monetary benefits to people who continually drink to excess, neglect their children, harm other people, and the like.
My final guideline relates to race-based legislation. Because of the divisive nature of this legislation and its dubious benefits, all legislation based on race should be phased out as soon as practical, and Aboriginal social disadvantage and needs be addressed through legislation currently used to meet social disadvantage and needs in the Australian community. Apart from the government ceasing to collect a special royalty on minerals and gas extracted from Aboriginal land—much of which is then paid to the Land Councils in the Northern Territory and used by them to further their political agenda, and not to alleviate Aboriginal disadvantage—such a shift would have minimal impact on the welfare of the more traditional Aborigines. Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory, presently held by land trusts and administered by land councils should, wherever traditional title and owners can be identified, be returned to the traditional owners, who should then be granted freehold title under the same conditions as Australians. Similar arrangements should apply in the States that have granted land to Aborigines via Land Trusts.

“Governments… have to make contact with the legitimate Aboriginal leaders” and “all legislation based on race should be phased out as soon as practical, and Aboriginal social disadvantage and needs be addressed through legislation currently used to meet social disadvantage and needs in the Australian community”.

The two sections above cut directly against the concept of a legislated or constitutionally entrenched Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

The title of Pastor Albrecht’s paper – ReIhiperra – means ‘the people’ in the Arrarnta language. This is the voice of the people coming from an informed, sympathetic yet disinterested agent. I imagine that soon-to-be senator Jacinta Price would be in accord with much, if not all, of what Albrecht says.  She will be a genuine voice in Parliament.

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