Australia’s new Prime Minister is sending out what he believes is a clarion call to move on and support a different Voice to our national Parliament. The problem is that his call falls as a muted whisper on many of our ears because it is a song without a coherent melody. It is a story without a discernible plot. It appears as a sleight of hand because while offering unity, it seems to be divisive.
The emptiness of the plea is because of the lack of form and content in the invitation to change our Constitution. The Voice is structureless. The Voice is devoid of content.
Regarding the structure, there is no clear explanation of who would be able to vote for the members of the Voice. How that would be determined?
In an era when a biological man can declare himself a woman, will anybody be able to claim Australian Aboriginal status if they demonstrate some shifting-sand definition of ‘acceptable’ context? This becomes even harder to prescribe given intermarriage between original inhabitants with other groups who now live in Australia.
We should not underestimate this politically charged aspect of the Voice. If you think it is not an active topic, ask Professor Richard Dawkins about his disappointment ‘with his own’, when they took the Humanist of the Year title from him for asking academic questions related to self-identification in race and sexual identity.
Will there be any other quotas within the Voice? How will the different clans be represented proportionally? By region or population? Will there be a minimum of 50 per cent women on the Voice? Can the Voice be disbanded without another referendum? Then there is the disagreement about the label for the Voice – is it to represent Indigenous Australians, or Aboriginal Australians? We have heard objections and preferences about both descriptors.
With reference to content, what exactly is the proposed role of the Voice?
When the term ‘advisory’ is used, what does that mean? Some suggest that this group would only give recommendations about issues of primary concern to these descendants of earliest inhabitants of this continent. But as any secondary school student will tell you, all of life is ‘integrally linked’ to each local Dreaming story. It could be argued that any and all topic could fall under the recommendation guidelines when it comes before the Parliament.
This leads to another ghost in the Voice proposal.
If the Voice is to respect traditional ways of life, through what legal/ethical lens will they give recommendations to our Parliament? Will they use their traditional law to comment on our Judeo-Christian traditions of universal respect, the rule of law, and procedural fairness?
Is the existence of the Voice going to help the difficulties of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and poverty cycles within too many of our remote Aboriginal communities? Will it improve declining literacy levels for children and adults? This challenge has more to do with overcoming the difficulties of merging a traditional culture with no written language into a world where literacy is crucial, than a Voice in Parliament. Reading Larry Sidentop’s (2014) Inventing the Individual: The origins of Western liberalism (or Rodney’s Stark’s 2015 The neglected story of the triumph of modernity, or similar works) may be helpful for all prospective candidates for the Voice in understanding this part of history that makes Australia what it is today. At minimum, there must be a clear statement of how a clash of legal/ethical worldviews is to be managed if this Voice is ever to given a reasonable beginning.
If the Voice does not achieve these things, then it may not only be hollow in who it represents and what it can do, but it may ironically lead to further tribalism in the principles we use to resolve conflict.
But why is the Voice so attractive to many people, given these kinds of easily discernible difficulties?
I would suggest that Philip Reiff’s 1967 work on the Triumph of the Therapeutic was prescient in explaining the current tendency to run towards good-sounding ideas that are hollow in their conceptualisation and empty in substance. Reiff described the shift from an external frame of reference that held society together, to one where the goal was feeling good – feeling good about oneself and feeling good collectively. To achieve this, Reiff suggested we had to let go of the ‘old centre of sinful conceit’ and replace it with the ‘new centre of the self’. The problem of such exaggerated individualism is that instead of being free to pursue truth greater than oneself, we live like we are in a ‘zoo of separate cages’.
What can hold such a disparate collective together? Reiff is not optimistic. He suggests that the emphasis on ‘nothing but a manipulative sense of wellbeing’ leads to an ‘unreligion’ that feeds a spirit ‘anti-culture’. Or, as he summarised, ‘… our culture has shifted toward a predicate of impulse release, projecting controls unsteadily based upon an infinite variety of wants raised to the status of need…’
The Voice is a want raised to the status of a need. It is not predicated on any realistic sense of compassion, order, and inclusion. It is designed to replace the ‘I believe’ form of thinking with ‘I feel’ type of thinking. It is a good feeling of an idea that seems to make enough focus groups feel better about our mixed-up past.
If we do not have the courage to clarify the structure and content of the Voice, Reiff’s predication may become even truer: ‘That a sense of well-being has become the end, rather than a by-product of striving after some superior communal end, [and it] announces a fundamental change of focus in the entire cast of our culture.’
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