Racism. That’s the simple answer. It’s also the most accurate. If you introduced a Bill that legalised murder and gave every Indigenous person in Australia 20 cents, you can rest assured that the most controversial part of the Bill would be the 20 cents.
The tiny concession that I want to make to the racists is that it is really, really difficult to get any sense of what’s actually being proposed. I was asked about the topic the other day, and even I had to admit that I didn’t really know what was being proposed.
We — completely inexplicably — shift the responsibility for being informed on to the general public, rather than blasting the media for being so hopeless at keeping us informed. A quick search of news coverage of the topic gives us a lot of information about conservative commentators being wrong about what the Voice to Parliament is, and significantly less information about what it is.
Framed even more bluntly: we have an information machine that is really, really good at giving a platform for wrong views (even if just to tell us they are wrong) and really bad at giving us actual information.
A recent ‘explainer’ by the Australian Financial Review, for example, didn’t describe in any detail what was proposed, but instead had ‘Boo/Hooray’ quotes from people who supported it and people who opposed it. The job of the reader, then, is to work out with which group of people they identify and adopt their ‘Boo/Hooray’ view.
There’s an added dimension to this: I get worried when the media presents any policy discussions as if there is a monolithic ‘Indigenous’ view. I thoroughly expect that our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have a wide range of views about what a Voice to Parliament would look like. Why am I not seeing any of those range of voices in the Press, and why am I instead seeing a bunch of Anglos saying hot wild horseshit instead? Why is our journalism industry so broken?
This is particularly important for constitutional questions. The Constitution is supposed to be an expression of our collective will for how our political/legal state is established and functions. When so few of us understand it sufficiently to express how our political/legal state is established and functions, do we really have a constitution that expresses our collective will?
Thus, debates about changing the Constitution adopt an Imaginary all of its own. The Constitution — so the reasoning goes — is ‘neutral’ because it reflects a white, male, legally educated view of the world and therefore it is ‘good’. The proposal for a Voice disrupts that Imaginary because it is a step away from this purported neutrality.
We could frame this differently: if the proposal for a Voice really was for a ‘third chamber of Parliament’, what’s the big fucking deal? The deal would be exactly the same as the one we’ve got at the moment — people just don’t want Indigenous Australians to even get an additional twenty cents.
The lack of information allows people to fill this Imaginary in whatever way bits fits their current intuitions. Most supporters of the Voice have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. That’s entirely fine. Democracy is the rule by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.
The lack of specificity in the proposal worries me. I spend a lot of time thinking about, writing about, and arguing about section 61 of the Constitution:
The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative, and extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth.
That’s the entirety of the provision, and it is clear that our modern understanding of what this section does is completely at odds with what was envisaged by the people who drafted it. It does things that we never thought it could; it doesn’t do things that we definitely thought that it could.
But it’s a good lesson in constitutional design. You want something that’s flexible enough to evolve with the society it serves; you want something that’s rigid enough to ensure it does what people expect it to do.
Inserting a provision into the Constitution that says ‘There will be a First Nations Voice to Parliament; Parliament can pass legislation to tell us what it will do’, for me, really isn’t good enough. And you can see why it, if this is the level of information that is generally available to the community, spooks garden variety racists. For me, it doesn’t give me nearly enough confidence that the Voice will do what I want it to do: be a platform for politico-legal discussion about issues facing Indigenous Australians, potentially with the power to veto the wildest proposals from the two chambers of Parliament. For the garden variety racists, it doesn’t give nearly enough confidence that the Voice won’t do what it’s not intended to do: become an enormous monster that lets Indigenous Australians block mining projects… or something.
Fundamentally, if we want a better debate about the topic, we really need to stop amplifying the voices of those who are not facilitating better discussion.