So whose ‘Voice’ is it anyway?

17 Aug 2022

We Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have always fought for our rights and have often had to do that against government authorities. So why are people surprised we want to know more about the Voice to Parliament before we commit to it? Nat Cromb writes of recent dialogues highlighting the answers we're still not getting.

The Redfern Tent Embassy. A sign reads 'Sovereignty Never Ceded'

I saw a tweet from the @IndigenousX rotating account this week in which a member of the National Co-Design Group stated:

A tweet that reads 'Don't be embarrassed or shamed to say YES, don't tie yourself up in knots over histories or politics. don't feel like you should have all the answers or know all the details. I know you have a good heart. I know you want to do something meaningful. I see you. I've got you.

The sinking feeling in my stomach when I read that was instant. 

This tweet and the others that followed appeared to have a lack of insight into the wants and needs of the First Nations communities that this particular host called upon non-Indigenous voters to make political decisions on behalf of.

Now I affirm here a love of IndigenousX, and have been a long-time supporter and writer for this platform and former editor of content. So this critique is not directed at a platform that truly does allow for all mob to step up and speak.

However, it was painful to see IndigenousX’s platform used in this way. This person was elevating a policy we’re not all 100% sold on, which was troubling because it could be perceived as all mob being in support of it. However, I also know, the platform is for all of us and there are going to be weeks I see myself and relate to the mob hosting and other weeks where I don’t – because we are diverse.

This above tweet represents  some of the responses about the Voice to Parliament I have seen. 

A lack of respect for our Peoples and communities is being highlighted in the weeks following the government’s announcement of the proposed national Referendum where Australia will decide if we even get to have a Voice to Parliament . The protocols of looking out for mob and remaining true to kinship in our communities, for some, have gone out the window. This is evident in the condescension we are seeing through means such as this past week’s tweets.

I find this condescension particularly appalling because it aligns itself to colonial bullying tactics such as gaslighting us and our experiences, and encouraging lateral violence among us, and that is not how our communities work. As Lynda-June Coe said, ‘dissent is not a mandate for disrespect.’

There’s a distrust in these processes for good reason

I am a lawyer, formally educated and trained.  However, this is a learned skill, this does not ascribe intelligence so on matters that impact community. I do not claim to speak with any authority or on behalf of anyone else. I have and always will refer to my Elders and community on issues as this is the way I was reared. My Grandfather was not formally educated but was smarter than me in all respects and I learned so much from him about the subversive ways of colonial political machinations and the healthy distrust of them has been passed on to me.

The processes themselves for both Voice models have had criticism levelled at them for the lack of inclusive engagement. Sure the Uluru dialogues were the most comprehensive we have seen, however, that does not mean that the criticism of those who were not represented and the protocols not followed are without base. The distrust arises when those leading or advocating for political actions in a colonial framework fail to be humble in acknowledging the shortcomings of particular models or the accessible explanations to mob. How can mob trust processes and models and people pushing for them if they are not given the respect of meaningful engagement and an acknowledgement of the validity of critique?

This healthy distrust is alive in our communities, among our people with lived experience of the oppressive policies and laws that are implemented about us, without us but ‘for our own good.’

This is why the comments of this last week’s IndigenousX’s host are so concerning. The host was a member of the LNP Government formed Voice Co-Design Group. This is the advisory group formed after the then-government rejected the Uluru Voice to Parliament proposal

However, since our new government has been established, and with it has come a new model for how the Voice to Parliament may be implemented.

This country has been presented with two different ‘Voice’ models, which only select First Nations people have put together.  Understandably our communities have legitimate and material concerns that we are not being heard. We need to ensure this is not just another example of colonial processes that will divide our people. This Voice will affect us more than anyone else. This is why we need to know these processes and our questions need to be answered.

We have always said, ‘nothing about us without us’ and although the Voice to Parliament processes have involved consultations from communities, this is not enough when it comes to something as large as this.  We are part of a collective of over 200 diverse First Nations and if the consultation does not have the same structures and engage in protocols between ourselves first in mob-led reform models, we risk placing the process, the framework and the outcomes in the hands of the colonial structures that have historically sought to eradicate us.

Mob are asking questions about how these processes are going to work, and how they will be heard.  These mob should be respectfully engaged with and answered because if your response to critique is condescension, perhaps you have something to learn and reflect upon.

So when the host from the Voice Co-Design Group failed to engage with mob but just had authoritative Tweets on the essentiality of voting yes regardless of details and in order to ‘look straight’ – it really galled. Because this is precisely how government policies and ‘reforms’ have been historically handled, they talk at us but do not engage with us and then condemn critique.

On Twitter, mob brought some really thoughtful questions and engagement with this host that went unanswered. This ended up being a lost opportunity to provide answers to much-needed questions being raised. These questions have previously gone unanswered, instead mob have been told to read the Indigenous Co-Design Process Final Report. However, a lot of these concerns aren’t addressed in this report. Instead, the report is largely recommendation and principle based. It speaks to a model and does not provide the granularity that should reasonably be expected when asking community to vote “yes.”

The Report does not provide detail on the issue of sovereignty which is a central question that mob have raised, in fact, it appears to ignore the issue of Indigenous sovereignty and instead says, “The design also reflects the need to respect parliamentary sovereignty and avoid causing unintended consequences.”

 Another key question from mob is how the Voice will be effective in ensuring we are heard and policies are not imposed upon us. The report does not provide much granularity on this but rather states that the intent is the presence of a moral obligation to consult and that ‘the National Co-design Group affirms that non-justiciability is an essential feature of the overall design.’ So practically, the Voice will not have any incumbency (beyond moral) upon parliament to engage with, let alone listen to the Voice.

Do we actually know what will happen if the ‘yes’ vote wins?

Our community is asking what are the consequences and outcomes of the “Yes” vote. How will this have the impact upon Sovereignty? I have previously highlighted the concerns in relation to the government’s denial of our Sovereignty. However both Voice camps have indicated the proposed constitutional inclusion will not impact this.

When we speak of sovereignty, we ask how the matters our ancestors and Elders have fought for (and we continue to fight for) – land rights, reparations and self-determination  will be achieved. Will these proposed models do this?

I agree with expressed views that constitutional recognition or a Voice to parliament will not provide steps to cede our sovereignty .  This is because I am and always will be a sovereign Gamilaraay woman regardless of this. However, when we are expected to operate within a colonial construct such as a Voice to parliament, it is important to understand the construction and precisely how the model seeks to protect us and our sovereignty. As we have a long history of government not looking after our best interests, and  we know all too well that the legal system in so called Australia is one that is fairly consistent in denying our sovereignty.

Our communities are also asking the questions on how an advisory body can meaningfully contribute to Indigenous law and policy in circumstances where successive governments have ignored not only previous and current advisory committees and bodies, but also recommendations from Royal Commissions.

So far it seems there has not been thoughtful and detailed responses that make clear the mechanisms that will allegedly deliver on the promises the proposed Voice to parliament is making. Promises that we will be heard, and have some impact on policies affecting us. We need to have control over our futures and ‘real change and truth telling through a Makarrata Commission can help unify our country.’

Perhaps this level of detail is not yet finalised, but if that is the case, what is the point? What would we even be voting for?

We need these answers to fundamental questions before we can go forward with any real confidence in a government that historically has left us behind and implemented policies that have done more harm than good. This distrust is healthy, and justified. 

Telling mob who do not agree with the Voice model that failing to vote “Yes” means  they can’t look straight is surrendering to the colonial expectation of us  of settling for breadcrumbs.

Our people are intelligent and experienced in the tactics of colonial politics, because we’ve been on the receiving end of them for centuries. 

To condemn mob for not agreeing with either ‘Voice’ model, again, undermines the responsibility to each other we have. Anytime we centre non-Indigenous Australia above the needs of our people in awareness campaigns, the intent of the reform is lost on the very people that the intended change seeks to benefit.

We need to do better and exemplify the leadership of our ancestors and Elders and remember, that leadership was a verb! Leadership means getting answers, and we’re not going forward without them.

Back to Stories
Related posts

Sovereignty is Climate Action

Indigenous methods have always cared for country but the disruption of this has put us on the brink of ecological disaster. Jamie Graham-Blair discusses.

Sovereignty….but what model?

I often speak and write about the importance of Treaty and the model that I think would best achieve the ultimate goal of land rights, self-determination and reparation. In order to pursue any of these avenues, it is pertinent to understand sovereignty and the path to asserting it given it is apparent it is being denied by the government.

A milestone for Black sovereignty in this country: celebrating 50 years of the Tent Embassy

Fifty years on, Canberra’s Tent Embassy is proudly adorned with symbols of an everlasting culture

Enquire now

If you are interested in our services or have any specific questions, please send us an enquiry.