Two chicken nuggets, a golf club and the Voice debate that forgot Indigenous Rights

5 Oct 2023

The Voice referendum is being predominantly pitched as a way to address the ‘gaps’ we live with as Indigenous people in so-called Australia. Luke Pearson reminds everyone that Indigenous rights need to extend beyond a response to disadvantage.

When I find myself particularly tired, frustrated, angry or sad, I tend to begin to talk, think and write in metaphors. 

I’ve had a lot of metaphors for the Voice debacle. I had one that I thought was pretty funny about the Voice being like two chicken nuggets, and how it’s not that I don’t like chicken nuggets, I just don’t see what all the fuss is about or how anyone thinks we’re gonna close the gaps with two measly chicken nuggets, and how I’m startled at everybody yelling at me either because I’m an ingrate who is ruining it for everyone by questioning the power of chicken nuggets or I’m an ingrate for thinking I deserve chicken nuggets in the first place… but it was a bit convoluted. 

The metaphor I’ve been using lately though is a bit more depressing than convoluted, and infinitely less funny. 

The metaphor I have been using lately is one of the Voice as a golf club. 

“Would you like this shiny new golf club?” I am asked. 

“Not really, golf isn’t really my sport,” I explain.

“Are you sure we can’t tempt you?” they implore, “It’s a very fancy golf club… and while it doesn’t come with a club membership, and you aren’t allowed to play in any of the serious tournaments with it, you do get access to the course and that’s where all the important people play.” 

I pause at this, considering the metaphorical implications of what was just said, but before I can ask more questions about it, they continue… 

“Oh, and just so we’re clear this isn’t really a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ situation anyway, well it is, but not for you. We are asking the whole country if they think you should have a golf club. Their answer will be binding for generations.” 

I pause again, carefully weighing up the considerations of whether or not I even want this fucking golf club in the first place, but painfully aware that now it’s been made about so much more than the golf club. It’s about whether or not the country feels I ‘deserve’ the golf club. 

It’s now more about ‘not letting the racists win’ than it is about ‘what am I gonna do with a golf club anyway?’. 

“What happens if I don’t want the golf club? Or more importantly, since that seems like a moot point at this stage, what happens if Australia decides I shouldn’t have it?” I cautiously ask.

“Oh,” they calmly reply, “in that case, if it is a no, there is a very real chance that the Liberal party will claim the golf club, use it to win the next election, and then flog you with it.”

That’s the best argument anyone has been able to give me so far about why I should vote yes, and it’s a terrible, albeit compelling, argument. 

And don’t get me wrong, most of my life has been lived under Liberal governments, from Howard to Morrison. I know full well of the damage they can do.

But this referendum isn’t meant to be about ‘not letting the racists win’ – ‘not letting the racists win’ is what we spent all of our time under Liberal governments fighting for. 

Not letting the racists win isn’t the same as us winning, it’s just not losing even more than we already have. Not losing doesn’t always mean we win. 

Some people truly believe the Voice will be a win for mob and while this is debatable, it’s still a debate worth having. I’ve been in lots of private conversations with friends who are passionate proponents from both sides and I have listened to their voices with respect and compassion and have felt heard and respected even when we haven’t been able to come to any sort of consensus. However, I haven’t felt like I’ve been in many public spaces where that debate was even possible to have and even fewer where there was still a mutual love and respect when consensus couldn’t be reached.

Indigenous rights informed by disadvantage isn’t the way to go

Where we should have been talking about Indigenous rights and whether or not the Voice is an effective measure to realise them, Albanese has instead been talking solely about Indigenous disadvantage and about how the Voice can help the government to make better decisions.

In preparing for a potential defeat, he even went as far as to say that the campaign hasn’t been entirely in vain as it put Indigenous disadvantage ‘front and centre’ of the national psyche

Our entire existence within the national psyche is one that keeps disadvantage front and centre. 

What hasn’t been ‘front and centre’ is the issue of Indigenous rights. That is the heart of the current debate, or at least it is meant to have been. Everybody knows about ‘the gap’, what we need to be discussing is why the gap exists in the first place. We need to be discussing what Indigenous rights are and what Australia’s obligations are towards realising them. 

This is important to consider, as it gives some insight into why Indigenous rights exist beyond a response to disadvantage.

Wesley AIrd, director of the Centre for Indigenous Training and former adviser to Prime Minister John Howard, was recently on Q&A arguing that the Voice locks in disadvantage. He reasoned this was because he can only imagine its utility being a response to disadvantage and not about an inherent right that we have as Indigenous peoples. 

Have a look at some of the closing the gap targets, or most targets within your standard corporate Reconciliation Action Plan, and what you see can best be described as ‘removing obstacles to effective assimilation.’ These documents often don’t speak to our unique status as Indigenous peoples or the specific rights and responsibilities that this entails in an Australian context.

It does not challenge the view that if disadvantage is ever eradicated then Indigenous rights would be made redundant; that closing the gap would mean closing the door on Indigeneity along with it. 

To be clear, I am not writing this to get you to vote in either direction since I can’t say much in any direction at the moment without random people chiming in and saying ‘See, this is why we do/don’t need the Voice. Vote Yes/No!’.

Instead, I am writing it because Australia has such a woefully low level of literacy, or imagination, when it comes to issues of race and racism, culture, or Indigenous rights. I felt angered, saddened and frustrated both by Albanese’s comments at our disadvantage and by Noel Pearson’s conversation trying to explain to Welsey Aird on Q&A that Indigenous isn’t a race and that Indigeneity isn’t defined solely by disadvantage. 

If this debate was an opportunity to ‘put Indigenous disadvantage front and centre’ then the opportunity was in asking why it exists in the first place, not in regurgitating statistics and probabilities designed to tug at white heart strings. It was in making clear that the disadvantage many Indigenous people and communities face is not due to some innate deficiency or deviancy but is instead a direct result of the ways Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been and continue to be treated within the colonial project.

But instead Albanese stuck with the same lines that Bill Shorten loved to use, evoking life expectancy figures and reminding everyone that a young Indigenous man is more likely to go to prison than to university – but never bothering to explain why this is the case. 

So much of the campaign that focuses on disadvantage feels like it is making the active choice to conflate justice with charity to appeal to white saviourism. It has all the vibes of a 1980’s World Vision commercial; “For just a dollar a day…” but instead it’s “For just one yes vote…” 

But if disadvantage is why we deserve a Voice then every disadvantaged or disenfranchised group would also deserve a Voice.

We don’t just ‘deserve’ a Voice though, we have an inherent right to be involved in the decisions that affect us because we are the Indigenous peoples of these lands. The sovereign peoples. 

And we have a right to much more than just a Voice; our rights as Indigenous peoples are laid out in the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). We have an inherent and inalienable right to language, culture, our own institutions, self-determination, self-governance, and social, cultural and economic independence, along with protections from racism, forced removals and genocide. We have a right to adequate resourcing to realise the above. 

A Voice can potentially advocate for these things, but it is not these things. 

But I will not cast my vote based on my disappointment on how the campaigns have been waged, because that is not what the referendum is about. 

Aboriginality as an identity beyond disadvantage

If the Voice campaign was an opportunity to ‘put Indigenous disadvantage front and centre’ then the opportunity was in explaining what is meant when we say ‘colonisation has had lasting and ongoing impacts’ to a country that applauds when Jacinta Price says that colonisation was a good thing, or when Pauline Hanson claims there is no definition of Indigenous but then goes on to claim that she is Indigenous because she was born here, or when well-meaning people claiming ‘we are all Indigenous to somewhere’.

As Noel Pearson tried to explain on Q&A, Indigenous isn’t a race, it just means that you have been colonised and are still occupied by a colonising force, just as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are.

In Australia, we tend to use Aboriginal and Indigenous as universally interchangeable. But neither term can rightly be described as referring to a ‘race’ though (more accurately written as ‘a racialised group’ since race doesn’t actually exist) as both terms are used internationally to refer to various groups with no historic or cultural connection. 

These terms aren’t names like most other groups have. Most groups have names derived from place, e.g. English people come from England, but Aboriginal people do not come from Aboriginalia. We have names for ourselves, of course, but these names were largely ignored in favour of a generic classification, the same sort of classification used for plants and animals – native, aboriginal and indigenous. 

When it comes to racialisation we have a long history of geography, colour and ‘race’ being used to describe different groups of peoples and what we are left with is a weird combination of all of the above. We still use geographical terms based on continents (Asians, Africans, Europeans Etc) or countries (Spanish, Korean, English etc), we still use colour terms (black, white, brown) but some have largely been phased out (red and yellow), we still use racialised terms (Caucasian) but again most have largely been phased out (Negroid, Mongoloid and Australoid). 

So, Indigenous would probably better sit alongside terms like ‘coloniser’, ‘settler’, ‘migrant’, ‘immigrant’ and ‘refugee’ as these are all ways to classify people distinct from colour, geography or ‘race’. 

So how does the Voice fit into all this?

This Voice campaign was an opportunity to advance conversations about Indigenous rights within a country that has, by design, such woefully low levels of literacy when it comes to critical issues of racism, colonisation, culture, history, and unique rights.

There have been some efforts to have these sorts of conversations, Noel Pearson on Q&A recently talked about the definition of Indigenous and why Indigenous rights exist beyond responding to disadvantage, but that is a terrible program to try and have that sort of conversation on in the first place, given its combative nature. 

I feel like that was an exception though, and conversations like that have not trickled down to the mainstream discourse that is driving the campaigns and I fear these points have largely been drowned out by the double barrelled pleas that we 1) vote yes to ensure the racists don’t win and 2) ensuring the moderates that a yes victory is nothing for them to fear because it doesn’t have any real power anyway.

So instead of voting yes to advance Indigenous rights, I am instead being encouraged to vote yes to stop the racists from winning, or to prevent a future attack from the Liberal party? (I say this every election cycle, but just because the Liberal party is racist and Labor is anti-Liberal party, that doesn’t mean that Labor is anti-racist).

And not only that, but I’m meant to be excited about it too? I’m meant to march down the street cheering, put a ‘vote yes’ sign in my yard and add an ‘I’m voting yes’ banner to my Facebook profile? I’m meant to cheerfully reassure white moderates that it’s all ok because the Voice will probably not have any power or influence anyway? 

“Vote yes or else the racists will win and the Liberal party will weaponise it against you!” has all the elegance of “You should be glad it’s us and not the Portuguese who invaded you!” in that it bases its argument not on the good things you have done/plan to do, but instead claims victory by default by relying on the fear of how someone else will do so much worse. 

Something this important needs to be more than just ‘not letting the racists win’ – it needs to let us win.

I honestly don’t know if the Voice is really a win for Indigenous rights, and I don’t know if ‘not letting the racists win’ is a good enough substitute for an actual victory.

I just know that this campaign is a shambles, on all sides, and we have a PM proud because he thinks it has put Indigenous disadvantage ‘front and centre’ when in reality all it has done is put a target on our backs. This makes the idea of him being ‘better’ by default feel like a pretty hollow victory right now and it doesn’t fill me with great confidence that a Yes win will be a victory for Indigenous rights.

I’m not voting on which official campaign I dislike the least and I’m not voting based on the confected symbolism of what a yes or no victory ‘says about Australia’ nationally or internationally. I will not cast my vote based on which group of racist white people I dislike more; the racist white moderate or the racist white conservative.

I will instead think about the mechanism being offered, a constitutionally enshrined advisory body, and whether or not I think it will be able to meaningfully advance Indigenous rights. I will focus on what positive or negative impacts I can envisage for mob from both a yes or a no, how we will respond, and how we will overcome. 

I will not focus on my fears and concerns around what white moderates will do with a yes or what white conservatives will do with a no. 

This isn’t about them, it’s about us.

When I think about what mob will do with either outcome I honestly feel much less stress about the long term impacts of either outcome because I believe in Blak power, Blak perseverance, Blak joy, and Blak love. I believe in Indigenous excellence.

As Meriki Onus wrote in her last piece for IndigenousX:

“The knowledge we hold of kinship, country and protocol has existed from the first sunrise, this knowledge of identity and country has been protected and maintained despite the ongoing genocide of our people, and will continue to survive until the last sunset.”

If there is a yes, I will fight for it to build a suitable and sustainable infrastructure to ensure that this body can be a truly representative decision making body. I will fight for it to establish itself in a way where it can have economic independence so even if a future government tries to legislate it into the dust or defund it into irrelevance it can still stand anyway, as a Voice in exile, still agitating and advocating the will of the people.

If there is a no win or if we end up with a Voice that does not adequately represent our interests, then I will fight for activists and advocates to push for greater heights of community building. The disillusionment in the lack of progress following the 1967 referendum spurred on an emerging generation of more radical Aboriginal activists in the 1970s to create the Tent Embassy, Black Theatre, the Aboriginal Medical Service, the Aboriginal Legal Service and many other Aboriginal led actions and initiatives.

So, regardless of the outcome of this referendum, I am on the side of Blakfullas.

I am on the side of anyone who believes in justice over charity, land rights over reconciliation, and Indigenous rights over Closing The Gap they put there in the first place..

Always was, always will be.

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