Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has confirmed that the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament will be an utterly symbolic affair. Not only will it be a merely advisory body without any real power over government policy, Albanese has also made clear that “the legislation of the structure of the Voice won’t happen before the referendum”.
This means that the way in which the representatives on the Voice are elected (or selected), and the functions, powers and procedures of the body will be decided by a bill in parliament, leaving the Voice hostage to the whims of whatever political party is in power. This is precisely what advocates of the Voice said they were hoping to avoid by having the body established via a referendum.
Unfortunately, the loudest critics of the Voice in mainstream political discourse come from the conservative right. Indigenous Country Liberal Party Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price used a speech in the first week of parliament to denounce the Voice, arguing it was a part of a “virtue-signalling agenda” and that she has “had more than [her] fill of being symbolically recognised”. Price went on to say that “the government has yet to demonstrate how this proposed voice will deliver practical outcomes and unite, rather than drive a wedge further between, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia”.
Price’s comments are part of a vocal minority of right-wing figures who are bucking against the fact that the majority of the Liberal Party, much of the right-wing press and conservative institutions such as the Business Council of Australia and the bosses of the mining industry are either openly campaigning for, or at least open to supporting, the Voice. Her comments come in the wake of One Nation leader Pauline Hanson storming out of parliament during the acknowledgement of country, a racist act with which Price expressed sympathy.
Three backbench Coalition MPs have also declared their opposition to the proposed Voice referendum, and mining magnate Gina Rinehart made a surprise appearance in the public gallery of Parliament House to cheer on Price’s speech, revealing herself to be one of the few mining bosses opposed to the Voice. Similarly, right-wing network Sky News attacked the rest of the conservative press, including prominent Voice supporter Chris Kenny, who is associate editor of the Australian and a Sky News regular, for going along with the “virtue signalling” agenda.
As I have argued in a previous Red Flag article, neither the Indigenous Voice to Parliament nor the full implementation of the Uluru Statement will do much to combat Indigenous oppression—let alone begin a process of ending it.
But the arguments put forward by Price and others have nothing to do with delivering “practical outcomes” to alleviate Indigenous oppression. After all, the right has spent decades campaigning against land rights, supporting the Northern Territory Intervention and pushing for welfare quarantining and cuts to social services for Indigenous people. The “practical outcomes” of this have been an intensification of Indigenous oppression and greater divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Their criticism of the symbolism is equally reactionary: they oppose official recognition of Indigenous oppression because they don’t think Australian capitalism has anything to atone for and Indigenous people are better off embracing the system than thinking about how it has oppressed them.
The right has also pushed a racist ideological agenda that posits Indigenous people as primarily responsible for their own oppression and uses that to advance a right-wing agenda. Price, for instance, takes up the arguments made by conservative writers such as anthropologist Peter Sutton and Indigenous academics and figures Maria Lane and Noel Pearson, who argue that the solution to Indigenous inequality lies in ending Indigenous “welfare dependency” and getting Indigenous people into the “real economy”.
Books like Noel Pearson’s Our right to take responsibility and Sutton’s The Politics Of Suffering argue that high levels of Indigenous incarceration, poverty and poor health are due to high rates of Indigenous criminality. In the eyes of these conservative commentators, this in turn was the unintended side effect of the movements for Indigenous rights in the 1960s and 1970s, including the winning of equal pay for Indigenous workers in the 1960s and the subsequent mass sackings of rural Indigenous workers in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, the discrediting of assimilation as a social objective and the overturning of restrictive laws on Indigenous people accessing alcohol.
According to this theory, these progressive measures led to the breakdown of Indigenous communities in the second half of the twentieth century in a wave of rising unemployment, alcoholism and violence, a reality that was supposedly denied by white progressives who encouraged a “victim mentality” among Indigenous people. This argument formed the ideological background to the racist Northern Territory Intervention, which continues to this day, as well as the reluctance to accept that Australia Day shouldn’t be celebrated.
The reality is that Indigenous people continue to be marginalised from the workforce not because of a victim mentality, but because bosses tend to be racist, educational opportunities are denied to them, and intergenerational trauma and poverty compound the problems and make it very difficult to turn the situation around.
Wide-ranging government measures will be needed to address this properly, but at the most basic level a huge injection of funding for decent infrastructure, schools, training, hospitals and housing is needed, which would raise the standard of living and level of dignity for Indigenous people. That has to be the starting point for overcoming the systemic problems. And all this needs to happen regardless of whether Aboriginal communities and people can generate profits for the system or are prepared to allow mining on their land. What is key is, not Indigenous people being forced either to enter into the exploitative labour market with worse prospects than other workers or eke out an impoverished existence on welfare, but radically transforming how our economy works and what its priorities are.
Price can gain some hearing for her arguments because of the very real failures of the mainstream liberal approach to Indigenous issues, which has indeed been dominated by showy symbolism and little else. As academic Michael Morrissey explained in a 2006 article for the Journal of Sociology regarding the Hawke and Keating federal Labor governments of the 1980s and 1990s:
“The brute fact is that the gap between Indigenous Australians and the rest either remained static or actually widened in terms of the key indicators of health, labour force and education participation, as well as income levels and incarceration rates during the period of Australian Labor Party (ALP) government: and a fundamental reason for this was the fact that a sweeping rhetoric of reconciliation, atonement and social justice was never, at any point, underpinned by anything near the appropriate commitment of resources.”
While Keating could make ideological speeches like that at Redfern in 1992, beneath the rhetoric, the unfolding offensive against working conditions, social welfare, education and health departments and government spending in general made sure that the majority of Indigenous people were locked into structural racial and economic discrimination, in which they remain to this day.
This charade was then repeated under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd ALP governments, in which apologies for past horrors were made alongside little to no progress on Indigenous deaths in custody and life expectancy or ending the racist Northern Territory Intervention. This—not the left’s supposed obsession with self-determination or Indigenous people’s inherent laziness—explains why, rather than the struggles of the 1970s leading to Indigenous liberation, they ended with the continuation of Indigenous oppression.
If we are going to advance the rights and living conditions of the vast majority of Indigenous people today, we need to go beyond the binary choice of either empty symbolism or conservative pragmatism. This means we need a strategy that challenges both the political and socio-economic aspects of Indigenous oppression and which puts forward a vision of a radically different economy and society: one in which the exploitative, competitive and crisis-ridden economy is replaced by one that is controlled democratically by the vast majority of us who do the work—the working class.
In a socialist economy, you could have a political system that doesn’t exist in an alienated bubble in opposition to the rest of society, but which could be structured around the democratic needs of those previously exploited and oppressed. In such a system, genuine justice for Indigenous people would be possible because social equality wouldn’t constantly be weighed up against what is profitable for the small, powerful elite who dominate decision making.
Such a vision of Indigenous liberation doesn’t mean sitting around waiting for the revolution. Immediately, a strong grassroots movement could fight for significant increases in funding for Aboriginal housing, health, education and welfare, changes in criminal law and the disarming and defunding of the police force. These demands could be raised along with those for greater democratic control over communities and resources by Indigenous people. Such struggles can forge stronger links between the workers’ movement and Indigenous people.
Fighting for real material gains for Indigenous people is not necessarily counterposed to symbolic acts that recognise past and continuing wrongs. Symbolic acts can at times be a catalyst for further struggle by raising people’s expectations and making them feel they have a right to demand more. For instance, in the wake of the 1967 referendum on Indigenous issues, there was a renewed wave of struggle for Indigenous rights.
However, symbolic changes can also be used by governments that don’t want to do anything of substance and only want some social justice credibility and to cultivate a layer of loyal Indigenous bureaucrats. There is no sign at this point that the Voice will encourage greater struggle for Indigenous rights or raise expectations. Grassroots activism and a radical, left-wing current within Indigenous politics need to emerge if the current dire state of Indigenous oppression is to be turned around; the Voice isn’t the development that is needed to push in this direction.