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There comes a time when someone can be silent no longer, when despite the difficulties, the hesitancies, one must do that difficult thing, and speak.

Not to disagree with something — that’s easy — but to utter those fearful words: I Don’t Get It.

For me, with regard to the Uluru Statement, one year old this week, that time is now: IDGI.

Or one part of it.

The treaty I get, absolutely. The treaty has been round for decades. It’s a symbolic process, but a real symbolic process, and matters.

Constitutional recognition, well … Indigenous people seem to want it. It’s always seemed to me paradoxical to have “recognition” in a document, the Australian constitution, that constituted a state entity excluding Indigenous people as citizens. That seems like the opposite of recognition, but OK.

But the Voice to Parliament, part three of the Uluru deal, has defeated me. IDGI.

For those of us not involved, but who’ve supported the recognition-treaty deal, the Voice to Parliament proposal seemed to come from nowhere: an elected chamber of Indigenous representatives to lobby, advise, propose to parliament.

The first thought on seeing this was that it cut against the grain of the other two proposals, and especially against the treaty. A treaty constituted first peoples and settlers/arrivals, as equals, and in proposing that equality, established a simple universality. Recognition was easily done as part of a treaty process. Both could be presented in referendum pretty much in toto.

The Voice to Parliament is a complex particularist measure, not a simple universalist one. It raises hundreds of questions as to what its form would be, and its character would vary completely with the final form. A referendum on recognition and treaty tells you what you’re signing up for. A Voice to Parliament is something of a blank cheque.

But above what IDG about it is, that it seems to be a tough struggle against large odds — to create a body that has no independent power. As I understand it, and maybe I’ve got it wrong, this would be a pseudo-parliament with no statutory power, no executional budget for programs, no devolved responsibilities from federal departments, and no legislative or regulatory capacity.

Have I got this right? Because, I have to say, this sounds like a really, really bad deal.

The obvious points seem to me to be this:

  1.  If it’s an elected body, there will have to be a prior body deciding who qualifies as Indigenous, to vote, and that institution will be part of the settler state;
  2.  If it’s appointed, it will be appointed by the settler state;
  3.  With no power, no capacity for threat, it will be parliament’s punching bag for both major parties, to be condescended to, ignored, given lip service at will;
  4.  With no real power, and a talking shop, it would be subject to the same pressures as radical exile politics: bitter division, because the stakes are zero;
  5.  With incomplete understanding of its role, it would be blamed by Indigenous people for the continued lack of improvement in their conditions;
  6.  News Corp would make it target No. 1 from day one, for racist campaigns about “do-nothing Aborigines”;
  7.  Having an operational budget, but no real power, as the frustration grows, so too would the petty rorting — the expense-account lunches and dinners, air travel used for relatives, a few rub-and-tugs at Canberra knocking shops: it would all end up on the front page of the Tele and the Hun.

All this, for no power at all.

Am I wrong about this? Because, given the idea that a treaty should lead to forms of sovereignty, the Voice to Parliament appears to take things in the exact opposite direction.

I mean, these sorts of institutions were proposed in Africa during the decolonisation period of the 1950s. But they were proposed by the British empire, as a way of preserving settler-plantation power, and rejected by leaders such as Nkrumah and Kenyatta.

So IDGI, and I wonder if a lot of other people DGI it either, and are just going with the flow. I’m happy to be corrected, but for the moment it seems like one of the worst ideas ever, fighting hard for a body that announces its powerless dependency as part of its constituting establishment.



Peter Fray

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