Gary Oliver, CEO of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, responds to Guy Rundle’s article from June 14, “Rundle: the Voice to Parliament sounds like a very bad deal“.
In 240 years of colonisation, we have been subjected to dispossession, cultural destruction, massacres, stolen land, stolen wages, Stolen Generations and paternalistic government policies. As a result, we face significant barriers to equal participation in the economic, social, political and cultural life of this country.
While we have never ceded sovereignty and some among us do not recognise the Australian constitution, most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are realistic enough — and, it must be said, generous enough — to want to share this fine land and its many fine institutions with everyone here today. Despite our treatment over the past 240 years, most of us have no desire for an “us” and “them” scenario.
But we also want our histories, cultures, languages and rights to be known, understood and honoured. We want to be recognised as the First Australians. We want all Australians to take pride in our nation’s heritage as home to the oldest continuous culture known to humankind. We want to see the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People implemented in Australia. We want the right to self-determination, control over our lives and the power to determine our own future.
How does this square with the request for a Voice to Parliament? Let there be no mistake – we do not propose ceding our right to sovereignty but we do not regard recognition, treaties or a Voice as antithetical to our claims of sovereignty. If anything, they are real political steps on the path to recognition of our sovereignty.
The 2009 report Our Future in Our Hands, sponsored by the Australian Human Rights Commission, demonstrates how the Commonwealth has used Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander national representative bodies as political footballs since the first one was established over 40 years ago. Interference and start-stop funding have been incessant, which is why we now want our voice enshrined in the Constitution.
The current national representative body, The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, was established in 2010, and has grown steadily to now comprise over 9000 individual members and over 180 member organisations. It currently fulfills a number of functions as our Voice in spite of being defunded in 2013. With adequate status and resources it is ready to take on the role.
Formal representation of our interests is not a blank cheque. The proposal for a Voice to Parliament was carefully considered. We know better than anyone how little power we have with only 3% of the population while also facing extreme social challenges, prejudice and systemic racism.
Our history tells us how much — or more accurately, how little — power is likely to be ceded. We are realistic enough to know that to have any hope of referendum success that real power must continue to reside with parliament as it now functions. A voice presents no challenge to the status quo in this regard.
How would it work? You may know that before national legislation is passed, it must first be vetted by the Human Rights Committee for compliance with Australia’s obligations according to international conventions and treaties to which we are signatories. The parliament can choose to pass the legislation whether or not there is a breach. We envisage a similar process for our Voice.
Our Voice will also develop and propose policies and programs to address the challenges we face, based on appropriate cultural knowledge and experience. We would also evaluate policies and programs for their impact and effectiveness, as well as participate in CoAG meetings about issues impacting us.
It has been proven, time and time again and the world over, that the most effective Indigenous policies are those designed by Indigenous peoples themselves.
Throughout my lifetime, I have watched law after law made for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by non-Indigenous people who do not have the appropriate cultural knowledge and skills to create meaningful change. I am saddened but never surprised when these laws fail to achieve their stated ends.
It is extremely frustrating to know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have the solutions but, as it stands, our voice is not heard by politicians. A constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament, at the very least, gives us a better chance of having a say on laws and policies which impact us.
I am always dismayed when non-Indigenous people feel compelled to publicly voice their opinion on our issues without taking the very basic step of talking to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
There are so many capable and articulate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander politicians, authors, administrators, advocates and academics who could advise based on first-hand knowledge and experience of the topic under consideration.
I conclude by an appeal to all non-Indigenous people. We are brothers and sisters in this fine country. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been playing political ball for long enough to know what we need to move forward.
We want a future where First Peoples have our voices heard. A future where we have a say in policy that affects us. A future where we can stand alongside other Australians with equality, freedom, self-determination and empowerment. We ask you to support our request for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament. By doing so, you will be directly contributing to this future.