Voice to parliament comes with risks and has me worried

Voice to parliament comes with risks and has me worried

On the other hand, high living standards, good employment opportunities, educational excellence, longevity and good health standards, and low infant mortality are all associated with what we can broadly describe as Western culture. This is an exaggeration because some inventions that have helped prolong human life and improve its well-being have come from other cultures. However, within Australia it is largely a legacy of Western culture. Indigenous people are the same as everyone else: if they embrace the benefits of Western lifestyles, they will reap the rewards.

All the subsidies in the world will not be enough to overcome the disadvantages of living so far from the rest of society.

But as you can see, the more they embrace the Western way of life, the more they turn their backs on many aspects of their traditional cultures. This contradiction seems almost impossible to resolve. Only the people affected – the indigenous people – can decide which path they want to take.

It is clear that many indigenous people have integrated with Western ways and as a result they are doing as well as anyone else and living as well as anyone else. It is also clear that those who wish to live in remote communities on their land will face all the disadvantages of living in such remote communities, which typically lack an economic base. All the subsidies in the world will not be enough to overcome the disadvantages of living so far from the rest of society.

During my years as a diplomat, I have noticed that race can be one of the most divisive issues. Unless racial issues are handled well, they have the potential to be explosive. The most successful societies are those that are color blind. Dividing Australia’s society on the basis of race must always be avoided. Racially divided societies will always remain so, and there will always be resentment, jealousy, allegations of prejudice and racism between them.

Racial divisions in Africa cost millions of lives, and so did in Europe. The great glory of a country like Australia is that it is built on the principle that every human being is of equal value and that we do not give any special privileges to people based on their race. It is one thing for people to be proud of their heritage and to respect the heritage of others within their society. It is another thing to give one race special privileges of any kind over another.

Therefore, the attempt to enshrine an institution based on race in the constitution is fundamentally unwise. There are already various consultation mechanisms with indigenous communities and if they need strengthening, this should be done. Apparently, the federal and Northern Territory governments have ignored Indigenous groups in Alice Springs for the past year as they pleaded with the Labor Party to maintain the alcohol ban.

Driven by politics

But the insertion of the Vote into the constitution is driven by politics. This will be the first step, not the last, in creating heightened racial tension in Australia. After all, many have said that once the Voice is established, the next step will be to negotiate a treaty and set up a truth-telling process. This is the beginning of a political process that will get worse and worse.

As you can see from the protests on Australia Day, tensions over the Voice are starting to rise. It will get much worse as the year goes on. It worries me; indeed, it makes me depressed. None of this will lead to a closing of the gap. It will be little more than an ugly back and forth about race and racism.

Add to that, there is a very real possibility that the Vote will be defeated in the referendum. It certainly will be – if history is any guide – because as I know from conversations about Christmas, people simply don’t understand it or don’t know enough about it. As the Labor Party said in 1999 about the preamble: if you don’t know, vote No! I could be wrong, but it’s a big risk.

And then what? Imagine the fallout, whatever happens in the referendum. There will be blame, allegations of malice, condemnations, and the list goes on. The referendum will leave a trail of bitterness. If this succeeds, the politics of the Vote will become volatile as demonstrated by the “Invasion Day” marches on Australia Day.

This exercise fails the test of wisdom. The prime minister should legislate to set up the Vote and see how it goes. That would be a wiser and less divisive way to go.

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