Inside Story

The referendum’s lines in the sand

If the parliamentary committee is any guide, representation and risk have become the sharpest dividing lines in the Voice debate

Tim Rowse 19 May 2023 2907 words

“Who was your representative at that dialogue?” Liberal senator Kerrynne Liddle at the committee’s 1 May hearings. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

When the joint parliamentary committee on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice reported last Friday, it recommended the government’s proposed wording of a new section of the Constitution proceed to a referendum. That wasn’t a particular surprise — the committee had a majority of government members — but along the way the report and the testimony to the committee throw light on questions that will become increasingly urgent as the referendum approaches.

A few days after the report’s release, a Resolve poll showed a further decline in support for constitutional change. The finding served to highlight the notions of “risk,” “pragmatism” and “compromise” that are central to the committee’s report.

Pragmatism in particular — as strength or weakness — quickly became a theme of public debate. Encouraged by the minority report of the committee’s Liberal members, former Indigenous social justice commissioner Mick Gooda counselled the government’s Indigenous advisers to give up the hope of the Voice having the constitutional right to advise the executive. Responding on ABC Radio National, Noel Pearson spurned Gooda as a compromiser, leaving the public to infer that Anthony Albanese’s Indigenous advisers, having made compromises in the past, have now drawn their line in the sand.

The committee was examining the wording of section 129, which has four elements: introductory words recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia; subsection 129(i), providing for the establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice; subsection 129(ii), saying that the function of the Voice is to make representations to parliament and the executive; and subsection 129(iii), giving parliament power to legislate the Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.

Because Section 129 is intended as an act of “recognition,” it faces a decisive test: does it attract the assent of those to be recognised? On the basis of the evidence it received, the committee accepted that “the Voice, as established by the Bill, is the preferred method of recognition sought by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution.”

The National Party member of the committee, Pat Conaghan (MHR for Cowper), didn’t agree that recognition should take this form. His dissenting report asserts that the bill “conflates two entirely separate issues”: whether to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution at all; and whether a constitutionally enshrined advisory body should be the form recognition takes. He didn’t declare his hand on the first issue, but he is clearly in the No camp on the second.

But if recognition is a reciprocal process — with recogniser and recognised negotiating agreement about its terms — then voters have only one issue to decide: whether to demonstrate recognition by putting a Voice in the constitution. A majority of committee members were satisfied that “the words contained in the Bill do give effect to what Indigenous Australians have asked for, in processes such as the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Final Report to the Australian Government on the Indigenous Voice Co-Design Process.”

Law professor Megan Davis, one of the key figures in development of the Uluru Statement, reinforced this point when she appeared before the committee on 14 April. Referring to a January 2023 Ipsos poll, she declared that “80 per cent of our mob support… constitutional recognition to empower their people.” (She could have added that only 10 per cent of Indigenous respondents to Ipsos said they opposed the constitutional amendment, with 10 per cent undecided.)

Davis also referred to Reconciliation Australia’s latest Reconciliation Barometer: “They’ve got the number at 88 per cent.” The Reconciliation Barometer 2022 asked Indigenous respondents to rate the importance of protecting the Indigenous Voice by putting it in the constitution: 57 per cent said this was “very important” and a further 30 per cent “fairly important.”

The question of what proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians really wants the Voice matters because Indigenous dissent is being highlighted by the No campaign. Dissident figures Nyunggai Warren Mundine and senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price have emerged as the faces of the official No campaign’s advertising and media appearances; and at the other end of the political spectrum, senator Lidia Thorpe — who I understand has not yet finalised her position — urged ABC Radio National’s Patricia Karvelas to hear the “progressive no” case. According to Senator Thorpe, Indigenous people are being drowned out by a “loud” Yes campaign bankrolled by corporate Australia.

In raising doubt about what Indigenous Australians want, the No campaign received assistance from Liberal committee member Kerrynne Liddle, an Arrernte woman who represents South Australia in the Senate. She persistently questioned Indigenous witnesses about whether it was possible for a national representative process to cover the diversity of their opinion.

On 14 April she posed such a question about the regional assemblies that culminated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. On 17 April she asked a Wiradjuri witness similar questions: “Who was your representative at that dialogue? Are you aware who that was? Did you have anybody from here [Orange] that was a representative at that dialogue?”

On the assumption that the government will legislate the model proposed by Tom Calma and Marcia Langton, Liddle expressed doubts about the new body’s capacity to represent Indigenous diversity. She asked witnesses from Queensland whether the Calma–Langton model gave enough seats to Queensland. She asked Western Australian witnesses whether the regional diversity of their state would be adequately represented.

In pursuing this line, Liddle was following her leader. Peter Dutton has said that a body that aspires to be representatively “national” will succeed only in becoming a “Canberra” Voice — though he may have surprised his own colleagues when he made this point. When the Liberal Party met to confirm it was in the No camp, according to the Nine papers’ David Crowe, its position had three facets: recognition of “First Peoples” in the Constitution; legislated local and regional Indigenous bodies; and a legislated national Voice. At his press conference after the meeting, Dutton rubbished the idea of a national body, legislated or otherwise.

Liddle also wondered what the amendment would really recognise. “Have you actually looked carefully at the words to see whether it really, truly even acknowledges us, as opposed to acknowledging a Voice, and do you have any thoughts on that?” she asked former Liberal Indigenous Australians minister Ken Wyatt on 28 April. Why no mention of “First Nations,” she wondered. (The phrase in the amendment is “First Peoples.”)

On the same day, Liddle challenged George Williams, a professor of constitutional law, with the observation: “An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice is referred to three times in the wording of the three paragraphs — not Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people, not a Voice separately, just an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.”

When Warren Mundine and his lead researcher Vicki Grieves Williams each appeared before the committee, they too stressed Indigenous diversity, arguing that the structures of the Voice (as imagined in the Calma–Langton report) are not authentic to First Nations culture. Grieves suggested that historians and anthropologists know this to be true but are holding back.

In her evidence on 14 April, Anne Twomey, another professor of constitutional law, defended the proposed amendment but scrupulously refused to speak with certainty about what Indigenous Australians want by way of recognition. “My only knowledge, to the extent that I have any, was of the views of the Referendum Working Group,” she said. “But other people may argue that the Referendum Working Group is not sufficiently representative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and I can’t speak to that…”

Yet Liddle and two Liberal colleagues, Keith Wolahan MP and senator Andrew Bragg, made no mention in their dissenting report of these doubts about how Indigenous Australians wishes have been represented and will be represented in the future. So why do I mention them at all?

Doubts about “what Indigenous people really want” — doubts that evoke Indigenous Australia as too diverse and localised to have an identifiable aggregated interest — are likely to remain prominent No campaign themes. Pitched to voters who would like to be recognisers — people of goodwill — they will create uncertainty about whether the government has found the form of recognition that pleases the largest possible proportion of Indigenous Australians.

Even if such doubts are in the minds of only a small minority of voters with weak attachment to the Yes side, the effect could be damaging to Yes. Pitched to those who are already poised to vote No, they provide a socially acceptable reason for voting No.

After the referendum — whether it is carried or not — will come further debate about what Indigenous Australians want and who speaks for them. This will be the inescapable context of parliament’s debate on a bill to set out the form, functions and powers of the Voice. The path to the Voice is land-mined with the very questions about representation that the Voice proposal is meant to resolve.

Risk in another key theme of the No forces. As Keith Wolahan (Liberal MHR for Menzies) remarked during the committee’s questioning, “Our task as a parliamentary committee is to assess and quantify risk.” He and others agreed that there were two kinds of risk to consider: the risk to our system of government of a weakening of executive power, and the risk to national unity if the referendum resulted in only a slender Yes majority or — worse — a majority No vote.

A strand of Australian political thought holds that the unelected judiciary should have as few opportunities as possible to use its power to challenge decisions by the executive. This view has been acclaimed as “conservative,” though how widely it is shared remains an open question. The Liberals’ dissenting report explained the danger of judicial overreach by pointing to what it sees as a great strength of our Constitution: it “confers very few rights” and “instead leaves it to the parliament to make laws providing for rights where necessary, with the flexibility to adjust to changing circumstances over time.”

Viewed from this perspective, the problem with the words in the proposed section 129 is that the High Court could interpret them “in a way that imposes duties on the executive.” What duties? A duty to consult, and a duty to consider.

Under a duty to consult it would be mandatory for the executive to give the Voice an opportunity to submit a representation before making decisions on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Under a duty to consider, it would be mandatory for the executive to consider representations from the Voice before making decisions on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. According to these Liberals, executive duties that derive from the Voice’s “right” to be consulted and considered, would have “profoundly disruptive effects on the operation of government.”

Would a High Court ever deliver judgements that profoundly disrupted the operation of government? Those who are happy with the amendment as it stands think this very unlikely. “I don’t think the High Court is in that business,” says former High Court chief justice Robert French. “Do we really seriously think that the High Court is in a position that it would do that?” asks Anne Twomey. “And my answer is: no, I’m sorry, I don’t.” Former High Court justice Kenneth Hayne took a similar line.

Why are Liberals not reassured? Wolahan made it clear that he is troubled by what has happened to Australia’s system of government in the era of human rights. Like other liberal polities, Australia has tried to reconcile executive efficiency (the ability of ministers and their public servant delegates to make binding decisions within timeframes judged as reasonable) with our commitment (in statute and treaty) to human rights. In Australia the difficulty has been felt most acutely in decisions about who is entitled to be in Australia.

As Wolahan asked one legal expert on 1 May, “If we were to compare the migration area of law in the review that occurs in that area of law, we would see that there’s broad agreement that there is more red tape and delay [in] those decisions. Is there not a risk that that gets expanded to a broader array of executive government decision-making?”

In their dissenting report, Bragg, Liddle and Wolahan list recent senior court cases they believe to have trammelled the executive, remarking: “There are many other examples of decisions that have invalidated legislation or government decisions, especially in the field of migration.” Yes, many people have noticed that, but not all of us lament the trend.

The argument over the Voice has become the latest flashpoint in an ongoing struggle over how to build “human rights” into Australia’s system of government. When Mark Latham and John Howard agreed in 2004 to abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, or ATSIC, they taught Indigenous Australians an unforgettable lesson in the frailty of legislated rights.

And the political risk? The committee considered the possibility the referendum might be lost. Most members and most witnesses dreaded that outcome. “A referendum failure would haunt our country for decades; it will haunt all of us,” the Liberals’ Julian Leeser said. “The question will be: did we make it as easy as possible for Australians to vote yes?”

In contemplating that possibility, the benchmark of the 1967 referendum, when 91 per cent voted Yes, seemed to weigh heavily. Sean Gordon, chair of Uphold and Recognise, laid out the Yes advocates’ dilemma. “The most important thing,” he told the committee, “has always been that we need to put forward a position that is worth winning from the perspective of Indigenous people, but it also needs to be winnable, given that we need 90 per cent of the population to support this.”

Why 90 per cent? Gordon recalled the 1967 referendum as a “nation-building” moment. He wants the 2023 referendum to be another: “a 51 per cent win isn’t going to create that nation-building effect.” Questioned by Senator Liddle, Ian Trust, chair of the Empowered Communities national leaders’ group, agreed that a 51 per cent victory would raise a “question… as to how much it is supported… 51 per cent is obviously not high enough.”

When Liddle repeated this enlarged notion of referendum success to Leeser, he first reminded her of the constitutional definition of a successful referendum. He then added that he wants the referendum to win “handsomely, because I think that is better for the reconciliation process and… for national unity…” Constitutional lawyer Father Frank Brennan remarked, “Let’s try and get the wording as right as we can so that we can really get the country to ‘yes,’ and not just get over the line but do it in a way which attracts mass support.”

The ambition to win “handsomely” to create “national unity” gives impetus to the changes to the proposed amendment suggested by these men — changes that would reduce the possibility of the High Court one day ruling that the executive has a duty to consult the Voice and a duty to consider what the Voice says. In the words of Senator Bragg, “If the legal risk is minimised, then the chances of a successful referendum are maximised.”

Bragg joined constitutional lawyer Greg Craven in proposing that when the bill is legislated subsection (iii) should include seven more words: “and the legal effect of its representations.” The practical legal effect of this amendment would be “to guarantee the parliament’s capacity to legislate the scope of the Voice’s representations and manage future legal effects.”

Bragg assumes that parliament can be relied on to design a Voice whose rights are legislated but not subject to judicial review. He assumes that Indigenous Australians (forgetting the fate of ATSIC) will accept recognition in this form. He claims to know a lot about what Indigenous Australians will accept as recognition and what will reassure a voting public worried by the possible disruption of the system of government.

Two changes discussed in the committee — each advocated as a means of making it easier for voters to say Yes — focus on the proposed subsection (ii). Brennan would like the Voice to be constitutionally restricted to addressing only one part of “the executive,” the “ministers of state.” Leeser would prefer that all of subsection (ii) be deleted. Uphold and Recognise points to yet another pathway to a win for Yes: they would like the referendum to amend section 75 of the constitution to enable parliament to prevent or restrict the Voice from pursuing judicial review proceedings in the High Court.

By rejecting all of these proposed changes, a majority of the parliamentary committee placed some of these risk minimisers in a delicate position. Leeser, Craven, Brennan, and Uphold and Recognise have all said they will vote Yes, even if the government goes ahead with the words they have sought to change. Each of them dreads the defeat of constitutional recognition more than the “legal risk” to executive efficiency.

So, will they continue to feed political risk by persisting in speaking and writing about the “legal risk” they see in the recognition on offer? What will they say when the No campaign quotes their arguments? Brennan believes that he has acted in consideration of a section of the voting public who “want to be sure that what is there is legally watertight.” If the government goes ahead with the words that he has found risky, will he urge voters to join him in taking the risk? •