Democracy and the Voice
Why can't indigenous Australians vote for their own Voice to parliament?
And he answered … "surely it would be inconsistent with self-determination if we were told that we had to have an election."
The United States incorporates 326 indigenous 'domestic dependent nations' within its borders, each of them possessing quasi-sovereign powers of self-determination. The largest of these, the Navajo, has more than 300,000 members. Canada officially recognizes 634 'first nations'. In 1999 it also carved out a territory, Nunavut, with the explicit purpose of creating an indigenous-majority subnational unit. Nunavut is more than 85% indigenous, and the neighboring Northwest Territories are more than 50% indigenous. Both have indigenous premiers. Closer to home, New Zealand has seven Maori electorates. The Sami people of northern Norway have their own parliament with serious fiscal, educational, and cultural responsibilities. The Sami in Finland also have a parliament with more limited powers.
In each and every one of these cases, indigenous political rights are recognised in their respective countries' constitutions. And in each and every one of these cases, the opinions of indigenous peoples are amalgamated, distilled, and expressed via formal democratic means.
In Australia, the National Co-Design Group of the Indigenous Voice Co-design Process considered the option of holding elections for membership in the Voice ... and rejected it. The plan was for east state and territory to return two members to the national Voice in separate electorates, one for women and the other for men (there apparently being no non-binary indigenous Australians). But the National Co-Design group had a "strong consensus" in favor of an alternative model under which local and regional bodies would "collectively" appoint members to the national Voice. The members of the National Co-Design Group include an AC, four AOs, three AMs, five CEOs, a PSM, an academic, a festival director, and a woman of the year. Together, they worried that an elected Voice would "be dominated by known, well-resourced metropolitan-based candidates, or candidates with large networks, to the disadvantage of community candidates".
A more discreet, less transparent selection process would, they felt, "build a stronger connection between the National Voice and communities". The eminent Prof. Tim Rowse is quoted in the co-design report as explaining that "direct election is a bad idea because it is likely to provide the wider public with grounds for doubting the legitimacy of the Voice". More broadly, "many concerns were shared by a considerable majority" of the National Co-Design Group that direct elections would "threaten the legitimacy of the National Voice if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in a jurisdiction do not prefer elections". The National Co-Design Group seems not to have been concerned that the legitimacy of a stitch-up National Voice could be called into question if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in a jurisdiction actually did prefer elections. And, of course, no one is going to ask them. The last thing the Voice advocates want is a referendum.
In an earlier age, the arguments against a constituting an indigenous representative body along democratic lines would likely have focused on the supposed 'immaturity' of the indigenous electorate, their 'backward' customs, and their 'unreadiness' for democracy. The present-day euphemism for such racist generalizations is that indigenous representative institutions must "observe and respect traditional cultural governance systems". This, from KPMG Australia. As the accountancy explains in its Voice submission, in a passage picked up and highlighted in the co-design report: "Western and [indigenous] cultural systems of governance do not always align, and meaningful systemic and institutional change needs to occur for empowerment to be achieved". If there's a more polite way to imply that institutionally immature indigenous peoples must abandon their backward customs before they can be ready to embrace democracy, I'd love to see it.
Instead of embracing democracy, the indigenous Voice proposed by the National Co-Design Group and endorsed by Prime Minister Albanese and the 'yes' campaign is designed to be nakedly authoritarian. It would draw its legitimacy from the consensus of establishment institutions, not the consent of the governed. It would have indigenous Australians be spoken for and spoken to, but it would not allow them to speak. Individual indigenous Australians would not have the ability to object to positions taken by the Voice within the Voice system; they would not have access to mechanisms for dissent; none would, to use the language of the law, have 'standing' to challenge the Voice. Yet the 'no' campaign seems to be focused mainly on the divisiveness of inserting a race-based institution into the Australian Constitution. It should be more concerned with the criminality of disenfranchising Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizens.
Watch my 2-minute YouTube video on democracy and the Voice:
Next month: Mr. Modi visits Australia!