The Voice: The Fight for Fairness, Justice and Power
A Libertarian Perspective
The objective of The Voice Referendum is to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It seeks to rectify the injustices done to Australia’s indigenous people by the colonisation of Australia by the English in 1788 and in the years that followed.
Its immediate aim is to establish a permanent well-resourced lobby group to advise the government on matters affecting indigenous people.
Importantly, the lobby group would be structured in a way that facilitated local input to decision making.
Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price
Longer-term aims include establishing joint sovereignty over Australia and a makarrata commission to document the truth of the history between the original occupants and the colonialists.
As an alternative, I propose a practical solution to 'Close the Gap', and a sustainable solution for those who prefer to live 'on country'.
Whilst most citizens of Aboriginal heritage are living comfortable lives in the modern cities and regional towns of Australia, fully participating in the Australian way of life, there is still a significant proportion – perhaps 20% - who are living dismal existences in dysfunctional communities. They live a third-world economy existence in the midst of an otherwise first-world economy.
For fifty-six years, governments have worked to ‘Close the Gap’ – to bring the opportunities for work, education and health for indigenous citizens to the same level as the rest of the community. It has not happened. Welfare programs, currently costing about $40 billion a year, delivered through over 3000 Aboriginal corporations have had little impact.
Our Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese said, “Every Australian wants to know that an Aboriginal or Torres Strait islander baby born today will enjoy an equal right to grow up healthy and safe, to get a great education, find a good job, to live a long and happy life.”
Few would disagree with Mr. Albanese’s intent. But many question whether or not The Voice is the best means to achieve this. Or whether it will have any positive effect at all.
Responding to the criticism that too little detail has been provided, Professor Megan Davis said, “What we want Aussies to vote on is the principle; should the Commonwealth be talking to blackfellas when it makes laws and policies?”
A more important question that Aussies should ponder is whether there should be any laws based on race. As Noel Pearson explains:
"As long as the allowance of racial discrimination remains in our Constitution, it continues, in both subtle and unsubtle ways, to affect our relationships with each other. Though it has historically hurt my people more than others, racial categorisations dehumanise us all. It dehumanises us because we are each individuals, and we should be judged as individuals. We should be rewarded on our merits and assisted in our needs. Race should not matter.”
The referendum is not some minor matter that can be assessed by agreeing with glib statements of intent, or support from celebrities, CEOs of listed companies, or sporting associations. There are serious philosophical and legal issues here that require understanding, deep thought, and analysis of likely consequences.
In particular: Should citizens who have descended from the aborigines who were in Australia prior to British settlement be given superior access to government decisions and receive superior benefits to other citizens?
Support for The Voice proposal is not universal. There has been much concern about the effect on the smooth running of government – costs and administrative delays - and the potential for high court challenges that might ensue if it were implemented as proposed.
Some of this concern has been from those who have been opposed to the proposal such as Janet Albrechtsen, Greg Sheridan, and Chris Merritt. But there has also been concern along these lines from supporters such as Julian Leeser, Frank Brennan, and Greg Craven.
The idea that decisions affecting people’s lives should be made locally is a good one. But does it need the proposed complex political solution? Could a similar result be achieved by simply advising public servants to consult with the local people whose lives they propose to change before implementing new policy? Why have they not been doing this already? Has the National Indigenous Australians Agency, which has similar aims to The Voice and a staff of over 1000, been ineffective?
Better still, would it be better to devolve responsibility to those affected?
As Pope John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus:
“By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, The Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need.”
There are concerns that The Voice will not, in practice, implement local views. Nyunggai Warren Mundine quotes a submission from the Ngaanyatjarra Council (who represent the traditional owners of a large geographical area covering parts of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory) -
“There’s a real risk that distilling voices from 500 Indigenous clans into a collection of regional groups would effectively nullify authentic Indigenous voices, rendering them meaningless, allowing governments to claim that they have ‘consulted’ Indigenous people”.
Mundine believes that
“the entire concept of The Voice is based on the false assumption of the homogeneity of Aboriginal people across the nation, as one race. This is something Indigenous Australians have tried to counter for decades. Now we find government striving to entrench this in the Constitution. It won’t end well.”
But most of all The Voice transgresses against the principle of equality before the law.
In summary, The Voice proposal is flawed.
1. It is racist.
You cannot build a harmonious society with laws based on race.
2. It does not meet its primary objective.
It will never close the gap.
It will entrench a permanent underclass of embittered, welfare-dependent indigenous citizens forever.
3. It is divisive.
There will be resentment by those who see others they consider to be less deserving than themselves being given preferential treatment.
There will be an everlasting campaign by an urbanised indigenous elite for sovereignty - for power sharing, and to gain reparations for perceived injustices.
Jacinta Nampijinpa Price summed up her concerns succinctly:
“The globally unprecedented Voice proposal, to which the Uluru Statement gave rise, will divide Australia along racial lines, entrench indigenous separatism, and constitutionally enshrine the idea that Aboriginal people are perpetual victims forever in need of special measures.”
If we were to focus on the real problems, might we come up with better solutions?
Let us begin with Closing the Gap.
Throughout history, most people produced their own food, clothes and shelter, entertained themselves and never moved far from home. Dirt poor, their lives a drudgery, they suffered high rates of child mortality, and ever-present violence. As seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it, life was "solitary, nasty, brutish and short". In poor seasons, they starved to death.
For centuries most people lived on $3 per day. Of course, it varied from time to time, and place to place. But mainly it stayed in the range $1 to $5 per day. Improvements were transient. The situation for the Aboriginal people when the English arrived in 1788 was at the lower end of this scale.
Over the past two hundred years countries which embraced liberal democratic principles – individual rights, private property, the rule of law and representative government – have thrived. Today the world average is $42 per day. Throughout the world millions of people are better off than ever. For some countries the improvement began about 1800; for others it has happened in the last thirty to fifty years. Countries that have seen dramatic improvement in recent times include Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Czechia, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Panama, Chile, Botswana and Algeria.
Today, Australians are safer, wealthier and live longer than ever before. In the last hundred years, homicide rates have fallen from 2.6 to 1.0 per 100,000 per annum, GDP per capita has risen from $21 to $136 per day, and life expectancy has risen from 61.0 to 83.4 years. Meanwhile the population has increased from 5.4 to 26 million. Most Aboriginal Australians have benefitted from this. However, there is a significant proportion of indigenous citizens whose lifestyles have never improved to this level. This is the problem we need to address.
Social policies for Aborigines have not delivered positive outcomes. Despite millions of dollars being spent over the past fifty-six years, serious disadvantage persists. Attempts to 'close the gap' have failed. In many communities, children are not getting an education; health is poor; life expectancy is low; there is a lot of drug abuse and violence; employment opportunities are few or non-existent; and there is an entrenched culture of welfare dependence. We need to face the reality that well-intentioned welfare solutions have failed.
The 1967 constitutional referendum was meant to be for political equality not special rights. But instead of deleting all references to race, the plea was amended to allow special laws using the race power because it was hoped this would eradicate Aboriginal poverty and hardship.
“Now after decades of failure which should have shattered that illusion, we are once again being told that constitutional inequality will promote equality and that enshrining separateness will reinforce national unity” 
In his 2015 report, Empowered Communities, Noel Pearson was critical of the Aboriginal support industry. “Our service delivery system promotes and exacerbates passivity. It doesn’t actually do any good for the people the services are directed towards”. According to him, about 70 cents in the dollar was going to administration of programs by non-indigenous staff. Gary Johns has detailed similar deficiencies in his recent book The Burden of Culture.
There is a disconnect between the problem and the solution. The Voice provides power and money to an Aboriginal elite who are already well-educated and participating in our first world economy, but it can do no more than existing lobby groups to help the disadvantaged who live in third-world conditions.
We need to acknowledge therefore that 56 years of welfare has not worked. Perpetuating a failed system will not lead to different results. More bureaucracy, even if tempered by better local input, will not lead to better outcomes. There is a fundamental conflict between the desire to maintain a traditional lifestyle yet have all the benefits of a modern first-world society. It cannot be done. Nor can a society function if it is forever dependant on the goodwill of others. It is not dignified. It is not sustainable. Closing the Gap requires a willingness to accept the modern world.
So the first thing we need to do is to encourage those who wish to embrace a first-world lifestyle. We need to facilitate the transition. This will probably require a focus on the young. And in most cases, it will require that they move to cities and regional towns, returning to being ‘on country’ only for holidays.
In order to thrive in a first-world economy they will need to be proficient in English and to embrace the ideas which have created the free and affluent society in which they wish to be active participants. They will not need to forego their knowledge and appreciation of Aboriginal culture to achieve this, but care should be taken to ensure that it is not an impediment to their success.
My message is: Life is good. You are welcome. Come and join us.
The second leg of my solution is secession.
We should acknowledge that in Australia today there are significant cultural norms that are not part of the Aboriginal way of life.
Two principles which have had a major influence on our culture are the rule of law – that we are created equal; and the principle of private property - that we have an absolute right to the control and ownership of our own body and the fruits of its labours.
Equality we can trace back to our Christian traditions. 2000 years ago St. Paul wrote:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
We see the effect of these clearly when we contemplate the farmer clearing scrub land, planting pastures and improving them over time, ploughing and fertilising the fields, constructing farm dams, fencing the fields, adding livestock and gradually improving the breed, and using diesel powered machines to replace labour-intensive operations. The result is that he is able to produce enough to feed thousands of people, hundreds of times more than the untransformed land delivered to the hunter-gatherer.
Thousands of similar stories throughout the economy explain why our GDP per capita has risen from $3 per day to $136 per day in two hundred years.
Affluence does not come by chance. Rothbard makes the point that:
There are only two paths for a man to acquire property and wealth: production or coercive expropriation. Or as the great German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer perceptively put it, there are only two means to the acquisition of wealth. One is the method of production, generally followed by voluntary exchange of such products: this is what Oppenheimer called the economic means. The other method is the unilateral seizure of the products of another: the expropriation of another man’s property by violence. This predatory method of getting wealth Oppenheimer aptly termed the political means.
The danger of The Voice is that it will enable a privileged sector of the population to obtain wealth by political means.
In democracies, elections are won by majorities. Their views hold sway. Benefits are selectively provided to maintain majority support. Minority rights are not protected. Secession is an important factor in reducing conflict.
As Ludwig von Mises explained:
"The situation of having to belong to a state to which one does not wish to belong is not less onerous if it is the result of an election than if one must endure it as the result of a military conquest…at every turn the member of a national minority is made to feel that he lives among strangers and that he is, even if the letter of the law denies it, a second class citizen.
No people and no part of a people should be held against its will in a political association that it does not want."
The option to secede is a safety valve. It enables minorities to escape oppression. It avoids civil wars. Over the past century a large number of new states formed successfully from old colonial administrations and from the breakups of Yugoslavia and the USSR. Secession is currently an active consideration in many places including Scotland, Catalonia, Quebec, and even California.
For those who wish to retain their aboriginal culture exclusively, to live according to their own customs and laws, and not be forced to embrace Western Civilization, I propose that we facilitate secession. We not only make it easy, but we also actively encourage existing Aboriginal clans, alone or in collaboration with others, to form their own separate nation or nations on their own land. Royalties from mining rights will provide a significant and reliable income to augment their own exertions. We can form contracts for trade in goods and services. We can form treaties to provide government services (such as defense from external aggressors) that they are too small to provide alone. Also, we can provide open borders, so that, at any time, citizens of Australia or the Aboriginal nation(s) can choose to move to the alternative.
The two parts of my solution form a whole.
Firstly that we invite and encourage indigenous citizens, who have not already done so, to participate in our modern, free and affluent society and to enjoy all its benefits – prosperity, health, happiness, longevity, and safety. To be part of one Australia. As equals. We should phase out existing laws based on race.
Secondly, for those who prefer to retain their traditional culture, we can facilitate secession, and through treaties and contracts we can help them to make that work.
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 Anthony Albanese, Parliament House, March 23, 2023  Nyunggai Warren Mundine, Real voices in referendum debate gagged by grand gesture to absolve white guilt, The Australian, April 15, 2023.  Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Beyond Belief, Connor Court, 2022, p xii.  Henry Ergas, Beyond Belief, Connor Court, 2022, p169.  Good work is being done in this regard by the Melbourne Indigenous Training School in Richmond.  Galatians 3:28  Nozick, Anarchy State and Utopia, Basic Books, 1974  Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, Humanities Press, 1982  Franz Oppenheimer, The State, Free life Editions 1975. P12
For more on the above themes, read Greg Shridan's Liberalism's Universal Vision Better Than a Race-Based Voice, CIS Occasional Paper 193, November 2022
For more on Aboriginal sovereignty claims, see Keith Windschuttle, Living on Stolen Land, Quadrant March 2023.
Peter Fenwick is the author of
The Fortunate: Ten great writers highlight how we created free and affluent societies.
It was published by Connor Court in June 2022.