Skip to content

The Aboriginal Voice to Parliament: Wrong in Principle, Disastrous in Practice

We should not make race the organising principle of a new chapter of our Constitution.

· 19 min read
The Aboriginal Voice to Parliament: Wrong in Principle, Disastrous in Practice
Photo by Simon Maisch / Unsplash

When the Australian Labor Party won the federal elections of May 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese promised to amend the Constitution to give Aboriginal Australians a new body, known as the “Voice,” which would advise both Parliament and the government on Aboriginal matters. In June 2023, the Constitution Alteration Bill authorized a referendum on the Voice, which is expected to take place between October and December. The country is currently debating the nature, merits and consequences of this proposal.

Amending the Australian Constitution is exceptionally difficult. Any amendment must be proposed by an absolute majority of each house of Parliament and receive the support of a majority of voters in a majority of Australian states and an overall majority of voters nationally.

Only eight of 44 proposed amendments have succeeded to date. Of the 36 failed efforts, 13 were deadlocked due to a 3–3 stalemate among Australia’s six states, even though five of those proposals were supported by a national majority. In the 1977 proposal to require elections for both houses of the federal parliament to be held simultaneously, the national vote was a resounding 62 percent in favor. But Tasmania, Queensland, and Western Australia voted No, so the proposal failed. The last such effort—to move from a constitutional monarchy to a republic—was rejected in 1999.

The odds are thus weighted against success. This makes it all the more important for any new initiative to have both bipartisan and broad community support. In the current case, Albanese has refused to try to find a form of wording that both sides could agree on. He has opted instead for a maximalist approach, which intensifies doubts about the impact of the proposal, and has joined in with intemperate criticisms of the Voice’s opponents as stupid racists.

Voters will be asked to vote Yes or No on the following question:

A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
Do you approve this proposed alteration?
Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:

i. There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
ii. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
iii. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.

When Opposition leader Peter Dutton criticized the amendment—which contains no details whatsoever as to the form, function, or powers of the Voice—as a “reckless roll of the dice” that would set race relations back, Albanese called him “totally devoid of empathy” and accused him of “seeking to amplify … misinformation.” Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney castigated Dutton as a “bully boy.” Senior Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson portrayed the politician as an “undertaker, preparing the grave.”

In response, Dutton asked: “Why is the prime minister yelling at me that I’m not smart enough to understand it, or that I’m racist because I don’t support the Voice?” Instead, Albanese should “explain it to me.” After Albanese turned down an offer to negotiate a legislated, rather than a constitutional, Voice, Dutton accused him of “dividing the country.”

Much of the support for the Voice stems from the belief that it’s the morally right thing to do. Yet, it deserves to be defeated. We should not make race the organizing principle of a new chapter of our Constitution. As Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price has rightly noted, the proposal is “emotionally manipulative” and divisive. She comments, “I don’t want to see my family divided along the lines of race because we are a family of human beings, and that’s the bottom line.”

I have previously been critical of the Modi government’s efforts to dilute equality of citizenship for India’s Muslims. As an Australian citizen of Indian origin, I seek no privilege, right, or obligation that is not available to every Australian. However, I do claim every opportunity to participate in civic life that is available to any other Australian. I am firmly opposed to any race-based, rather than needs-based, claim to special access or state assistance.

As Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay points out, it is possible to be a human rights champion and yet vote No. Human rights law treats all citizens as equals in law, with the same immunities, privileges, and obligations. By contrast, a constitutional Voice would entrench inequality of citizenship. As US Chief Justice John Roberts argued in 2007, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Conversely, the best way to institutionalize racial identity is to carve it into the Constitution. The Voice will entrench the soft bigotry of low expectations that regards Aboriginal people as permanent state dependents, incapable of looking after themselves—notwithstanding many examples to the contrary.

The numbers of successful Aboriginal people across all sectors of Australian life have been growing. That is as much a fundamental reality of contemporary Australia as the persistent disadvantages and sorry statistics. The present Parliament has 11 members of Aboriginal ancestry, a representation that exceeds their proportion of the national population. As prominent Aboriginal leader and No campaigner Nyunggai Warren Mundine points out, in recent decades, we have abolished discriminatory laws, and witnessed a growth in the number of Aboriginal businesses, and of Aboriginal doctors, lawyers, professors, and politicians.

To close the remaining achievement gap between Aboriginal communities and other Australians, we must refuse to consign Aboriginals to permanent victimhood, but encourage them to take advantage of the equality of opportunity in modern-day Australia and equip them with the education and skills to do so.

According to economist Henry Ergas, although state spending on Aboriginal Australians is 2–3 times greater than spending on other Australians, this has done little to close the achievement gap. The problem is not lack of consultation with the Aboriginal community. Comprehensive engagement policies have been in place for all the top dozen spending programs for many years now. In the Northern Territory, a quarter of the current legislators are Aboriginal people and there have been 22 Aboriginal ministers. Yet it has lagged ever further behind other jurisdictions.

The Voice has been presented as a simple one-page statement, but it is actually supported by a 26-page document entitled the Uluru Statement from the Heart (USFH). Despite having repeatedly committed to implement the Statement in full, on 14 August, a week after the issue blew up into a major controversy in Parliament, Albanese made the jaw-dropping admission that he has not read beyond the cover page. The USFH describes Australia’s history since 1788 as full of “massacres, disease and poison.” It is a one-sided history of shame that ignores the many accomplishments and the social and racial progress that have made Australia a vibrant multicultural community which, as Peter Dutton put it in a recent speech to Parliament, combines “Indigenous heritage … British inheritance and … migration and multicultural success—three threads woven together brilliantly and harmoniously.”

That recognition of Australia’s multicultural reality has been mostly absent from the debate. In such a society, there is no objective basis for making intergroup and intergenerational distinctions, or for granting special privileges to any group.

A Voice from the Heart
Legal equality and the politics of disappointment.

Modern Australia is a stable and prosperous democracy that grants equal citizenship to everyone. The Voice risks splintering our society into a hierarchy of victimhood. It rewards people who have suffered no race-based prejudicial harms themselves, by inflicting unequal citizenship on others who caused no such harms in the past. How can we assess the relative inherited privilege or pain of descendants of Holocaust survivors and dispossessed Aboriginal Australians? What about the descendants of the people who escaped the great Irish famine in the mid-nineteenth century, the refugees who fled the Soviet invasions and totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe, or those who have fled bitter interethnic conflicts in the Middle East or North Africa?

David Adler, President of the Australian Jewish Association, has described the Voice as “inconsistent with Jewish values.” A Vietnamese boat refugee told journalist Tina Faulk, “You think people, people like us, who gave up everything for a chance to start again in Australia will stand back for a blonde, blue-eyed person with maybe one-twentieth Aboriginal ancestry?”

According to the 2021 census, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people number around 812,000 in total, amounting to 3.2 percent of the population. By contrast, there are around 4.6 million Australians of Asian ancestry, including 1.4 million Chinese and 800,000 Indians: they comprise 17.4 percent of this country’s population. Yet Asian-Australians are virtually absent from politics and media.

The Yes case rests on the conviction that the Voice will entrench racial equality for Aboriginal people and the No case rests on the principle that it will institutionalize inequality of citizenship. This guarantees that on the morning after the referendum—regardless of the outcome—Australians are likely to believe their opponents on this issue to be racist, either for rejecting the Voice or for approving it. This is not the path to reconciliation, unity, and social harmony.

It is also unlikely to improve the lives of Aboriginal people living in remote outback communities in terms of life expectancy, literacy, housing, community safety, violence, incarceration rates, and suicide.

Aboriginal Australians are over-represented as both perpetrators and victims of homicide, domestic violence, and child abuse. It is not racist to point out that massive financial transfers over several decades have failed to ameliorate the situation or to ask both individuals and tribal leaders to assume more responsibility. Governments can and do already consult community representatives—no entrenched right to make representations is necessary for this to happen. It is unclear what measures could be adopted following a constitutional amendment that cannot be implemented now. After all, Aboriginal Australians are the only group that currently has its own designated minister. Australia currently spends billions of dollars annually on indigenous welfare programs across many departments and at all levels of government. As Jacinta Price notes, many senior Aboriginal Australians have had a voice in government in Canberra and received generous resources for decades, yet they have failed to close the gap in living conditions. Many of these same people will almost certainly figure prominently in any new set-up that is instituted if the referendum succeeds.

The goals and mission of the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), established in 2019, pretty much match those of the Voice. The first sentence on the NIAA website’s front page declares that its “vision is to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are heard, recognised and empowered.” Its functions include providing advice to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs “on whole-of-government priorities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.” It had over 1,000 full-time and 200 part-time staff (of whom 60 percent are based in Canberra) and an income of A$285 million in 2021–22. Its corporate plan for 2022–23 identifies, among its priorities, implementing the USFH and instituting initiatives and reforms “to Close the Gap,” detailed in a section entitled “Uluru Statement from the Heart—Voice, Treaty, Truth.”

Is there any policy that cannot currently be implemented or advisory body that could not be created by government right now, without the need for a constitutionally entrenched Voice? Albanese’s refusal to answer this question has been sapping support for the Voice. A RedBridge poll published in the Daily Telegraph on 6 August found majority support for No in every state and territory. Newspoll had similar findings, which it published in The Australian that same day: support for the Voice was below 50 percent in every state and nationally (46–43), and the Yes vote was leading in only two states: New South Wales (45–42) and South Australia (48–42). In April, Newspoll reported that a majority of voters in every state except Queensland supported the proposal and that the Yes vote was leading nationally by the wide margin of 54–38. On 8 August, in The Guardian’s Essential poll, No voters outnumbered Yes voters nationally for the first time, by 47–43: an exact reversal of the July results. The No vote also led in all states except Victoria, where it lagged by just one point.

Experience with similar programs elsewhere suggests that the provisions of the Voice will concentrate power, resources, and influence in an urban elite dependent for their continued existence and expanded power and resources on identifying ongoing disadvantages and grievances. To close the gap between Aboriginal communities in the outback and average urban living standards, we need to enroll more Aboriginal kids in schools and place more adults in jobs, rather than giving them purely symbolic recognition in the Constitution. Nyunggai Warren Mundine is spot on: “social breakdown, family violence and abuse, drug and alcohol abuse go hand in hand with kids not going to school, adults not in work and chronic intergenerational welfare dependency.” Mundine’s own parents “were determined not to be treated as second-class citizens ... We were taught that you’re never a victim.”

The Voice would vastly complicate the challenge of ensuring the effective and timely governance of Australia in the national interest and for the common good. Denial and deflection cannot wish away the serious risks of governmental paralysis, ever more complex bureaucratic sprawl, and ballooning implementation costs, nor deter grifters and rent seekers. The most powerful tool yet invented to make any governance problem permanent is to give it its own permanent bureaucracy. The Canberra-based Commonwealth department supporting the Voice will depend for its continued existence on proving that the problem has not yet been solved. Indeed, it will make every effort to grow in size, budget and powers, and to exert ever growing influence over the entire machinery of government by constantly identifying fresh areas of concern that should be brought within its jurisdiction. That’s how bureaucracies work, as we can see in the case of the DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) industry, which has insinuated itself into every institution in the public and educational sectors, and in businesses, media, and even sport.

Traditional champions of racial equality called for everyone to be judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin, the combination of their chromosomes, or their house of worship. The new champions of equity demand that everything be explained by the latter attributes.

As former Liberal MP Michael Baume noted in the Spectator Australia on 8 July, neo-indigenes—the more affluent, part-Aboriginal, city-dwelling activists—outnumber the traditionalists living in remote communities by two to one. The Aboriginal people in remote communities ceased to be a majority fifty years ago. Many now simply self-identify as Aboriginal. Their numbers are growing. They already dominate the discourse, and this dominance is only likely to increase. How will the government prevent them from capturing the lion’s share of benefits, power, and influence? The intra-Aboriginal city–outback gap is wider than the gap between Aboriginals and other Australians. Because the needs and priorities of the two groups are different, the numerical superiority of the urban neo-indigenes will ensure that they garner most of the access and resources provided in the name of the Voice.

Our zeitgeist encourages the romanticization of Aboriginal culture and history and the demonization of everything European. But this Manichean framing is both erroneous and dangerous. How many schoolchildren are being taught to be ashamed of Australia’s British heritage because of the alleged inherited guilt of institutional racism, dispossession, and oppression?

The Voice will also worsen the crisis of democratic governance by further eroding trust in public institutions. According to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer report, only 38 and 45 percent of Australians trust Australian media and government, respectively—down by 5 and 7 percent, respectively, from last year. The near universal institutional support for the Voice from corporate, university, media, and sporting bodies will put them at ever increasing odds with Australia’s deplorables, among whom opposition to the Voice has been rising steeply. This will cause trust in public institutions to fall even further. Sport and entertainment stars talk as though their celebrity status confers superior wisdom and they therefore have a right to set the nation’s moral compass. Instead, their superior moralizing has been stirring up anger and provoking a backlash.

The polls indicate that the self-appointed custodians of public virtue are not going to be able to shame Australians into voting Yes. In part, this is because the sales assistants are not on top of their game. Voters do not think Minister Burney is up to the job (negative perceptions of her have increased by 25.6 percent over the past year) and she is no match for Price’s intellectual firepower and clear-cut messaging. Albanese faces a dilemma: to replace Burney would be an admission of defeat, but to keep her in place is to court defeat in the referendum. Nor do Noel Pearson’s petulant putdowns of opponents of the Voice or Thomas Mayo’s fiery Marxist rhetoric stack up well against the calm reasoning of Anthony Dillon and Warren Mundine. Pearson was disrespectful in smearing Jacinta Price for being “caught in a ... celebrity vortex” involving “right wing people,” whose strategy is “to find a Blakfulla to punch down on other Blakfullas.” Mayo has been filmed paying “respect to the elders of the Communist Party” for their “very important role in our activism,” and threatening to use the Voice “to tear down the institutions that harm our people” and “punish politicians that ignore our advice.”

The sales pitch for the Voice, then, is riddled with confusion. Why would creating yet another body ameliorate Aboriginal disadvantages when all the existing bodies—with a combined annual budget of A$30 billion—have failed?

There are three conceptual confusions happening here. The first confusion results from the conflation of support for an Aboriginal voice as an abstract principle, and support for the specific Albanese model. We saw this dynamic during the republican debate, too. Even though a comfortable majority of Australians indicated that they supported a republic in principle, it proved impossible to find an actual model that most people could support, and the proposal was therefore defeated. At the international level, we see the same dynamic in action in efforts to restructure the UN Security Council. Most countries support it in the abstract but there are always more losers than winners when any actual model is proposed and so the initiative has failed for decades.

The second confusion is between a symbolic acknowledgment in the Constitution of the place of Aboriginal communities in Australian history and society, and a policy advisory body on Aboriginal matters legislated by Parliament. A constitution specifies the location, distribution, exercise of and limits to the powers distributed among the organs of government and between the government and the people. It encapsulates the social purpose of an all-inclusive political community. It enumerates the system of checks, limits, and balances: permitting some actions and proscribing others. Nothing in the Constitution is inconsequential and its final arbiter is the High Court whose judgment cannot be amended by Parliament. Altering the Constitution in this way would provide virtually unlimited scope for judicial adventurism in the indeterminate future.

The third confusion is between feeling good and doing good. Exhortations to go along with certain political gestures to be kind have not produced terribly good outcomes with regard to Covid policy or the trans culture wars. Not a single item in the catalogue of problems facing Aboriginal Australians will be addressed by the Voice. The overriding goal of the Voice should be to make a difference on the ground—not to make people feel virtuous the morning after the referendum. This amendment risks creating governmental paralysis and bureaucratic sprawl. It is likely to prove costly to implement and to heighten disconnection and disenchantment.

The scope of the Voice seems to be highly fluid. It all depends on who is asked, when, where and by whom. No wonder the public is so confused. Albanese has tried to downsize the scope of the Voice and talk up the primacy of Parliament to allay public fears about its potential to jam the workings of government. But Megan Davis, a senior member of the referendum working group and one of the architects of the Uluru Statement From the Heart, insists that Parliament will not be able to “shut the Voice up.” It will speak to all parts of the government: the cabinet, ministers, and public servants, as well as to statutory offices and agencies like the Reserve Bank, Centrelink, and the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority.

At a time of waning trust in politicians, Albanese wants voters to sign on the dotted line and trust them to fill in the blanks later. In effect, the referendum is thereby reduced to the question: “Do you trust the government to revise our Constitution—yes or no?”

In part, the rapid collapse in support for the Voice reflects suspicions that the studied vagueness of the referendum’s language means that the government has something to hide and is attempting to sneak through more consequential changes than it is prepared to make full-throated arguments for. The refusal to provide the full details that would enable citizens to give their informed consent to the proposal betrays contempt for those citizens and the fear that they cannot be trusted with the full truth.

To keep faith with the Aboriginal people demanding a Voice with real heft, Albanese assures them that it will be substantive. To allay concerns among the broader community, he insists it will be modest and symbolic. Then why extend its remit to the executive government and not limit it to Parliament? Prominent Voice advocates George Williams and Megan Davis have clarified that the Voice “is a change to the structure of Australia’s public institutions and would redistribute public power via the Constitution” such as to “compel the state to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in policy and decision-making.” Somehow, I doubt that most readers found this very reassuring.

The net result of all this deception and gaslighting is a refusal to address legitimate questions about core functions and basic structure. This only fuels suspicion. In 1993, Paul Keating persuaded voters not to endorse John Hewson’s complex proposals for GST with the slogan: “If you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it; if you do understand it, you’d never vote for it!” The No campaign should adopt a similar slogan: “If you don’t understand it, you should vote No. If you do understand it, you must vote No!” Speaking on Australia Day in 1988, PM Bob Hawke declared: “In Australia there is no hierarchy of descent; there must be no privilege of origin.” That would also make a great campaign slogan for the No camp.

Public support is slipping primarily because the measure itself is fundamentally flawed. It infantilizes Aboriginal Australians by reducing them to wards of the state in permanent tutelage. It will entrench identity politics, make Australia a more racially conscious and racially divided society, empower a new bureaucracy that will feed parasitically on other parts of the government machinery, make the task of governing more complicated, cumbersome, and litigious, encourage radicals to make even more extreme demands—and all for little practical gain in the daily lives of the vast majority of Aboriginal people.

Permanently codifying racial grievance in the Constitution will guarantee that it is weaponized at some point in the future, by activists with increasingly radical agendas and monetized by grifters in search of compensation, reparations, and rents. This will stoke resentment and provoke backlash. Visionary idealists respond to the injustices they perceive by conceptualizing ways of embedding inalienable rights in normative instruments. Convinced of their own moral rectitude, such advocates ascribe evil intent to their opponents and refuse to acknowledge contradictory evidence and arguments. They romanticize Aboriginal existence and deny the ugly facets of Aboriginal communities.

It is normal for individual members of any group to exploit privileges and preferential access to such material advantages as the educational, career, and grant opportunities offered in group-based state assistance schemes. This is an entirely rational response to an incentive structure. Elevating victimhood over qualifications, skills, and achievements encourages people to misrepresent their racial, gender, and sexual orientation identities to access victim-targeted advantages in educational and professional contexts. Former Labor cabinet minister Gary Johns was castigated for daring to point out that the introduction of “race-based benefits” might necessitate DNA testing to prove Aboriginality. But that’s exactly what happened when US Senator Elizabeth Warren took a test to prove her Native American heritage, only to discover that her belief to this effect was false.

All the major normative frameworks are inspired by the vision of equal opportunities. However, human beings are inherently unequal in talents, aptitude, application, and work ethic. Equality of opportunity therefore guarantees unequal outcomes and this, in turn, provides a market opportunity for divisive, rabble-rousing race and gender baiters, who demand that equality of opportunity be replaced by equality of outcomes. Such people make a career out of weaponizing the collective disadvantages of the protected group to gain political influence. They have a vested interest in the indefinite perpetuation of the very disadvantages of which they complain. Some activists are already positioning themselves to use the Voice as the constitutionally enabling mechanism through which to demand compensation, reparations for historical injustices, and rent for current activities. This is not unique to Aboriginal people. It’s universal human nature.

The Albanese model is neither symbolic nor modest, but open-ended and expansive. Once embedded in the Constitution, it will be impossible to remove—no matter how deleterious it proves and how much damage it causes. And it will not close the outcomes gap. We got a foretaste of the kind of monetization that might happen when environmentalists in Western Australia were asked by an Aboriginal group for $2.5 million as compensation to plant trees. The state had passed a new law on Aboriginal cultural heritage rights that was a mass of confusions and imposed a costly regulatory burden on many property owners. When those property owners, together with local farmers, protested, the government reversed course and repealed the act, just five weeks after it had been passed. Only eight weeks into his incumbency, Premier Roger Cook was forced to apologize to “everyday Australian landowners” and face the wrath of “betrayed” Aboriginal advocates when he dumped the WA Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act. Had the law been enshrined in the Constitution, it could not have been repealed.

The campaign to codify grievance in the Constitution is faltering as arguments against the Voice resonate among the wider community. The open appeal to the feel-good factor notwithstanding, the divisions and bitterness it has already generated provide just a small foretaste of the rancor we can expect once the poison of race-based preferential status has been injected into the constitutional heart of the Australian body politic. Born of conceptual confusion, the Voice does not speak to the better angels of our natures as a whole; instead, it panders to the guilt complex of some white Australians. If approved, the Voice would not mark the end of a successful process of reconciliation but the beginning of fresh demands for co-sovereignty, treaty, and reparations, using the constitutional voice as the enabling mechanism.

The current generation of migrants and the descendants of migrants are not oppressors of the current generation of Aboriginal people. Yes, there were atrocities in the past, but also many countervailing benefits. The government’s responsibility is to improve the present and the future and neither entrench victimhood and grievance nor give voice to the cultural self-loathing of a guilt-ridden white elite.

Dutton has pledged that the next Liberal-National Coalition government will implement constitutional recognition and legislate for local and regional Aboriginal voices to parliament, but not for a national Voice. People fear rushed constitutional change and prefer a legislate-and-test model. Dutton has now decided to offer them that choice, which directly contradicts Albanese’s warning that the referendum is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for constitutional recognition. Arguing that recognition unites while the Voice divides the nation, Dutton believes that his model will provide a necessary legislative safety valve, without changing the Constitution.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette