‘We’re not allowed to use the R-word’: Indigenous leaders warn against Voice fearmongering

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Some of Australia’s most prominent Indigenous figures have rubbished suggestions the Voice to parliament could disrupt the nation’s system of government, warning against fearmongering and racism.

Senior Voice proponents are appearing on Friday at the first hearing of a key inquiry into the proposed words that would be inserted into the Constitution if the referendum were to succeed.

“The proposition that advice from [Indigenous] people will cause delays and threats is a very negative view of us,” said Professor Marcia Langton, pictured at Parliament House last month. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Professors Megan Davis, Marcia Langton and Tom Calma faced questions from Liberal MPs on the parliamentary committee about the potential risks posed by allowing the Voice to lobby ministers and bureaucrats.

Some legal thinkers and politicians – including the Liberals’ most prominent pro-Voice MP Julian Leeser – believe this power should not be enshrined in the Constitution because it could lead to High Court challenges if the Voice was not properly consulted on a government decision.

“The issue is so minor as to not warrant attention,” Langton, a University of Melbourne professor, said, noting the majority of legal experts consulted in the development of the Voice agreed.

“The proposition that advice from [Indigenous] people will cause delays and threats is a very negative view of us. We’re not allowed to use the ‘R-word’ any more, but you know, how is advice from me or Tom [Calma] a threat to civilisation, a threat to democracy? It’s a nonsense.”

“Nothing we’ve done has ever delayed government. In fact, the reverse is true. Not only have governments delayed progress … they’ve cut short our lives.”

The committee’s deputy chair, Liberal MP and barrister Keith Wolahan, highlighted the proposition, put by some legal experts, that the High Court would interpret the constitutional wording to mean the government must give the Voice prior notice about policies, give information about those policies, and consider the Voice’s views.

These obligations could delay the work of the government, Wolahan suggested.

“I don’t agree that would happen,” said Davis, a leader of the Uluru Dialogues that led to the Voice, labelling the concerns of some conservatives “constitutional shadow-boxing”.

“People are throwing up the most extreme examples to try and scare the Australian people.

“I just can’t answer those questions because it feeds into a discourse … that is not accurate.”

After quitting the Coalition frontbench over Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s Voice stance, Leeser has turned his focus to boosting the referendum’s chance of success by securing a change to the constitutional wording through the inquiry.

Liberal senator Andrew Bragg, who supports the Voice, and Indigenous Liberal senator Kerrynne Liddle, who opposes it, both questioned witnesses about a previous Voice report that said the body should not be able to prompt High Court reviews.

Langton, who was involved in the report along with Calma, said she did not personally agree with that specific component of the report.

Dutton has begun referring to the proposed Indigenous advisory body, which will be voted on in a referendum later this year, as the “Canberra Voice bureaucracy” that could cost billions of dollars and require thousands of public servants to run.

Indigenous leader Pat Anderson emphasised that it was a Voice to parliament and Canberra, rather than one that existed in Canberra.

Davis said the use of the term Canberra Voice was similar to monikers used to talk down the republic referendum in 1999 and portray the concept as distant from local concerns.

“People do not want to be politicians … they don’t want to be going to Canberra, they want to be with their communities,” she said.

“The Canberra Voice is just a term deployed to imply that our people want to be politicians in Canberra when nothing could be further from the truth.”

Davis said symbolic recognition in the Constitution – which would note the place of Indigenous Australians in the nation’s history but would not create a Voice body – was ineffective.

She explained that constitutional recognition ran along a “spectrum”, of which the Voice existed at the strong end because it altered the status quo, empowered Indigenous people and forced the state to act.

“Symbolism alone won’t cut it … [The Voice] will also evolve and change in the decades to come.”

Former journalist and 7.30 Report host Kerry O’Brien said bad-faith actors were using misinformation to sow doubt about the Voice, and urged the media to avoid contributing to misleading debates.

Another Voice campaigner, Thomas Mayor, said “tactics of confusion” risked the referendum’s failure, dealing a devastating blow to reconciliation efforts.

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