Everything You Need to Know About the Voice


Everything You Need to Know About the Voice

Authors: Megan Davis and George Williams

Publisher: UNSW Press

Reviewer: Stephen Keim

She who must be loved and obeyed treated me to one her familiar rants over breakfast in the last week. On this occasion, it concerned recent discussions we had with good friends (who, in most respects, share our philosophical world view) who had engaged in a familiar refrain, namely, that the Voice referendum will fail and the Yes case is not doing a good job of communicating its message.

Let me place on the record, here and now, that I believe the Voice referendum will succeed.

She’s rant was focussed on the extent to which people of all backgrounds are prepared to repeat the line that we do not know enough about the Voice proposal. The particular point made was that this need for information, knowledge and understanding on the part of most such people is uncharacteristic when it comes to most things they readily accept in their lives without question and without the need for deep levels of understanding.

The examples can be drawn from anywhere. When did I last hear a friend say: “I am not sure about this war in South-East Asia/Afghanistan/Europe/China/the Dardanelles. What will it look like? What will it cost? How will they choose the people to go and die, there? Will my husband catch a STD? How much knitting will I have to do? Who will be in charge of the troops? Should we take 30 Bushmaster vehicles or 45?”

The answer is that I have never heard anyone want to know much about the latest war to which we have committed ourselves. We are usually for or against the idea without knowing much about it at all. And, judging on the last 70 years, we are almost universally in favour.

One could choose something much more mundane such as our local council. No one I know approaches election day in late March in the appropriate year in a panic because they have not been able to download every press release from the mayoral and local ward candidates in order to know and understand everything about the policies and promises of those candidates in order to choose for whom they will vote. Indeed, I do not think that any friend of mine has ever sought any information about local politics before making a choice as to how to mark their ballot paper. Indeed, most of my friends would not know how many councillors are to be elected; how many councillors form city cabinet; whether there are second and third readings of council resolutions before they are voted on; or whether council laws have to be approved by the Minister for Local Government before they become law.

So where does this need to know everything suddenly come from for the Voice referendum?

Everything You Need to Know takes the need to know at face value and, without cynicism, has done an excellent job of answering everyone’s questions in a work that is a genuinely interesting piece of political science and history. Hopefully, all of those genuinely curious voters will rush the bookstores to sate their curiosity.

The authors are well qualified to answer such questions. George Williams is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Planning and Assurance; Anthony Mason Professor; and a Scientia Professor at University of New South Wales. Inter alia, Williams has served as the UNSW Dean of Law and has written and edited 37 books including Australian Constitutional Law and Theory; The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia; and Human Rights under the Australian Constitution.

Megan Davis is Pro Vice Chancellor Indigenous at UNSW; was elected by the UN Human Rights Council in 2017 to the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and serves as an expert with that body. Davis was recently appointed Balnaves Professor of Constitutional Law. Her work with the United Nations has included participating in the drafting of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and her work with the UNSW as a constitutional scholar has included long term participation in and leadership of the Indigenous Law Centre.

The early pages of Everything You Need to Know provides a fascinating political history of Australia starting with time immemorial when Australia was the home and domain of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples for more than 60,000 years. The visit of Cook and the arrival of Phillip are discussed with a focus on the way in which these events impacted on the existing occupants of the land. In the same way, the progress from a penal settlement to a united self-governing colony established by an Act of the British Parliament is followed, noting how Indigenous Australians figured neither in the discussions nor the subject matter of the debates while other races such as Chinese, Japanese and Hindu peoples were singled out for patent racism and discrimination in the debates and the drafting of the Constitution, itself.

A singular part of this political history concerns the voices of Indigenous actors which voices are seldom included in histories of the same period. The reader learns that, in 1846, exiled Tasmanian Aboriginal people on Flinders Island petitioned Queen Victoria about an agreement that had been made with Governor Arthur. In 1881, Yorta Yorta people, residents of the Maloga Mission, petitioned the NSW governor seeking land grants. The residents were soon after moved to Cummergunja Reserve. As early as 1927, Fred Maynard called for abolition of the Protection system and the government control it imposed on Aboriginal affairs. That amazing Yorta Yorta man, William Cooper, in 1933 and again in in 1937, petitioned King George VI seeking Indigenous representation in the federal Parliament. Cooper had spent several years travelling throughout the country gathering signatures for the petition. The government acknowledged the petition but refused to send it on to the Emperor. On 6 December 1938, less than a month after Kristallnacht, Cooper led a march to protest at the German Consulate in Melbourne against the “cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government in Germany”. There would be many still well-respected Australian politicians from the 1930s from all political parties who could not claim to be on the right side of history in the way that William Cooper was.

As well as documenting the Indigenous voices who have spoken for change, Everything You Need to Know also provides a modern political history of the events that have paved the way for the Voice referendum including the 1967 referendum (a tremendously successful, true people’s initiative); the Bringing Them Home Report; proposals for some kind of recognition in the preamble; the reconciliation movement; the Bridge Marches; the Apology; the Referendum Council and the Dialogues leading to the National Constitutional Convention and the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Once reminded of the long history of respectful requests from as long ago as 1846, it is difficult to understand why any person would want to say “no”, one more time.

An important aspect of what emerges from Everything You Need to Know is the extensive consultation process that took place by way of the First Nations Regional Dialogues culminating in the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru to produce the Statement from the Heart. (The Referendum Council also conducted an exhaustive consultation process with non-Indigenous Australians.) The Dialogues were convened by the Referendum Council in 12 regional locations from December 2016 to May 2017 at places as a far apart as Hobart, Broome and Thursday Island with an additional meeting in Canberra. The Dialogues were designed and conducted to ensure that Aboriginal decision-making was at their heart. The results from the Dialogues were collated for presentation to the Convention. Delegates with cultural authority were nominated from each Dialogue to attend the Convention. Ten delegates were chosen to represent each region.

The consensus that emerged at Uluru was for a sequenced reform program known as “Voice, Treaty, Truth”. Part of the logic for that order was that a Voice was important to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples were not disempowered in the treaty making and truth telling processes that were to follow.

On 26 May 2017, the co-author of Everything You Need to Know, Megan Davis read out the Uluru Statement from the Heart for the first time. It is concise and it is addressed to the Australian People as a whole. It is a beautiful piece of writing.

It commences:

“We, gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, coming from all points of the southern sky, make this statement from the heart.”

The next paragraph explains Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ claim to be the first sovereign nations of the Australian continent on historical grounds recognised from three different ways of knowing the world:

“Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our laws and customs. This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation; according to the common law from time immemorial, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago.”

The ongoing existence of this historical sovereignty is explained. It is a spiritual notion, a tie between the land and the peoples. The link is the basis of the ownership of the soil and sovereignty, itself. It has never been ceded or extinguished and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown. Indeed, how could a sacred link of 60,000 years disappear in a mere two hundred.

Constitutional change and structural reform is put forward as a means of the ancient sovereignty shining through as a fuller expression of Australian nationhood.

The suffering experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, illustrated by disproportionate levels of incarceration and youth detention, is identified as a structural issue, “the torment of our powerlessness”.

And, so, the requested reforms are sought as a means to empower and to allow the taking of “a rightful place in our own country”. “When we have power over our destiny”, it is said, “our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country”.

The three requests are a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution; a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement making between governments and First Nations and truth telling about our history.

The Statement finishes with an invitation. We seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

At least one person has, when asked why they intended voting yes in the Voice referendum, stated that they could not, in all conscience, refuse such a gracious invitation.

The closing chapters of Everything You Need to Know deal with many of the myths and misconceptions that have been raised by persons associated with arguing the No case. The responses are clear, concise and convincing.

But, as She intimated at the beginning of this review, if you need to be reassured that, as a result of this referendum, government decision making will not grind to a halt or that Parliament will have a third chamber, you probably will never be reassured. There is that old saw about leading horses to water … I prefer to stick with the gracious invitation. I am not going to miss this journey. It may be too late to walk with William Cooper in 1938 to the German embassy in Melbourne to protect the oppression of Jewish People in Europe. But I can accept an invitation to walk with the first sovereign nations of this beautiful continent in a movement of the Australian people towards a better future.

Stephen Keim


16 August 2023