The Voice to Parliament referendum will be held on the 14th of October 2023 and as part of Woroni’s coverage of the referendum, we have chosen to release articles covering both arguments in support of and in opposition to the Voice to Parliament, contributed to by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Woroni as an organisation acknowledges the lack of representation of First Nations people within our organisation, and more broadly on ANU campus, and seeks to elevate the perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this debate. As such we put questions to Ben Abbatangelo, a Gunaikurnai and Wotjobaluk leader, writer and storyteller.
Ben is a former professional cricketer, who has written for The Saturday Paper, IndigenousX and The Guardian. He has also created documentaries for VICE, and appeared on the ABC and The Project. Ben is Deputy CEO at AIME, a non-profit organisation that mentors Indigenous students, with the aim of achieving educational parity. Ben has recently written about the Voice to Parliament referendum in The Saturday Paper, IndigenousX, and Crikey.
The below responses to Woroni’s questions represent the interviewee’s views on the Voice to Parliament. Where asterisks are used, Woroni has provided additional context or resources below the responses.
- Why do you not support the Voice to Parliament?
Our sovereignty consists of the inherent right to self-determination and self-government. It embodies the right to be politically autonomous and independently responsible for our own internal affairs. Our right is to be the decision-makers; not the suggestion box that spits non-binding ideas to those making decisions about us. The Commonwealth knows this.
The proposed form of constitutional recognition is a total capitulation of those explicit rights that are recognised in comparable countries around the world. It gives permission to the contemptuous scourge of settler-colonialism to continue dominating our lives, lands, waters and lifeways. And it ensures that its insatiable appetite for genocidal and ecocidal destruction will continue to have a buffet to feed from.
- What would you say to non-Indigenous Australians who support the Voice to Parliament?
Ben: Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander peoples are the first and final frontier of a habitable planet. The prosperity of the planet is inextricably linked with Indigenous peoples. We’re on the brink of ecological collapse because the parliament you want us to speak up to is owned and controlled by mining moguls, fossil fuel barons, free market forces and now through AUKUS, the US industrial military complex.
The writing is on the wall that Indigenous peoples and the lands, waters and lifeways that we belong to and are sustained by are once again being positioned as the collateral damage. The national debt is more than $900 billion. The United States is seeking to categorise Australia as a ‘domestic source’ within Title III of the Defence Production Act* – positioning this continent as a quarry for minerals, a dumping ground for nuclear waste and playground for missile testing. Australia is aggressively looking to diversify its exports and become a renewable energy superpower, whilst solidifying itself as the world’s largest exporter of Liquefied Natural Gas. The Voice doesn’t impede on the vested ambitions to pillage and plunder; which is why it’s supported by institutions like Woodside, Rio Tinto, BHP, and the Minerals and Business Councils of Australia.
Balance cannot be restored for as long as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are deprived of our inherent rights. The only chance of balance being restored comes from a co-existence that is expressly anchored by our rights; a co-existence that is nations-to-nation, governments-to-government, sovereigns-to-‘sovereign’, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to the State.
- What do you see as the main issues with the Voice to Parliament model?
Ben: The primacy of its design is to “complete the Commonwealth”* and establish a new facade of a post-colonial utopia. As I said, our sovereignty consists of the inherent and inalienable right to self-determination and self-government. The proposed model of constitutional recognition is a coup d’état on those explicit rights. It ensures that we remain subservient to colonial interests and susceptible to free market forces. It provides no protections or assurances. It boasts no power. The list goes on.
- What kind of issues do you think the Voice to Parliament would be unable to solve?
Ben: More importantly, what can it solve? What is the initial problem statement that leads to the non-solution of an advisory body that provides non-binding advice to the same institutional machinery that continues to plunder our lands, steal our children, impoverish our communities and criminalise our loved ones? As I’ve been told time and time again, “it’s just an advisory body, that’s it.” The primary selling point to the wider population in the run home to referendum day is how miniscule this proposal is. Kerry O’Brien describes it as “simple, unambitious and unthreatening.” At what point in human history have those ingredients freed a subjugated people from an oppressive state?
It’s such a mess because its foundations are so fraught. The Voice to Parliament wasn’t even hatched by Indigenous people* – hence why it’s framed to solve ‘the Aboriginal problem’ and enhance Westminster democracy and the Australian Dream. The idea of a constitutionally enshrined voice was born out of a “con-con workshop” on 19 June 2014 at the ACU Vice Chancellor’s offices in North Sydney. In her book, “Radical Heart”, Shireen Morris*, who led the workshop, says that “one of the goals of the workshop is to find consensus between Indigenous peoples and the con-cons (constitutional conservatives).” She says that the briefing challenge for the workshop was to “reconcile competing concerns” between constitutional conservatives and Indigenous peoples. According to Morris, in the room was Julian Leeser, Anne Twomey, Greg Craven, Damien Freeman and Noel Pearson – who, according to Morris, barely muttered a word. So, we’ve got five non-Indigenous people and one Indigenous person, who has championed neoliberalism and paternalism – including supporting the Northern Territory Intervention and Income Management Schemes*, ‘reconciling the concerns’ of hundreds of politically distinct nations. Within this context, it’s no wonder that we’ve ended up with a proposal sewed together by capitulation and littered with concessions for Indigenous peoples.
So, going back to the original question of what can the Voice to Parliament solve? For Aboriginal people, the answer is nothing. The proposed constitutional amendment does not impose any obligations upon the Executive Government to follow representations of the Voice, or to consult with the Voice prior to developing any policy or making any decision. There is no constitutional obligation to establish and maintain the Voice. And the Parliament maintains supremacy and the power to shape its composition, functions, powers and procedures.
- What challenges do you think may arise from a No vote?
Irrespective of the outcome, Indigenous people will be left to pick up the pieces of what has been a really brutal referendum. For many, the emotional toll will be significant and the rejection will weigh heavily. I recognise that there’s a lot of thoughtful people that have invested considerable time and energy into this campaign and will undoubtedly feel a deep sense of hurt and exhaustion. I wholeheartedly empathise with this.
Without minimising the direct harm that this referendum cycle has caused, I also know that a No vote isn’t the end of the road. And I remain unapologetic and optimistic about the regenerative opportunities that will be in front of us. Our greatest gains have always come from prolonged periods of time when we have privileged our sovereignty and maintained a commitment to our own ways of knowing, being and doing. The No vote forces us to galvanise and go within; to rebuild from a clean canvas.
The Voice to Parliament is more colonial fantasy; not a solution. Whilst it’s painful, a failed referendum rips the band-aid off a mutating wound. Behind the thin veil of Australia’s liberal democracy is a fascist state. Let the country show itself for what it is. Once it does, we will be under no illusions of who and what this place is. The world is watching and the active support for our cause, especially in the face of climate change, will strengthen. Power and possibility resides in the non-relationship; not from constitutional inclusion. From the ashes of rejection, we can and will recalibrate an agenda that isn’t just anchored in our inherent rights, but is a full expression of our exclusive sovereign status.
- What do you say to First Nations people supporting the Voice?
Ben: My message to Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people more broadly (and irrespective of how they choose to engage with the referendum) is a reminder that we comprise hundreds of politically distinct nations – all of which have uniquely different timelines, experiences and relationships with the Crown. We’re not meant to see the same thing: we never have. Whether you’re voting for, against or abstaining altogether – I wholeheartedly celebrate and support your decision. The referendum isn’t the be all and end all. Irrespective of the outcome, it’s not the end of the road. The long struggle for justice will continue.
Notes from the Editor:
Further details on the classification of Australia as a ‘domestic source’ can be found here.
The quote “complete the Commonwealth” appears to refer to Noel Pearson’s Meanjin Oration, which can be viewed here. Shireen Morris does discuss a 2014 meeting with constitutional experts at the ACU Vice-Chancellor’s offices in her book, “Radical Heart”, which ANU students can access through ANU Supersearch. Morris does classify this meeting as the “con-con workshop,” and describes compromising with constitutional conservatives on a Constitutional reform proposal.
However, Morris also notes in her book the role of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart in the Voice to Parliament model, in altering some aspects of the proposal and in gaining the consensus of a 250-person body of First Nations People.
We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and emerging. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.