A voice to parliament will do little for Indigenous justice
A voice to parliament will do little for Indigenous justice
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Anthony Albanese started his victory speech on election night with a commitment that his government would implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full, beginning with a referendum to create an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in its first term.

Thomas Mayor, an Indigenous trade unionist and prominent campaigner for the Voice, summed up the hopes of many Uluru Statement supporters in an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald:

“For the first time my people find ourselves looking forward to constitutional inclusion and political self-determination, with a prime minister standing beside us and an Aboriginal woman, Linda Burney, leading us as the minister of Indigenous Australians. Our people have never enjoyed a vantage point quite like this.”

Advocates of the Uluru Statement present the Indigenous Voice to Parliament as the first step in a process that will deal with the structural dimensions of Indigenous oppression, end the powerlessness that plagues Indigenous communities and, along with a Makarrata Commission of truth-telling and agreement-making, lead to genuine Indigenous self-determination for the first time since colonisation.

“We sit on the precipice of the promise of true First Nations’ self-determination”, Jamie Lowe, a Gunditjmara Djabwurrung man and CEO of the National Native Title Council, exclaimed in a Guardian/IndigenousX opinion piece, “and we hope not to be disappointed”.

Unfortunately, neither the Indigenous Voice to Parliament nor the full implementation of the Uluru Statement will do much to combat Indigenous oppression—let alone begin a process of ending it.

The Voice to Parliament is presented as an alternative to the lame-duck symbolism of the previous constitutional recognition campaign, known as Recognise, which was finally wound up in 2017 after widespread derision. While the Voice goes beyond merely recognising the existence of Indigenous people in the constitution, it too is an almost entirely symbolic gesture.

The proposed model of the Voice will be an advisory body only, with no actual power over government policy. Parliament will have to listen to its views—which it can then freely ignore.

This is even more limited than equivalent systems in other countries.

In New Zealand there are seven reserved Māori parliamentary seats that have the same voting rights as other elected representatives. The Waitangi Tribunal was established in 1975 as a permanent commission of inquiry that has limited powers, but they are broader than those of the proposed Makarrata Commission.

Canada has an extensive network of Indigenous political structures such as the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), which represents First Nations peoples living on reserves, and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, which represents those living in other rural or urban areas. Both bodies have substantial government funding and access to private capital (including a First Nations bank), and they play a key role in overseeing the implementation of treaty processes and negotiations.

The existence of these bodies has not alleviated the structural racism oppressing Indigenous communities in either of these countries. In Canada, despite these bodies existing for decades, the proportion of the prison population that is Indigenous has skyrocketed from 17 percent in 1999 to over 30 percent in 2020, according to a report by the Correctional Investigator of Canada, Dr Ivan Zinger. Similarly, a 2018 report by the New Zealand Department of Corrections found that half of all prisoners were Māori, compared to 40 percent in 1971, and they are only 16 percent of the overall population. It is a similar story for Indigenous poverty, homelessness, health and education.

Governments in New Zealand and Canada have not allowed Indigenous political bodies, truth and reconciliation commissions or even treaties to stop them from violating land rights in the pursuit of profit. In 2020, the Canadian government persevered with a multibillion-dollar gas pipeline project, despite fervent opposition from the Wet’suwet’en First Nation representatives. In New Zealand, successive governments have repeatedly rejected the Waitangi Tribunal’s recommendation that the Māori be given foreshore and seabed rights.

Closer to home, there are numerous examples of Indigenous-controlled bodies doing nothing to mitigate inequality, or even reinforcing it. The Condobolin Local Aboriginal Land Council has come under sustained criticism for years from Aboriginal residents who say their housing has fallen into disrepair, with black mould, termites, electrical faults and broken sewage pipes. “We’ve got our elders who are in their 70s and 80s that are living in houses with black mould, where the roofs are peeling off, the walls have deteriorated”, Kira-Lea Dargin, a Wiradjuri woman and advocate for several of the residents, told ABC News.

In July 2021, the Land Council signed eighteen eviction notices after residents refused to pay rent. Ella Archibald-Binge, writing for ABC News, noted that this “crisis has become a microcosm of a broader issue across NSW, as relationships break down between Aboriginal communities and the local bodies set up to represent them”.

The inclusion of Indigenous representatives on government bodies has done little to challenge racism.

In 2020, the Coalition of Peaks, a body of more than 50 Indigenous organisations, signed an agreement to be included in Closing the Gap—the main government Indigenous initiative. The inclusion of Indigenous representatives was heralded by the Coalition of Peaks as “a fundamentally new way of developing and implementing policies and programs that impact on the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

Yet Closing the Gap has continuously failed. The initiative’s 2022 report states that the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people has not narrowed, and the goal of closing this gap by 2031 will not be reached.

The Voice to Parliament is backed by the Business Council of Australia, mining industry bosses, News Corp, right-wing journalists like Chris Kenny from the Australian and most politicians. This should be a red flag. Wiradjuri and Badu Island woman Lynda-June Coe explained in an article for IndigenousX on 6 May:

“The fact that this one reform approach is sponsored by multi-billion-dollar mining companies and beneficiaries of our continuing dispossession should give pause to at least understand why. Why would a model that is intended to reform the system to place some form of power in the hands of Indigenous peoples be so heavily supported by companies that have and continue to profit from our dispossession and theft of our land?”

It is not surprising that bodies like the Voice do little to combat Indigenous oppression. The appalling inequality that plagues Indigenous communities runs deep into the very heart of Australian capitalism. The key institutions that continually reproduce this inequality—the police and courts, the welfare system, the mining and pastoral industries, government departments and the labour market—are all institutions geared towards the interests of the rich and powerful. This situation can’t be solved simply through a change in the way that some Indigenous people are represented politically.

Supporters of the Voice respond to these criticisms by arguing that, while the Voice alone won’t end Indigenous oppression, it is the beginning of a process to dismantle the structural power imbalance between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

The problem with the Voice, though, isn’t just that it is inadequate: its establishment can become a barrier to future fights for Indigenous justice. While the Voice to Parliament won’t do much for working-class Indigenous people, there is a very real danger that it will help cohere a growing Indigenous elite into a conservatising force in Indigenous politics.

This has already been the outcome in other countries. Across Canada, there are now more than 250 First Nations, Métis and Inuit development corporations, which have a collective several billion dollars in assets. Strong ties have been built between this Indigenous capitalist class and the mining, oil and gas industries, which are now the largest private employers of Indigenous people in Canada.

The Haisla Nation, for instance, has established strong links with the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry. The Nation’s Working Group boasts that Suncor Energy spent more than $4 million with Haisla-owned businesses in 2013 and that there are now nineteen Petro-Canada stations owned and operated by First Nations companies. In 2016, the Haisla Nation-owned Cedar LNG obtained a 25-year LNG export licence from the Canadian government.

The most controversial move of the Indigenous capitalists who run the Haisla Nation has been their participation in the $40 billion LNG Coastal GasLink pipeline project. The project was endorsed by elected chiefs and councils from twenty First Nations but has been rejected by representatives of the Wet’suwet’en people, including a number of hereditary chiefs. In 2020, this clash led to a substantial movement across Canada by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous protesters who drew attention to the environmentally destructive and profit-driven nature of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Political bodies like the Assembly of First Nations have played a key role in cohering this Indigenous elite, and in the process have become disconnected from the interests of the vast majority of First Nations people.

In 2007, AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine publicly criticised the National Aboriginal Day of Action protests for encouraging illegal road blockades and confrontations with the police. An article in the Star newspaper revealed that Fontaine secretly met with the Canadian Police in a coordinated attempt to suppress the protests. This was followed by the resignation in 2012 of AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo, who came under pressure because of his open hostility towards the Idle No More movement.

During the 2020 Wet’suwet’en protests, the AFN, led by National Chief Perry Bellegarde, unanimously supported the pipeline opposed by the movement and pressured First Nations activists to back down from the fight. They tried to paint the movement as a group of outsider white “professional” protesters. Bellegarde is close to Justin Trudeau—the international model of fake symbolism on Indigenous issues—and last year invited him to be the first Canadian prime minister to attend a national meeting of the AFN.

As Yellowknives Dene First Nation activist and writer Glen Coulthard has explained in his book Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, the AFN’s vision of “self-determination” is based on a consensus between the AFN and the Canadian government, in which the AFN accepts neoliberal capitalism in return for greater political recognition of a First Nations elite by the Canadian state.

In New Zealand, the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s grew out of a revolt against the already established Tribal Council bodies. But from the late ’70s onwards, Black Power activists were themselves incorporated into new bodies that ended up replicating many of the problems they previously rebelled against. The Treaty of Waitangi settlement, for instance, while a concession to anti-racist popular consciousness, primarily benefited a “small, privileged, elite within Māori society”, according to Māori writer E.S. Te Ahu Poata-Smith in his PhD thesis The political economy of Māori protest politics.

Some Indigenous activists in Australia have drawn attention to how the growing class divisions within Indigenous communities shaped the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Several dozen people walked out of the 2017 convention that launched the Uluru Statement in protest, including official delegates and longstanding left-wing activists. A statement by three of those who walked out, Les Coe, Nioka Coe and Ruth Gilbert, condemned the Uluru Statement as being pushed by a “government created Conservative Black Political elite” who were selling out the struggle for self-determination and “servicing their own self-interest”.

The fact that Noel Pearson, a notoriously right-wing Indigenous figure, was a key player in the 2017 convention and a member of the Senior Advisory Group that co-designed the Voice is a striking confirmation of the criticisms raised by these Indigenous activists.

Most Indigenous and non-Indigenous supporters of the Uluru Statement are motivated by a genuine desire to ameliorate Indigenous oppression, as are the majority of the Australian population, who will likely vote in favour of the Voice in a referendum. However, seriously confronting the realities of Indigenous inequality will require a radically different approach—one that strives to mobilise Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to fight the undemocratic power of capitalist corporations and government bureaucracies, rather than seeking greater collaboration with them. It will involve putting forward a bold vision of Indigenous liberation that will not be confined within the limits of what is acceptable to the utterly conservative Australian establishment.

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