This thin (96 pp) but very useful book is notable for three things: ease of reading; reminding us that WEH Stanner’s famous ‘great Australian silence’ was not just accidental but deliberate; more importantly, stressing that the point of having a Voice is that it be listened to. The early pages of the book move rapidly through Cook’s disobeying his instructions to consult with the inhabitants of Terra Australis (creating a fault line that meant Indigenous people were invisible in law), Bennelong and Phillip, the Batman Treaty, 19th century Aboriginal ‘Protection’ Acts, Indigenous activists William Barak (the Coranderrk Petition) and William Cooper (the 1937 petition to George VI), the 1963 Yirrkala Bark Petitions, the Barunga Statement of 1988.
So much pleading from blackfellers, saying much the same thing; ‘for God’s sake, listen to us!’ So many responses from whitefellers, again saying much the same thing, ‘leave it to us, we’ll look after this!’ ‘These examples’, say the authors, ‘demonstrate the way in which Australian governments have continued to exercise power and develop policies for Aboriginal people, rarely with them, and almost never by them’.
Then the book looks at Mabo and Keating’s Redfern speech, the Royal Commission reports on deaths in custody and the stolen generations, more consultative committees and mechanisms, more false starts, then the Uluru Statement, and the nationwide agonising about whether or not we should have an advisory body on matters affecting First Nations people, all this in a nation that is already knee-deep in and quite accepting of advisory bodies in other fields, ranging from ATAGI to the Productivity Commission, the National Australia Day Council to the Advisory Group on Australia-Africa Relations.
The book reminds us that the Voice provides constitutional recognition, the Voice upholds parliamentary supremacy and the efficient functioning of the executive, the Voice fulfils the requirements of international human rights law, the Voice reinstates self-determination, and that the Uluru Statement and the Voice grew from extensive consultation. How hard can it be to say ‘Yes’?
Melissa Castan is a law professor at Monash University. Lynette Russell is a Wotjobaluk woman and history professor at Monash. The book is one in the series In the National Interest from Monash University Publishing.
8 September 2023