Creating an Indigenous voice to parliament is not racist or inequitable. On the contrary, it presents an opportunity for Australia to address and overcome racism and discrimination, says Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan.
Aside from being incorrect, claims that a voice would create racial inequality are also disingenuous because they are not made in order to support greater equality in Australia. Denying Indigenous Australians a voice in decisions that affect them will only serve to maintain racial inequality and continue the marginalisation and disempowerment of First Nations people.
Equality does not mean that everyone should be treated exactly the same. It has always been true that in order to be “free and equal in dignity and rights”, marginalised or disadvantaged groups sometimes require unique representation or assistance. This is particularly so with indigenous peoples, which is why the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples bestows unique rights to the original inhabitants of countries that have been colonised.
The rights of Indigenous people – which Australia has long acknowledged in both domestic and international law – include the right to self-determination, to create representative structures and to self-govern, to participate in decisions that affect them, and to be free from any form of discrimination. The voice proposal is not just an outcome in itself but a tool for realising these rights and one that we all hope will help create better outcomes for First Nations people.
The policies and approaches of successive Australian governments towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have too often been developed and applied without the input and agreement of First Nations. This has resulted in significant structural and systemic harm. Mechanisms to promote independence, representation, empowerment, accountability and transparency are a critical step towards addressing this harm.
There is clear international guidance that establishing representative structures to ensure that Indigenous people are able to participate in decisions that affect them is not only consistent with international law and non-discriminatory, but is in fact necessary to prevent and overcome racism and discrimination.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination made this clear in its concluding observations on Australia in 2017, urging constitutional recognition of First Nations people and the establishment “of a meaningful mechanism that enables their effective political participation”.
It is interesting that some opponents of the voice imply that the presence of “race” in the constitution is itself racist. I strongly disagree, and find this argument insincere.
Meaningful conversations about race in Australia need to acknowledge that racism has been a major feature in shaping our society, its structures, laws and institutions. Entrenched racism has subjected Indigenous Australians to systemic discrimination for generations, leading to significant disadvantages in areas such as health, education, employment and justice. The voice could play a role in addressing and ameliorating historical and ongoing discrimination against First Nations people.
The referendum provides an opportunity to recognise and acknowledge the unique rights of Indigenous Australians as the first people of this continent – the oldest continuous culture in the world. This would be a powerful act of national unity.
By giving First Nations people a say in the decisions that affect their lives, the voice could help to ensure that their perspectives, priorities and aspirations are taken into account in the development of policies and laws. This could help to address the historical and ongoing injustices that Indigenous Australians have faced, and is a step towards achieving racial equality to help us heal and move forward as a community.
Chin Tan is Australia’s race discrimination commissioner