‘Abandon’ this myth about Indigenous people

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OPINION

As we get closer to a promised referendum for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, we increasingly hear more from both sides of the debate. And this is good.

One side has rightly noted that actions from past decades have not resulted in closing the gap and so believe a radical change is needed. That change, they believe, is the Voice.

The other side has claimed there is a lack of transparency about how the Voice will facilitate closing the gap, and so it should be abandoned, or at least more information provided.

I honestly don’t know how the public will vote at the upcoming referendum, so in this article I’m not going to speculate about the outcome. Instead, I’ll give advice for what I believe should happen if the Voice does get up, and some advice for what I believe should happen if it does not get up.

Anthony Dillon debating the Voice to Parliament at News Corp’s Beyond 23 conference at The Horden Pavilion in Sydney. Picture: Sam RuttynAnthony Dillon debating the Voice to Parliament at News Corp’s Beyond 23 conference at The Horden Pavilion in Sydney. Picture: Sam Ruttyn

If the Voice to Parliament is passed

First, if the Voice does get up, its highest priority should be to abandon the prevailing ideology that Indigenous Australians are fundamentally different from non-Indigenous Australians.

I believe the number one reason why are not seeing the gap close, despite considerable investment in programs that aim to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians, is because they have been cast as having vastly different needs from other Australians. But they essentially have the same fundamental needs as other Australians.

My default position when I first took an interest in Indigenous affairs was that the commonalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians far outweigh any differences. Nearly three decades later, and I have not seen any evidence to the contrary.

Yes, there are minor differences, and they should be considered, but only after first recognising the commonalities. Over the years, I have listened to the many voices of Indigenous leaders, consultants and cultural experts, along with political leaders and academics, preach the myth of fundamental difference, while carving out nice careers for themselves.

Second, following from the previous idea that Indigenous people have the same fundamental needs as non-Indigenous people, then the Voice should advise government to develop policies and programs for Indigenous Australians that ensure they have the opportunity to live in safe and clean environments, have access to modern services and quality education, posses those skills that make them employable, and have ready access to jobs, in order to thrive. These are the same needs other Australians have, which, when met, enable them to thrive.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has previously said he is ‘very confident’ a referendum to establish the Indigenous Voice to Parliament would be passed. Picture: SuppliedPrime Minister Anthony Albanese has previously said he is ‘very confident’ a referendum to establish the Indigenous Voice to Parliament would be passed. Picture: Supplied

Many Indigenous people have all this. Some of them are leaders, some of them are your friends, relatives and neighbours. But far too many, particularly those in less urbanised areas, do not. I applaud the final report on the Parliamentary Voice for recognising the high levels of need in remote areas, such as socio-economic disadvantage and lack of service infrastructure. However, intention must translate into action.

Third, the Voice must be active in changing the dominant narrative that Indigenous Australians are the endless victims of racism, because they are not. This will require a major overhaul of the school curriculum and what is taught in universities. When Indigenous Australians are led to believe that racism is holding them back, they are sapped of motivation to work hard to succeed, and view non-Indigenous Australians as the enemy.

Finally, once recognising that Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are far more alike than they are different, the Voice should abandon the preferred view that only Indigenous Australians are considered capable of understanding and helping Indigenous Australians.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kyam Maher and Dale Agius Commissioner for First Nations Voice to Parliament. Picture: Roy VanDerVegtAboriginal Affairs Minister Kyam Maher and Dale Agius Commissioner for First Nations Voice to Parliament. Picture: Roy VanDerVegt

I am not saying Indigenous business and service providers should not exist. I’m all for them, as many do a great job. But what I am saying, is that caring and competent non-Indigenous service providers are just as capable as helping Indigenous people as Indigenous service providers are. To question this is to question if Indigenous service providers are capable of helping non-Indigenous people. Of course they are, and to suggest otherwise is racist!

If the Voice to Parliament is not passed

So, what if the Voice does not get up? Then I suggest that the current lot of Indigenous voices, of which there are many at all levels of government, start to enact the ideas in the preceding paragraphs. But wouldn’t this imply that the proposed Voice to Parliament is redundant? I think it does.

However, maybe the ideas I suggest here are not what is needed to close the gap? If so, now is the time for the architects of the Voice to tell us why these ideas are not helpful.

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Or maybe something extra is needed that only the Voice can supply if we are to close the gap. If so, now is the time for the architects of the Voice to speak up. Surely these details should be sorted before any constitutional amendment is considered.

Anthony Dillon identifies as a part-Aboriginal Australian, is an academic with Australian Catholic University, and a commentator on Aboriginal affairs.

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