But not all colonial examples are bad. Botswana has done well, focussing on getting their institutions and culture of governance right and each president since independence leaving office after two terms. Singapore also shows that success can follow self-rule if the institutions and structures work, and that there is a commitment to more than just symbolism.
So, what has all this got to do with the Voice referendum?
On October 14, 2023, we will have a two-in-one question and be asked to recognise Indigenous Australians within the Constitution, and to authorise the creation of the outside-of-parliament Voice to parliament.
The problem with this is that we will be asked to answer about the symbology of recognition and the bureaucracy. What if you agree with one, but think the other is not ready?
If it were two questions, recognition would storm home unquestionably. But is the Voice, as an administrative structure, ready to give Indigenous peoples at all social levels the ability to be heard? Have we defined what success will look like? Do we know if and how to judge if the Voice works?
At the heart of change needs to be a drive to see Indigenous people empowered with the same literacy, life expectancy, and wealth levels as other Australians.
Surely, if we want the Voice to work, and I certainly do, shouldn’t we define success and test the model? Wouldn’t it be better to legislate, refine and fine tune before putting it in the Constitution?
Some argue that the Voice needs to be enshrined in the Constitution to avoid the fate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). But ATSIC had to be abolished precisely because it wasn’t working and did not result in meaningful change for Indigenous people. Had it been in the constitution, we’d still have it.
The next argument is why not put it in the constitution now and change later on if it doesn’t work? Well, we’d need another referendum if significant change were required, and most referendums fail.
Another option being proposed is a two-step process: first, a referendum to recognise Indigenous Australians as the first peoples of this continent. That is an easy statement of fact and recognition to have in the constitution, and it is right. At the same time, legislate the Voice and fine-tune the model and show the naysayers the sky won’t fall in.
If only that were the option being presented. Instead, like many other post-colonial nations, we are being asked to just hope and assume it will work.
Andrew MacLeod is an Australian expert in War and Security Studies and a Visiting Professor at King’s College London.
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