In Australian politics, socio-economic inequalities and frustrations among indigenous communities are among a few of the many effects that the lack of Aboriginal representation brings about. Indeed, tensions have become heightened by calls for the Australian parliament to entrench a representative indigenous voice in the constitution. Conservatives would prefer a legal body implemented by parliament, rather than a constitutionally acknowledged group. This does at least demonstrate that even conservatives believe in a representative political group. Yet despite promises from government after government, each has failed to set up an aboriginal body to advise parliament over indigenous issues and so inequality persists.
The campaign for more representation has its foundations in the Uluru Statement from the Heart of 2017 which called for a First Nations voice in the Australian constitution. Ken Wyatt, Minister for Indigenous Australians, put constitutional entrenchment of the indigenous voice back on the agenda with his speech in Naidoc week, in which the culture and achievements of indigenous people are celebrated. He is the first indigenous person to hold the position but indicated that the representative voice might be legislated rather than enshrined in the constitution. Having a representative body that is not acknowledged in the constitution allows future governments to undo this decision and highlights the perceived inferiority of indigenous issues.
Opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, says that First Nations people just want to be consulted on matters that affect them. This is not an unreasonable demand, for how are white politicians supposed to fully understand and represent indigenous issues? Albanese said that he hopes the current government will listen to the demands of indigenous people listed in the Uluru statement.
Constitutional representation of indigenous issues is necessary because Aboriginals in Australia are more likely to suffer from socio-economic issues and half of all Aboriginal people have relied on some sort of welfare to survive. They are consistently forgotten by white politicians, so a representative indigenous voice must discuss the issues that the white lawmakers are not tackling. Indeed, Yothu Yindi Foundation chief Denise Bowden has spoken of Australian governments “dining out on Aboriginal misery”. It is clear that governments have had other priorities, with the Northern Territory government having taken half a billion dollars planned for indigenous spending and spent it on other, seemingly more important areas.
There have been efforts in the past by indigenous people to get their voices heard. The first national Aboriginal party in 2004 failed to be registered and other parties since, such as Australia’s First Nations Political Party, have also disbanded. Aboriginals do not have the widespread support across Australia, thus struggle to get into any sort of position of power to allow them a voice. Filmmaker Rachel Perkins has urged Australians to support a proposal allowing indigenous people to work with the government to solve the crises in their communities. This makes sense as the Aboriginal people know how best to discuss the problems they are facing and what needs to be done.
The platforms on which indigenous people can discuss their problems need to be considered. Aboriginal people may not feel comfortable discussing controversial issues in a parliament filled with white people. The Garma festival is a key event for indigenous people, as it as a chance for the Gumatj to have the white powerbrokers listen to indigenous issues. Despite criticism levelled at the event for being inauthentic and filled with corporate executives, it is still powerful, with Denise Bowden speaking of the freedom people feel they can speak with at Garma.
Albanese has said that if Australia is to move forward in achieving reconciliation with its indigenous people, a constitutionally enshrined voice is necessary. Yet how is it possible to have reconciliation when one side has no voice? The legacies of displacement and devastation that cause continuing inequalities among indigenous communities must be addressed by the government. Australia designed the constitution to be enduring but not unchanging. There is the opportunity to amend the constitution to fit the modern need to fix indigenous problems so this chance should be taken. It is not enough to allow a legislative body that can be removed at will, a representative aboriginal voice must be entrenched in the constitution.
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