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An Indigenous Voice to Parliament – considering a constitutional bridge

An Indigenous Voice to Parliament – considering a constitutional bridge
Frank Brennan
Garrett Publishing, $24.99

Jesuit priest, author, social justice advocate and university lecturer are a few of Frank Brennan’s credentials. In 1982, he began advising the Queensland Catholic Bishops on Aboriginal issues and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1995 for services to Aboriginal Australians.

Brennan dedicates this book to his father, the late Sir Francis Gerard Brennan, former Chief Justice of the High Court who wrote the lead judgment on the Mabo decision.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described the upcoming referendum on the Voice as “a straightforward proposition … a simple principle”. While Brennan is hoping for a Yes vote, he disputes its simplicity: “… at the moment I don’t see it as a straightforward proposition. The simple principle has been overlaid with complexities.”

In this short and cogent book, Brennan aims to clarify some of these issues, chart the development of the Voice initiative and present the views of a range of people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, both for and against. He argues in its favour, urging proponents and opponents to listen to each other with respect (which seems increasingly like a pipe dream).

Brennan is upfront about the criticism he copped after publishing his 2015 No Small Change. Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton both chastised him for suggesting constitutional changes that would be merely symbolic. Langton wrote, “Brennan calls himself an advocate for Indigenous rights, yet he supports no substantive reform.”

“In response, I said that I would accept the judgment of Indigenous leaders if it was their view that symbolic change was no better than no change,” he explains. (Brennan since worked with Langton and Pearson as members of the Morrison government’s Senior Advisory Group on the Co-Design of the Voice.)

Brennan describes the years of negotiations and delays which have beset attempts to enshrine the concept of a Voice. John Howard pledged action if his government was re-elected in 2007; we will never know if this promise would have been kept.

Soon after Albanese voiced his intentions to hold a referendum on it, Tony Abbot claimed it would “entrench separatism”, adding: “Indigenous people can never expect to achieve Australian outcomes without also embracing Australian standards.” Peter Dutton has slammed the Voice as “divisive, disrupting and democracy-altering”.

Conservative critics of the Voice, Brennan holds, contend that there is no need to make special laws or provisions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Yet laws such as the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007, were “special measures” under the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 and applied specifically to Aboriginal communities.

In his final chapter, “Where to from here?” Brennan offers a few of his own suggestions for the Voice’s wording and recommends some preconditions. “There will be little point in proceeding with a referendum,” he concludes, “unless the words … win the support of Noel Pearson as well as the likes of John Howard.”

Brennan’s concerns that partisanship and political point scoring will trump any sincere wish for change seem, sadly, to be well-founded. The book was reissued on May 1 with the revised title An Indigenous Voice to Parliament – considering constitutional change. This edition includes an epilogue titled The Failed Quest for Bipartisanship on the Voice that addresses the new discussions, plus additional appendices.

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