Indigenous leader Marcia Langton says a no vote in the referendum would be “a mandate to cause us even further harm” while raising fears about setbacks to reconciliation.
Rejecting claims the consultation body would divide the nation, Prof Langton, the author of an influential co-design report suggesting a model for the voice, said the exact details of the Indigenous committee would have to be set by the parliament, including politicians opposed to the body, such as the opposition leader, Peter Dutton.
She urged a yes vote in the referendum, expressing concern that a failure to establish a voice would lead governments to give up on reform to improve the lives of Indigenous people.
“The debate will change so radically, if the no vote wins, that our advocacy will be seen as ineffectual, and so, therefore, how we participate in the public square will be very, very different,” Langton told the National Press Club on Wednesday.
“The levels of abuse against the yes campaigners, including death threats and daily published insults and abuse, takes a toll.”
Langton – an anthropologist, geographer and academic – said the voice would help rebuild trust in government among Indigenous communities. The longtime voice advocate said the body would work to address structural disadvantages
“In less than 230 years, the first Australians have been reduced to the most disadvantaged Australians,” Langton said.
“As a descendant of the Yiman people who were massacred in the hundreds over decades of conflict, raised in Queensland under racist laws and now in my 70s, it is clear to me that the winds of change blowing across our continent now are our last hope of surviving as the First Peoples with any of our laws, cultures and languages intact.”
With Prof Tom Calma, Langton co-authored the 2021 co-design report – commissioned under the former Coalition government – which has been suggested as a base for the voice, proposing a committee of 24 people around the nation to give advice to government on Indigenous policy.
But Langton stressed multiple times that parliament and politicians would set the parameters of such a body, and could change them over time as needed.
“This proposition is the barest measure imaginable that would give Indigenous Australians a formal say in policies and legislation that affect us,” she said.
“We are asking merely for an advisory body to ameliorate the power of the parliament to make laws that could cause us harm.”
Asked what a rejection of the referendum would represent, Langton responded: “I fear a no vote will be interpreted – and falsely, I should say – as a mandate for governments to do nothing and to make our lives worse.
“I think that’s the greatest danger. I also fear that a No vote will be perceived, and again, I say falsely, as a mandate for not establishing consultative bodies,” she said.
“Many Indigenous Australians who are on the frontlines of dealing with these problems in towns and cities and communities and outstations and home lands are very worried about the prospect of losing the voice because they already have little say, and a loss will mean that they have even less.”
Langton said the commonwealth should not shy away from further reform in Indigenous affairs, asking the federal government “as soon as possible” to respond to outstanding recommendations from royal commissions into Indigenous deaths in custody.
“I do hope that the government sets out an agenda for reform that’s based on common sense, on the recommendations of many inquiries and royal commissions, and on expert advice, before the rabble takeover and turn a no vote into a mandate to cause us even further harm.”
Langton accused the no campaign, including Dutton, of “increasingly absurd” criticisms of the voice, strongly denying claims that the proposal would “racially divide” Australia.
“Australian voters have been deceived by the no case and by the relentless negativity, and conned into believing that the referendum proposal will not lead to better outcomes. Where are the solutions from the no case?” she said.
“Those in the no campaign have no policy answers to address the life outcomes of Indigenous Australians..”
Langton was critical that politicians opposed to the referendum claimed there was not enough detail about the change. Asked about how the voice would interact with parliament, Langton replied: “I don’t know, that’s up to the parliament.”
She said: “Twice our reports went to cabinet. Peter Dutton was sitting in both of those cabinets. He received those reports. And yet, he says there’s no detail.”
Langton rejected Dutton’s proposal to have a second referendum, for the symbolic constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, if the 14 October vote failed. She said such an outcome was not what Aboriginal people wanted.
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