The Albanese Government faces some big risks in proposing a referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in its first term. The first risk is that it fails to pass. The second is that even if it passes nothing much changes on the ground for Indigenous people.
For the thing to be a success, a lot of people’s attitudes have to change.
Some look at the 1967 referendum that enabled the Commonwealth to legislate with respect to Indigenous people and to ensure they were counted in the census. Representatives.
That it was approved by 91 per cent, the largest referendum majority in history, was proof, they argue, that Australians want the best for Indigenous people and will therefore approve the Voice.
But it is not 1967. Then television had only recently given widespread coverage to the squalor and poverty many Indigenous lived in and how state governments actively made their lives worse, not better. Obviously, a large number of people were appalled.
Since then, the Commonwealth used its power over Indigenous affairs to pour a lot of money in. That much of it went to white contractors, bureaucratic bungling, and waste has done little to dispel myths in many pockets of mainly rural and regional Australia that Indigenous people get easy government hand-outs and that the policy of self-identification means that these hand-outs often go to what they assert are white people.
Also, since then, we have had the Mabo decision and the Native Title Act under which vast tracts of land have been recognised as being owned by Indigenous people.
That gives rise to myths about Indigenous people taking over agricultural land, best exemplified by then Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer’s call for bucketloads of extinguishment. Native title adds to the myth that Indigenous people are doing okay and do not need any more.
A quarter of a century later, the basic principles of native title are not well-understood. It just over-turned the false legal assumption that in 1788 Australia was terra nullius (vacant land) just there for the taking.
That meant that any land which had not been “alienated” in the form of land grants by the Crown to individuals or corporations who arrived after 1788 was available for native title. In short, that land always was and still is owned by Indigenous people. Native Title just gives them what is rightfully theirs.
But it is seen by many in pockets of mainly rural and regional Australia as a form of Indigenous privilege.
Others argue that with more Indigenous people elected to the Parliament, there is no need for a Voice to it.
With those attitudes about, it would be easy to run a scare campaign against a Yes vote. Without changes to those attitudes, it would be foolish to expect another 91 per cent in favour. Indeed, it might not pass at all. That would be terrible for Australia’s reputation. And would put paid to any more referendums of any type for another quarter of a century.
Another attitude to change is the belief that the absence of progress on a huge range of yardsticks (health, education, incarceration and so on) is somehow the fault of First Nations people. To the extent that government money has been wasted in Indigenous affairs, it is fault of those who administered the money, not the people who were supposed to benefit from it.
This leads to another fairly widespread attitude that doing anything much at all about Indigenous improvement is a waste of money and throwing away good money after bad.
However, a recent research paper on Indigenous literacy illustrates the folly of this attitude and the accuracy of the proposition that the waste was caused by the administrators, not the recipients.
The research shows that if Indigenous people themselves are in control, you get much better results. It also shows that the money spent is an investment, not just spending.
The study is titled “The Impact of a Community-Controlled Adult Literacy Campaign on Crime and Justice Outcomes in Remote Australian Aboriginal Communities” and appears in the International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy.
It traced the outcome of an Indigenous-run adult literacy campaign called “Yes, I Can” which began in 2009.
The study was undertaken with two national First Nations organisations, the Literacy for Life Foundation (LFLF), which is the lead agency for the campaign, and the Lowitja Institute. The Indigenous chairs of these organisations co-authored the study with several academics.
Lower levels of literacy have been linked with poorer health and brushes with the criminal justice system. The authors went a step further. They showed that in the six First Nations communities in small outback towns in NSW which ran the literacy campaign, crime rates fell markedly. It is very promising.
These towns have low rates of secondary education and widespread incidences of low literacy.
The most frequently cited example of the link between literacy and crime is driving licences. If you struggle with literacy, it is virtually impossible to get a driver’s licence or register a car. Yet these people are living in remote places with no public transport. They often have to travel great distances to go to medical appointments, shopping, or to take children to school.
They get caught and fined. But necessity results in repeat offences, periods of disqualification, or even imprisonment.
People who cannot read and write feel so disempowered that they abuse drugs and alcohol and get into police trouble.
Leaving aside the human-rights element, the economic cost of this law enforcement could be drastically cut with more widespread Indigenous-controlled adult literacy campaigns. They would easily pay for themselves.
With a change of attitude, these campaigns could be seen as an investment, especially if they are working so well because they are controlled by Indigenous people themselves.
Yes, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s commitment to the Voice to Parliament has been welcomed. And is certainly an improvement on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s cruel of peremptory dismissal of the Uluru Statement.
But it would be terrible if it failed because not enough time is spent educating and changing attitudes.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 7 June 2022.