Which Australians are more equal?

The Constitution gives some Australians more rights than others. Or in the words of George Orwell borrowed by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, “some Australians are more equal than others”. They are called Tasmanians.

Why is that so? Because the founders thought that the smaller colonies would not have a reasonable say in the affairs of the Commonwealth. They could be silenced or squeezed out.

So, the founders provided that each colony on becoming a state in the federation would have a minimum of five members and each would have an equal number of senators, irrespective of the size of their population.

In the first House Tasmania got the five minimum members and has had them ever since even though its population would warrant fewer.

The inequality between the states was part of the federal compact – a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation, as it was expressed at the time.

That federal compact, of course, completely left out some of the people who lived on the continent – the indigenous population, who were expressly not counted for the purposes of determining how many members of Parliament each state would get.

That was rectified somewhat in 1967 when the Constitution was changed to count them.

But that did not acknowledge that since 1788 Europeans have come to Australia dispossessing Indigenous people of what was their land. That process only stopped in 1993 with the recognition of native title.

And still there is no recognition of the prior occupation and ownership and continuous connection with the land.

With what we know now, it is surely time to bring Indigenous people into our federal compact and go beyond recognition, and to give a voice to Indigenous people, in an equivalent way to which the people of the smaller colonies got an extra constitutionally guaranteed extra voice.

No one says that it unfair that Tasmanians get one senator for every 45,000 people, but in NSW it is one for every 680,000 people. No one says it is unfair that Tasmania gets one MP for every 108,000 people, but in NSW it is only one for every 175,000 people.

And even with that “more equal” electoral advantage, Tasmanians are behind people in other states on just about every socio-economic measure. Just like Indigenous people. The Voice is the very least we can do. Yes, a truth commission and a treaty would be better. But unless the Voice is approved, they will never happen.

The Tasmanian example is instructive because Tasmania could well be the decisive state. If Queensland and Western Australia vote No and the overall majority is for Yes, the Tasmanian vote will decide: their Yes means Yes wins; their No means No wins.

Tasmanians should reflect on this and reject Dutton’s specious, narrow, self-serving argument that if Yes wins Indigenous people will be “more equal”. Just as it has been recognised that it is fair and reasonable for Tasmania to have extra constitutional representation to balance other disadvantages, Tasmanians should recognise the same thing for Indigenous people.

Does anyone but a few racist red-necks seriously think that Indigenous people would be advantaged over non-Indigenous people, when on every measure they are behind and will be for a long time to come?

Tasmanians (and everyone else) should also understand that this is not the Labor Party’s referendum, nor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s referendum. They should put the dishonest, petty politicking for short-term advantage aside, as the Liberal Party in Tasmania has so honourably done. The state party is in favour. One of its two MPs is in favour and the other will take no formal position.

The position of former Prime Minister Scott Morrison that the Voice would undermine the Constitution, is somewhat undermined by the secret-ministries scandal. The word hypocrisy comes to mind.

And what of the role of journalists in the referendum? It is professionally conflicting for a journalist to be a member of a political party. The journalist’s role is to report, explain, analyse and comment on issues so the public is in a better position to make a decision. No political party has the best position on every issue so no journalist could support the position of a political party on every issue as required by party membership.

But referendums are single issues. The journalist’s role to report, explain, analyse and comment can therefore enable the journalist to take a stand one way or the other without being partisan, just like on other issues. Nor is it good enough for journalists to just report “he said/she said”. In these days of overwhelming misinformation is it critical for journalists to expose misinformation, inconsistencies, hypocrisy and male fides in the arguments.

This is an especial duty in this referendum because a No win will carry massive national damage to Australia’s reputation abroad; the psychological well-being of Indigenous people; and the self-esteem of us all. Who is seriously going to celebrate a No win other than racists? The best the No side will have to “celebrate” is a disingenuous smug satisfaction that they be able to say that they did Albo and Labor over, or a silly conclusion that the Australian people wanted more than a Voice and that a treaty referendum will be put some time soon.

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Speaking of the federal compact, Victorian Premier Dan Andrews has presented an opening for Treasurer Jim Chalmers.

This month’s Victorian budget heftily increased land taxes on the basis that it was a “fair thing”. Other states, notably Queensland, have not been able to do it because of an existentially threatening political backlash.

The trouble is, that, as things stand, landlords can deduct their state land taxes against their federal income tax. So, about of a third of Victoria’s land tax increase will be paid for by a depletion of federal revenue.

It seems to me that the Feds should not tolerate this and change the tax law so that state taxes are not deductible.

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This week PM Albanese lent support to the ACT taking over Calvary. It is very significant. As I pointed out a week ago, the Feds can legislate to take over Calvary without any compensation or just terms at all. The High Court has held that the Commonwealth’s constitutional power over the territories in Section 122 is wide enough to support acquisition without just terms – unlike the Commonwealth’s power in the six states or the ACT’s power under the Self-Government Act. At its weakest, it is a bargaining chip. At its strongest it is a game-changer.

Crispin Hull

This article was first published in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 30 May 2023.

4 thoughts on “Which Australians are more equal?”

  1. Dutton and co are not really worried about “the voice”, what they are super worried about is recognition in the Constitution and thus the next step which is “Treaty”. They want to kick that can as far as they can.

  2. Tasmania as a state may well support the referendum. Tasmania is a microcosm of the broader Australia with pockets of conservatism, insularity and fear of federal interference yet there are other factors. Despite its terrible history in the Black Wars there is a significant number today within communities who have aboriginal ancestry. Furthermore, Tasmanian authors have been at the forefront of researched truth in history. These include Henry Reynolds, James Boyce, Cassandra Pybus, Nicholas Clements and Richard Flanagan (adapted to fictional stories).
    As for democratic equality, Australia needs to modernise its colonial Federation and Constitution. Economic or geographic regions, like Tasmania, would be better suited as administrative electorates with equal Parliamentary representation. My personal opinion is such administrative centres (non legislative bodies) would replace state governments in the delivery of health, education, infrastructure, tax collection and all relevant government services.

  3. Thank you for giving us yet another compelling argument to vote Yes for the Voice. The shallow right-wing idealism of the “We’re all equals, so the Voice makes us unequal” argument doesn’t hold water once you consider all the ways in which we legitimately correct for disadvantages already in the present day.

  4. Sorry to point this out Crispin, but your remark that Tasmanians’ have the worst socio-economic conditions after 122 years of special representation in Federal Parliament could be construed as an argument for NOT giving indigenous people special representation in Federal Parliament!

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