Enabling an Indigenous voice to parliament will make Australia more credible in the world’s eyes | Peter Lewis
The first sitting of the new federal parliament convened against the backdrop of a world in turmoil, reinforcing both the limitations and possibilities of an Albanese government.
As Labor took charge, China was firing missiles off Taiwan while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was putting pressure on a global economy already cleaving under the stress of the pandemic.
The global village that emerged after the cold war is imploding in the face of populist nationalism, fuelled by the inherent unfairness of the neoliberal project and forcing societies to seek refuge behind national borders that have never been weaker.
Despite their trappings of power, the levers at the hands of our leaders are limited. After four decades of methodically stripping back the powers of the state, so much of this geopolitical buffering is now outside the control of any individual government.
The Albanese government risks becoming a victim of this crossroads moment in history, when the gap between public expectation and the reality of what government can control has become a chasm.
The latest Essential Report show that cost of living is emerging as a major challenge for voters, with nearly everyone saying it is concerning them.
But even more worrying will be findings which show most people think the government has the sort of control over the economy that the treasurer, Jim Chalmers, could only dream of.
The majority of respondents regard the economy as the product of a set of levers that our elected leaders choose to pull. But right now, debt, unemployment and workplace supply are all hostage to the pandemic; inflation and fuel prices are driven by a foreign war; while the easing of interest rates is the decision of the Reserve Bank of Australia, an independent body.
Compounding this mismatch between perception and reality is our appetite for the government to meet its spending commitments on aged care, early learning, women’s safety and the NDIS – while also reducing the budget deficit.
This crowded list of expectations flows from the “small target” strategy from before the election that further ties the government’s hands by committing to the Morrison government’s tax cuts that disproportionately favour the very rich.
As Jim Chalmers conceded in his budget update, there is not much the government can do but hunker down as inflation runs rampant, wages lag profits and interest rates rise – and pray the world stabilises.
The one thing tit can control is the moral legitimacy it carries into these urgent global conversations after the previous government managed to have Australia all but shunned from polite global society.
Scott Morrison managed to unify the French, the post-Trump US administration, the Pacific and China with mutual disdain – a truly comprehensive lack of diplomacy.
It is already clear that Australia’s willingness to end its internal climate wars and legislate a more ambitious 2030 target (a floor, not a ceiling) has raised our stocks internationally with Pacific nations, the regions and global forums.
On first blush, the proposed voice to parliament which the prime minister articulated at the Garma festival in Arnhem Land last month might seem a sidebar to these global machinations.
But our response to the invitation of First Nations peoples to make peace, first issued five years ago in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, will frame our legitimacy as a credible nation-state every bit as much as our position on climate change.
This week’s report shows a growing majority of Australians ready to RSVP to the invitation embodied in the Uluru Statement from the Heart to enable a direct Indigenous voice to the federal parliament to address the “torment of our powerless”.
These figures show the conditions to build a genuine consensus around a voice are strong, with majority support for a voice already registered by Labor, Coalition, Green and unaligned voters alike.
Labor has a strong record of confronting if not totally reconciling our history: Whitlam’s iconic hand back of land to Vincent Lingiari, Paul Keating’s Redfern truth-telling and Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generation.
The Coalition has not covered themselves with the same glory, weaponising the landmark Mabo and Wik high court decisions to foment division, militarising the response to Indigenous community breakdown. But most of their voters want them to be better.
The Greens are demanding more long-term ambition around Treaty and truth-telling but, as with climate change, must recognise that their voters expect them to support the immediate advances on the table.
This leaves self-appointed “No” campaigner Pauline Hanson to stand in the way of constitutional change. Finding a way to respond to her fear and confusion with the open heart that lies at the centre of the Makarrata will help build the path to the necessary majority.
Contrary to the braying from some on the right, the voice is not about symbolism. It’s about the sort of nation we will be as the world begins to understand itself as a collection of nation-states again.
Ukraine has shown the value of strong nationhood in an uncertain world, the commitment of ordinary citizens to take up arms and hold back what seems to be an unrelenting tide. Taiwan, too; its citizens’ engagement with government is recognised as world-leading.
Australia’s role in the world will be tested in the years to come. Addressing the weight of history that sees our first peoples the most incarcerated on the planet will heal us in ways we haven’t even imagined.