The coming months will see continued debate around the proposed referendum for an Indigenous “Voice to Parliament.” According to the website of From the Heart, the Voice would be a constitutionally recognised advisory body to the Federal parliament designed to “enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to give advice to the Federal Parliament about laws and policies that impact them through a simplified policy-making process and structural change. This would then ensure that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are included in the law-making process, rather than having bureaucrats and politicians deciding what is best for them.”
While on paper, this proposal appears to be a significant step forward in the struggle for First Nations self-determination, prominent grassroots First Nations activists have continued to criticise the Voice. Black Peoples Union president Kieran Stewart-Assheton has stated that “we believe that the Voice will not only achieve no progress for us, but it will actually set us back”. While in an Invasion Day speech, Gary Foley reiterated not just the emptiness of the promises surrounding the Voice, but the danger that it poses to the struggle for self-determination going forward. Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne Invasion Day rallies this year were dominated by activists arguing against the media and government-driven notion of the Voice as having full support amongst First-Nations People or being to their benefit.
At the current juncture, it is necessary to remember that no political decision exists in a vacuum, and politicians rarely act out of moral or ethical fortitude. Under capitalism, politics and reforms develop in an interplay between class interests, material conditions and the social force of the classes and movements across society. This is to say that the current push for the Voice needs to be understood within the context of Australian capitalism.
The fact that the Voice has a lot of support from the Australian ruling class is a significant factor that we can't ignore. It is strongly backed by the Australian Labour Party, and while the Liberal-Nationals remain divided on the issue, there remains significant support within the party. Most strikingly, significant support exists across the mining sector, and the proposal maintains the backing of the Australian Business Council and Newscorp. History has shown that these entities do not have a modicum of care for the conditions or self-determination of First Nations people.
We should ask ourselves then, what is to be gained by the ruling class through a referendum for the Voice, and why are they acting now? For us, these two questions are connected, and the answers to them originate in the steadily growing movement, centred around but not limited to the yearly Invasion Day rallies and struggles to defend sacred sites and land rights. Invasion Day rallies have grown massively over the past ten years, but their impact has been felt beyond the events themselves. It is clear that the nationalistic fervour that once surrounded Australia Day has dimmed significantly over the past years and public sentiment has continued to grow in favour of First Nations' self-determination. At the same time, the State has been forced to contend with potent and effective struggles to defend sacred sites, which have provided significant roadblocks to the desires of capitalist development. Importantly, the same activists that have been at the forefront of efforts to build Invasion Day as a rallying cry and the defence of sacred sites are also those who have most frequently expressed opposition to the Voice.
No capitalist government will act voluntarily against the self-serving interests of the ruling class. But the exploited and oppressed have always been able to force their interests upon the ruling class through the building of mass movements and the flexing of their collective strength. While the current movement is not yet truly capable of forcing major concessions from the government, the government can see the growing risk that it may be possible in the future. Rather than allowing the movement to continue to develop and risk the prospect of being forced to concede genuine structural change, the government is instead seeking to divert energy towards the Voice.
Therein lies the reality of the Voice. As a reform, it is a poisoned chalice. While it may sound progressive on paper, or at worst a harmless and symbolic gesture, within it resides a genuine threat to the movement's continued growth and real reform in the future. By passing the Voice, the ruling class hopes to achieve two things. Firstly, it will allow for the further development of a ruling stratum amongst First Nations people, tied to the capitalist State and with significant pull, which can then be used to control any grassroots movement that exists or may develop (such as the struggle to defend sacred sites). Such is the path of all state collaboration. The Voice would allow for the spreading of the notion that the real fight is now done, a Voice has been won, and through that voice, a small segment of First Nations people can achieve change through the parliamentary process. This leads to the second aim of the Voice, dissipating the momentum built up so far through the diversion of efforts from collective struggle towards elite politicking.
In Australia, all socialists and revolutionaries should hold First Nations self-determination as a centre point of their platform. Fighting for genuine material improvements in the lives of First Nations people, for an end to deaths in custody and more, remain essential political tasks in this country. However, the Voice offers little help in completing these tasks.
The oppressed have always had a voice. But that voice is not found in parliament. While From the Heart may argue that the Voice would allow for “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders” to be ”included in the law-making process, rather than having bureaucrats and politicians deciding what is best for them” this ignores the reality of the State. Parliament and the State are institutions designed for minority rule to facilitate the control of all the oppressed and exploited classes. Our entry into parliament does not give voice to the masses; it silences the masses to elevate the voice of a select few.
The increasing support from the ruling class for the Voice should tell us that genuine reform is becoming increasingly possible. But that possibility has only developed through developing mass struggle on the ground. Accepting the ruling class's poisoned chalice now would simply be playing directly into their hands.
There is a final point worth acknowledging. There is an understandable reluctance on the left to come out in opposition to the Voice due to the fear of lining up alongside One Nation and other far-right ghouls who have expressed their own opposition to the Voice. The opposition of these parties stems solely from racism and from wanting to further stoke the culture wars to their advantage. These parties should continue to be resisted and their ideas opposed. But we should not mistake criticism of the Voice from the left for siding with the far-right. Whereas the far-right opportunistically oppose even symbolic notions of First Nations self-determination, we disagree with the Voice because in it we see the germ of an institution that can strangle the building of self-determination in the future.
Self-determination will not be found inside parliament. It can only be built through the struggle on the streets. Let’s resist the ruling classes’ poisoned chalice and maintain the demands that have been long fought for and that the Voice would be incapable of achieving.
End deaths in custody. End the mass incarceration of First Nations People. End the systematic oppression and disadvantage. End the destruction of sacred sites. Self-determination now.
These are essential demands. But they can only be won through the building of power from below, on the streets, and in our workplaces and communities. The task today isn’t to win a collaborationist Voice to Parliament but to continue to build a fighting movement on the ground, to strengthen and increase ties of solidarity between the First Nations struggle and all other struggles of the exploited and oppressed. Change is possible; it may even be on the horizon, but only if we continue to fight for it.