S A Hamed Hosseini
The imminent referendum on the Indigenous Voice in Australia is not merely a decision about representation; it is a gateway to reimagining the very fabric of our democratic system. This is an urgent appeal to all progressives – academics, activists, and concerned citizens – to seize this moment. Engage in robust debates, advocate for transformative policies, and do not let this opportunity for systemic change slip away.
The mere possibility that the Indigenous Voice could spark broader changes in our democracy has some powerful groups worried enough to distract us with misleading arguments. Even though the chance for such sweeping change might seem slim, it has been enough to unsettle the guardians of the status quo (white and non-white alike).
The reason these distractions find a willing audience is that many people are already disillusioned with our current democratic system, which is hijacked by big money. In that sense, the campaign for a truly democratic Indigenous Voice is not just about immediate representation; it is also a critical step in rejuvenating faith in our democratic process.
I acknowledge that in a moment when polls suggest that the upcoming referendum on establishing an Indigenous Voice is likely to fail, one might wonder why it is important to discuss how this institution should function democratically. Though it could appear that we’re diving into mere imaginary debate, the reality is that this conversation has real-world implications that matter to us all. Isn’t after all one of the major reasons we hear for questioning the Voice, the lack of detail and debate?
While many criticisms of the Indigenous Voice may seem off-target or misguided, the fact that they are widely believed actually hint at a bigger problem: many people have lost faith in democracy itself. This is not just about one vote on one issue; it is about how we all see the future of justice and freedom in Australia.
In a time when so many of us feel that decisions are being made without us – and when money seems to talk louder than people – it is crucial to talk about how we can make the Voice, and indeed all forms of political representation, genuinely fair and effective.
While most objections to the proposed Indigenous Voice tend to be either flawed or misleading, there are legitimate concerns that should be thoughtfully addressed. A particularly valid worry is the risk of the Voice falling under the control of forces with significant financial or political clout. In such a scenario, the very aim of the Voice – to fairly represent Indigenous communities – could be compromised, resulting in a reinforcement of existing social and economic inequalities within these communities. Why is this a justified concern?
Firstly, the influence of money and power in shaping public policy is not a new phenomenon and can be observed in democracies around the world. In these systems, lobbying, campaign financing, and other mechanisms often tilt the scales in favour of the wealthy and the well-connected. These imbalances raise the possibility that the Voice could be similarly co-opted, becoming more an instrument for those already in positions of power rather than a tool for community empowerment.
Secondly, it is essential to appreciate that Indigenous communities are not a uniform block but rather a tapestry of groups, each with its own set of social, economic, and political interests. Without adequate checks and balances, the Voice could risk becoming a platform for the more powerful factions within these communities at the expense of smaller, less represented groups.
Thirdly, there is a pattern of corporations and special interest groups attempting to gain influence over Indigenous lands and resources. As Indigenous communities have invaluable cultural and economic ties to the land, the Voice could be seen as a potential avenue for external entities to legitimise their activities, such as mining or logging, that could be detrimental to these communities and to the wider efforts to battle climate change.
Lastly, the very idea of representation assumes a level playing field where each voice carries equal weight. Yet, we know that systemic barriers often silence marginalised voices while amplifying those already in positions of privilege. So, there’s a very real risk that without careful planning and robust safeguards, the Voice could inadvertently deepen these inequalities rather than remedying them.
To effectively deal with these concerns, it is not enough to simply criticise what could go wrong; we must establish a robust strategic approach to mitigate potential risks.
At the core of this approach should be the concept of ‘radical democracy,’ which prioritises the active involvement of citizens in shaping political institutions and managing large economic enterprises. When applied to Voice under the current liberal democracy system, it entails establishing checks and balances within the Indigenous Voice to ensure representation that reflects the diversity of Indigenous communities – across social, economic, and cultural lines. By doing so, we can offset the sway of powerful groups within these communities and foster a more equitable representation.
Transparency is another vital component of this strategy. Every aspect of the Voice’s consultative process should be transparent and subject to public scrutiny. This could include the publication of meeting minutes, agendas, and even live-streaming discussions to ensure that the community can monitor how decisions are being made.
Institutional safeguards should also be in place to prevent conflicts of interest. This could include mandatory financial disclosures for all members involved in the Voice and establishing an independent oversight committee to regularly review decisions made by those who have recently transitioned from the private sector, ensuring they align with the institution’s goals and public expectations. Such policies would diminish the risk of the Voice becoming a conduit for corporate or political interests.
Active citizenship and grassroots engagement are crucial for accountability. Organisations at the community level should have the instruments and resources to monitor the activities of the Voice actively. This is especially important when it comes to external influences like corporate donations or political lobbying. Any signs of undue influence should be flagged and addressed in a transparent manner, ideally in public forums where community members can be part of the dialogue.
A voice within the Voice
Adding a nuanced layer to this framework would be the concept of a ‘voice within the Voice.’ This means giving additional weight to the voices of the most marginalised Indigenous communities, particularly those facing severe disadvantages like lack of literacy and access to basic needs. The purpose of this concept is to acknowledge that even within marginalised communities, disparities exist, and it is essential that those who are doubly or triply marginalised are not left behind.
To operationalise this idea, the Voice could employ participatory research techniques, engaging deeply with these communities to investigate and understand their specific needs and concerns. Priority forums, perhaps facilitated by community elders or trusted local leaders, could be organised specifically for these groups. Likewise, digital platforms could offer a secure and anonymous way for these voices to contribute to the broader discussion if physical attendance is not possible due to geographic or other constraints.
Alternative representation models, like proxy voting or designated advocacy roles, could also be used to ensure that these groups have the opportunity to influence decision-making processes. Funding could be allocated to community-led initiatives aimed at empowering these specific subsets of the Indigenous population, so their perspectives are included in broader community discussions.
This way we not only address the risk of financial or political power imbalances but also pave the way for a more inclusive and egalitarian form of representation. This layered approach ensures that the Voice is not just a channel for the most vocal or visible sectors of Indigenous communities but serves as a holistic representation mechanism, conscious of internal inequalities and committed to addressing them.
But is the democratisation of the Voice possible? Why should only the Voice be subject to such checks and balances?
From potential tokenism to a testing ground for transforming the system
Let’s not kid ourselves here. To make the Indigenous Voice genuinely fair and inclusive, we cannot just rely on the usual ways we think about democracy. The changes needed go beyond fixing a single body or institution; they actually challenge the basic rules of our current political system that often push back against people-powered, inclusive models. In simpler terms, if we want a truly democratic Indigenous Voice, we have to aim for bigger changes in the way we do politics overall.
In the best-case scenario, the changes we make to the Indigenous Voice could serve as a practice run for bigger improvements to how democracy works as a whole. Ideas like letting communities form their representative bodies through direct and deliberative processes from bottom up (i.e., local councils to the national parliament) and making sure even the weakest and most disempowered voices get heard could be form the basis for reclaiming our democracy.
If we get this right, the Voice could become a compelling example that challenges business-as-usual politics, nudging us toward better ways of making decisions that involve everyone, not just a select few.
The journey to create a genuinely democratic and all-encompassing Indigenous Voice could also set the stage for a more functional democracy for all Australians. This dual purpose makes sure that the Voice not only helps the Indigenous communities it directly represents but also advances the wider fight for a truly fair and just political system.
S. A. Hamed Hosseini received his Ph.D. in Global Studies and Political Sociology from the Australian National University. An elected Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, he currently serves as a Senior Lecturer in Political Sociology, the coordinator of the Alternative Futures Research Hub, and the chief investigator of the Well-living Lab at The University of Newcastle.