In July, the government-appointed Referendum Council delivered their final report, following two years of consultation with Aboriginal people about “recognition” in the Australian constitution.

The consultations, or “dialogues”, culminated in a major conference at the Yulara resort near Uluru. Many black activists criticised these dialogues for being “invite only”. Despite this, there were clear expressions of the anger felt in communities at the ten year government-sponsored campaign for tokenistic “recognition” in the constitution, while daily oppression and poverty continue and demands for self-determination, treaties and justice are ignored.

The Uluru conference was widely reported as supporting Noel Pearson’s proposal for an Indigenous representative body, a “voice to parliament”, being enshrined in the constitution. This proposal was endorsed by the Referendum Council, who said it was the only option for constitutional reform that would meet Indigenous aspirations.

But the push for a “voice to parliament” just continues the tokenism of the “Recognise” campaign and does nothing to challenge black oppression. Pearson carefully crafted the proposal to appear non-threatening to the Liberal Party and the business community. The composition of the “voice” would be determined by the parliament of the day, could be hand-picked, and would have no powers to veto legislation. Its only function would be to offer advice—which could simply be ignored.

A number of Aboriginal leaders opposed to Pearson’s plans walked out of the Uluru conference and the proposal has been slammed by activist groups like the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance.

This opposition was locked out of the exclusive Garma festival in Arnhem Land in early August, whose primary sponsors are Rio Tinto and the Commonwealth Government. Conservative Indigenous figures like Pearson, Marcia Langton and Galarrwuy Yunupingu held court with Turnbull, Shorten and corporate representatives to push for the “voice”.

But even this tepid proposal has gained no traction with Turnbull and looks destined for the political wilderness. Turnbull refused to commit to supporting the “voice” and even rejected Shorten’s proposal for a Parliamentary Committee to simply “consider” the Referendum Council report.

Shorten played cynical politics at Garma, saying Labor would support a referendum for the “voice”, but only if the Liberals do too. This is in marked contrast to his clear commitment to hold a referendum on a republic if Labor wins the next election—without any such precondition.

By Paddy Gibson

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