Indigenous Australia Opinion

A conservative case to vote 'yes'

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Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney at the National Press Club (image via YouTube)

The Voice is a proposed change to Australia’s Constitution that is inherently conservative from a philosophical and historical standpoint, writes Callum Seán Murray.

CONSERVATISM PLACES TRUST in tradition and experience as they hold practical wisdom that has evolved over generations. This said, conservatism does not equate to dogmatic reactionism. Edmund Burke, the philosophical founder of conservatism, postulated that ‘a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation’.

Conservatives maintain that ‘traditions are not static, but as in a gentle and gradual flux, encouraged by the astute reformer’. Change, however, must respect traditional institutions and be based on tried and tested experience. History is the ultimate ‘guide to understanding the present and planning for the future’.

Prime Ministers Robert Menzies and John Howard venerated Burke throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. They posited that Australia’s wisdom was gained from practical lessons of history and reaffirmed the importance of tradition.

Menzies maintained that successful democratic reform required:

'All the benefit of history behind it, [and] the same kind of experience.’

This echoes Burke’s praise of Westminster tradition for being ‘the result of the thoughts of many minds and ages’. Howard stated that Australia carried ‘the Burkean tradition… [if] institutions have demonstrably failed they ought to be changed or reformed. But we do not believe in getting rid of institutions for the sake of change’.

Westminster tradition was exported from the United Kingdom to Australia with the First Fleet. London spread its influence across Australian colonies throughout the 19th Century. Each colony implemented legislatures replicating the Westminster system. Nationalism was also spreading around the world in the late 19th Century. Being "Australian" became celebrated, which in turn underscored calls for greater political unity between the six colonies.

With British consent, several constitutional conventions were held in the 1890s. Canada had recently federated with a strong centralised government. However, smaller Australian colonies were apprehensive about this. They sought inspiration from tried and tested American federalism where states’ rights were preserved.

The Constitution follows Westminster tradition. Some features of it were influenced by the American Constitution. The Senate, the states’ house, has equal representatives from each state; federal and state legislative powers are divided; and successful referenda require a double majority to ensure small states are not overshadowed by big states. Utilising referenda, however, was influenced by the Swiss Constitution.

Although federated, Australia was not independent. It remained part of the British Empire and major foreign policy decisions were determined in London. In short, Australian federation was based on Westminster tradition and tried and tested international experience — it was a conservative revolution. 

Indigenous Australians have the oldest continuous culture and lore in the world, which evolved over tens of millennia. Indigenous culture and lore is a complex system of rules governing human behaviour and interactions, and connection with the land. They are orally passed on through the generations with stories, songs, and dances. Indigenous civilisation was therefore inherently conservative.

When Britain "settled" Australia, it brought comparatively novel traditions. Antithetical to conservative thought, the British disregarded Indigenous practice and imposed their political theories upon them. They were discordant with millennia-old Indigenous traditions — it was a radical revolution from without.

Conservatives exhort that ‘when compliance no longer flows from customary allegiance, the result is naked force’. Indigenous people attempted to maintain their traditions despite British encroachment across the land. Conflict, the Frontier Wars, soon erupted. However, it was asymmetric warfare and Indigenous people stood little chance. Over centuries, their traditions were systematically destroyed.

Survivors were excluded from Australian institutions buttressed by Westminster tradition. Indigenous people nonetheless acquiesced to the new regime. Indigenous activists argued to be included in Australian institutions based on the traditional tenets of Australian democracy, namely citizenship and liberal rights. Post-federation, their philosophy was to work with the system, not against it.

Indigenous organisations were established to petition the government. Petitions and organisations were rejected and derailed until 1948 when Indigenous citizenship was finally granted. Indigenous law-making powers were also transferred to the federal government in 1967, who created an Indigenous council of white men that had previously suppressed Indigenous activism. Such bodies were continuously axed and recreated.

Later renditions comprised Indigenous members, who were elected and participated in cabinet meetings such as the Australian and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). Decades of concomitant legal activism culminated in native title. However, ATSIC developed problems over time and was abolished in 2006 despite a review committee recommending reform. Amanda Vanstone, then Coalition Indigenous Affairs Minister, later said abolition was a mistake.

The Voice is not a new idea. It is the culmination of centuries of activism. Counter to philosophically conservative reform, variants have been repeatedly implemented and abolished. Constitutionally enshrining the Voice would underscore its durability. It is a practical lesson of history. It echoes states’ anti-majoritarian sentiments presently enshrined in the Constitution. Indigenous people want to ensure their voices are no longer overwhelmed by non-Indigenous voices.

That said, the Voice respects Westminster tradition. It is democratic and subordinate to Parliament and common law. The Voice’s members may be Indigenous, but its institutional antecedents are not—it is British, settler-Australian; it is conservative. 

Callum Seán Murray is a recent graduate from Victoria University of Wellington with a Masters of Philosophy, Politics and Economics. 

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A conservative case to vote 'yes'

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