Slam dunk or foul? Shaq backlash underlines government’s Voice challenge

By Lisa Visentin

It has been five weeks since Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stood before Indigenous elders on the red soil of Arnhem Land and unveiled proposed wording to enshrine a Voice to parliament in the Constitution.

His historic speech at the Garma cultural festival was framed as a fire-starter; the kindling to build broad support across the nation for a referendum within three years – one that, for so many, would be devastating should it fail.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney will use a major speech next week to announce the government’s next steps in progressing the Voice debate, which is expected to include establishing working groups of experts.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the Garma festival in East Arnhem Land in July, where he outlined three sentences that could be added to the Constitution to establish the Voice if a referendum succeeded.Credit:AAP

In the weeks since Garma, the absence of a clear public strategy to build the consensus the government says is essential for a successful vote has left a vacuum critics have gladly filled. From within parliament’s ranks, the Voice is under fire from adversaries on Labor’s left and right flanks, with Indigenous women among the loudest voices.

Greens senator Lidia Thorpe and Coalition senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, firebrands from opposite ends of the political spectrum, have levelled similar criticisms that the Voice is not the answer to the crises facing Indigenous communities.

Dr Hannah McGlade, a Curtin University legal academic and member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, says Price and Thorpe’s critiques are damaging the “yes” cause and the government needs to show it has a strategy in train.

“It is very disappointing and concerning that we now have a ‘no’ campaign clearly in action involving two Aboriginal women senators,” McGlade says.

“I would have thought that Minister Burney would have called a roundtable of Indigenous leadership at this point. They have to properly strategise and resource this campaign because these loud voices of opposition seem to be dominating public discourse.”

An Indigenous Voice to parliament was the first of three sequential elements agreed upon by Indigenous leaders in the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, along with treaty and truth. The purpose of the Voice is to be an advisory body to parliament and government, enabling Indigenous people to express views to MPs on policy and legislation that affect their communities.

At Garma, Albanese outlined three sentences that could be added to the Constitution to establish the Voice if a referendum succeeds. The first sentence proposes to enshrine a body to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, the second sets out its ability to “make representations to parliament and the executive government” on matters relating to Indigenous Australians, and the third empowers parliament to make laws on how the Voice would be created and function.

Thorpe, who believes treaty should be the priority, was among a small group of delegates who walked out of the Uluru dialogue in 2017. This week she hardened her position on constitutional recognition, calling the referendum a “waste of money”. She argues funds could be better spent on immediate solutions such as acting on royal commission recommendations into black deaths in custody.

She has reserved her position on whether she will personally support or oppose the referendum, but claims there is a “growing number of First Nations people around the country that don’t want to go into the Constitution” on the basis it will amount to a ceding of sovereignty.

“I think Labor are becoming desperate to get people onside by bringing in the American superstars, and others to ram this down our throats like they tried to do with the [Gillard government-backed] Recognise campaign,” Thorpe told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age this week.

“There’s no clear pathway, and we don’t even know what we’re voting for.”

As the Greens spokeswoman on First Nations issues, her views cannot be ignored. Together with party leader Adam Bandt, the pair are leading the Greens’ negotiations with Labor on the Voice, which will ultimately require legislation in parliament to authorise the referendum.

Price, meanwhile, has indicated she will back the “no” case, having derided the proposal as a “symbolic gesture” that has “no substance behind any of it”. She is a powerful voice in conservative ranks, where the “no” case already has solid footing and high-profile critics in former prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard.

Sean Gordon, chairman of Uphold and Recognise, an organisation that aims to bring conservatives into the tent on constitutional recognition, says there is a lot of work happening behind the scenes by various organisations to build support for the referendum.

Next week Gordon will meet with Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, who says he has an “open mind” to the Voice but has also expressed reservations about the potential for High Court intervention if the body is enshrined in the Constitution.

“You’re going to have people who are just fundamentally opposed to this. You’re never going to shift them; you’re never going to change their mind,” Gordon says.

“But there are a lot of conservatives and Liberals out there who aren’t opposed to this. They are just wanting to learn more about it.”

Both Price and Thorpe found common ground again this week in condemning Albanese’s decision to recruit American basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, whose post-sporting exploits include fronting gambling ads, as an ambassador for the Voice campaign.

The prime minister and other Voice supporters defended the move as part of a plan to build mass support for the proposal. But privately, even some of the fiercest advocates have questioned the wisdom of O’Neal’s involvement, particularly ahead of local Indigenous talent and as one of the government’s first public campaign set pieces since Garma.

In the face of this criticism, the government has found itself in a largely reactive, defensive position in the public square.

“I think people should chill out a bit, basically,” Albanese told 2SM radio this week in response to the O’Neal backlash. “The fact is that Shaq’s appearance meant that people are talking about it and one of the things we need to do is to raise awareness in the community that this referendum is coming.”

On Thursday, he played down Thorpe’s intervention, saying she was “entitled to her views” but suggesting they were at odds with the consensus among Indigenous leaders.

“It’s not surprising that some elements in this debate have been very clear that they’re opposed to the direction whether they come from the left or the right,” he told ABC radio.

“You look at the leaders of the community. Overwhelmingly, there is a common sense of purpose here. But there’s no reason to think that the Indigenous community should have a homogenous view, just like Italo-Australians don’t have the same view.”

Whether the O’Neal episode proves an early, forgettable misstep or a viable attempt to tap into an otherwise difficult-to-reach cohort of Australians, it demonstrates an awareness of the scale of the educational challenge the government faces before any vote can be contemplated.

A recent Essential poll of 1075 people, conducted by Guardian Australia, found while there was majority support for an Indigenous Voice to parliament, two-thirds had heard hardly anything, or nothing, about the Voice.

Mark Leibler, co-chair of the Referendum Council that endorsed the Uluru Statement, says a full-throated media campaign that taps into TV, social media and other advertising streams is clearly needed.

“What has become fairly obvious is that Australians generally, and Indigenous Australians in particular, just don’t know enough about this,” Leibler says.

“There is a lot of confusing nonsense out there at the moment. I think the government clearly understands that they’re going to have to run an educational campaign. It takes time to put this together.”

There is movement on this front. A TV ad, commissioned by the leaders behind the establishment of the Uluru Statement, is in production. It will feature locations from across the country and will be the first TV campaign aimed at educating Australians about the Voice.

For those keen to seize the momentum of Garma, this campaign and Burney’s road map cannot come soon enough.

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