Minister Linda Burney says the Voice won’t be able to advise on Australia Day – but how could that be, asks political columnist MICHELLE GRATTAN.
THERE was much celebration in the Albanese government this week at the passage through parliament of the bill to set up the referendum on the Voice.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese sent out a national rallying call ahead of the vote later this year: “I say to my fellow Australians: parliaments pass laws, but it is people that make history”.
But the parliamentary week showed that if the government is to maximise the chance of a “yes” result, it needs to sharpen its performance – in particular, that of the lead minister on the issue, Linda Burney.
Burney, minister for Indigenous Australians, handled poorly questions on the scope of issues on which the Voice would be able to advise parliament and executive government.
On Tuesday in question time, Burney declared, “I can tell you what the Voice will not be giving advice on. It won’t be giving advice on parking tickets. It won’t be giving advice on changing Australia Day. It will not be giving advice on all of the ridiculous things that that side has come up with.”
In regard to Australia Day, this is either wrong or, if correct, absurd.
In his second reading speech, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the “primary function” of the Voice would be to make representation “about matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.
Dreyfus said these included matters specific to these people, as well as “matters relevant to the Australian community, including general laws or measures, but which affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people differently to other members of the Australian community”.
On any commonsense view, of course the issue of Australia Day is one on which the Voice could advise. The day affects many indigenous people “differently”, in that they feel January 26 is for them “invasion day”, and Australia Day should be moved.
Given the heat in recent years around the Australia Day date, it would be surprising if the Voice did not, at some point, have something to say about it.
That doesn’t mean the Voice’s advice would necessarily prevail. Burney said on Wednesday, “It is not the policy of this government to change the date of Australia Day”.
As the opposition in parliament has homed in on the Voice’s scope, Burney has responded by deflecting questions, rejecting “culture wars”, and concentrating on its potential role in helping in “closing the gap”.
She and the government are painting the Voice’s remit as limited rather than wide.
The government, for tactical reasons, at present wants to emphasise the part of the proposed constitutional change that recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the constitution.
This is because “recognition” is considered to have more public support, including among conservative voters, than the actual Voice.
As far as the Voice goes, with the referendum campaign ramping up, Burney is concentrating on the practical things she believes the Voice will, and should, focus on. But what it might choose to highlight can’t be predicted with certainty – that would depend in part on who was on it.
Playing down how much the Voice will advise on has its own potential downside. It feeds into the argument of those such as (at the extreme end) Lidia Thorpe who say if it’s to be so constrained, it will be worth even less than other advisory bodies have been.
If the Voice gets up, in reality it could probably find ways to advise on a very wide range of issues. But if it were savvy, it would confine its operations to areas where it was well-informed and likely to make a difference. To buy in on too much could reduce its clout on the most pressing issues for Indigenous communities.
Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra. This article is republished from The Conversation.
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Ian Meikle, editor