Newsletter 513

Published October 16, 2023
The Voice muted

There’s been one major elephant in the room this week – if we avoid the incidents in Israel and Gaza that are dominating the headlines – namely the referendum over the Voice. I haven’t had much to say about this topic, which has been endlessly ventilated in the media over the past few months, because I’ve felt decidedly lukewarm about the whole thing. I voted “yes”, but with no real conviction that the proposed advisory council would have made the slightest difference to the lives of most Aboriginal people.

There was something deeply dispiriting about “yes” case when it argued that a “no” vote will ensure a lack of progress and stagnation. Indeed, Albo said a “No” vote would ensure nothing would change. What an indictment of successive departments of Aboriginal Affairs on both sides of politics! It’s not just an admission of failure, it’s a virtual promise to keep failing. “Give us the Voice, as a silver bullet, or we’ll just keep messing it up.”

As I write this, I’m returning from Central Australia, where I’ve just been to the Utopia community. Like many communities, Utopia lies at the end of a bumpy road that could use some work. The residents are a close-knit group that cleave strongly to family ties. It’s hard to imagine these places getting worked up about the referendum, as they are so perfectly self-contained that what goes on in Canberra and elsewhere is a distant dream. Nevertheless, they are precisely the people the Voice might have been expected to help. Would the elected representatives on the committee have taken the welfare of those in these communities as their priority? It’s so easy to get distracted by a thousand other issues when you are speaking on behalf of those who are not part of the process and have little substantive interest in how it works. And there’s always the temptation to imagine oneself a privileged being whose place at the table confers a special status, and a unique importance to one’s own preoccupations. Am I being too cynical? This committee syndrome is not limited to Indigenous groups, it’s universal.

Over the years I’ve been to a range of Aboriginal communities, some of them well run, others that were deeply depressing experiences. It’s true that many of the problems of these communities have resulted from the failure of white bureaucracies and politicians to listen to local concerns. Buliding suburban-style houses in the Outback, at vast cost, has always been a futile endeavour. Such houses do not cater to the preferred communal living arrangements of people in these places, but successive schemes for different styles of accommodation have been ignored by the powers-that-be.

Teachers have had success in teaching children in their local language before venturing into English, but this approach – which brought about higher school attendance – has struggled for funding.

As the big hope for Indigenous people is education, it’s scandalous how poorly this need has been met. It’s hard to imagine that the Voice would have fixed these deep-rooted problems that government agencies have consistently failed to address.

Labor governments have a particular fascination with boards and committees. Albo was quick to appoint one to report on the Arts, and now NSW State minister, John Graham, has appointed his own Arts Advisory Committee. I’m not convinced these committees do much more than make everybody feel virtuous, rubber-stamping decisions that are sealed in Party backrooms. The only real virtue is that they are a lot cheaper and more transparent than the expensive counsultancies favoured by the Coalition.

The success or failure of the Voice would have been heavily dependent on those who ended up on the committee. Looking at some of the most vocal proponents for the “yes” case, there was no shortage of opportunists and ideologues.

On the other hand, the star performers on the negative side – from the Boiled Egg to Jacinta Price, Warren Mundine and Pauline Hanson – presented an outstanding incentive to vote “yes”. To vote reactively, rather than through conviction was not a good reason, but it was a serious temptation.

And so I was left with the unsatisfactory expedient of voting with my heart, which said “yes” is the right thing to do, rather than my head, which kept questioning the actual need for the Voice, and its presumed effectiveness. How much simpler it would be if we could trust the politicians and bureaucrats to simply pay attention to the cries for help and understanding that have been coming from Aboriginal communities for decades. It seems they can’t do anything without a committee, although it’s always been my experience that committees are sluggish, wasteful, inefficient ways of achieving anything. What we really need is a magic spell that induces decency and common sense in those who administer funds and programs. If the Voice were to provide the necessary whammy, it would have been a miracle.

It would have been an even bigger miracle if the “yes” vote had succeeded, as the very fact of an opposing case is usually enough to sink a referendum in ultra-conservative Australia. I’m not looking forward to the recriminations, the soul-searching and the accusations of racism that are bound to follow. It would be the best possible result if the defeat were taken as an added incentive to make sure things do not remain the same. A “no” result is no reason not to get on with the job.

This week’s art column is something I’ve wanted to do for a while: a compare & contrast exercise between Australia and South Korea, looking at each nation’s respective attitudes and investments in the cultural sphere. In brief, the Koreans win hands-down in every category, which should be an incentive for us to learn from their successes and reassess those areas in which we are terminally complacent, ready to congratulate ourselves for the most minor achievements. One might argue that geography is destiny, with South Korea locked into a tense relationship with its neighbours in a mountainous landscape that squeezes a population twice the size of Australia’s into a space less than one seventh as large – while we have an island mentality, seeing ourselves as a people set apart from the rest of the world. Geographical fact is also an excuse for intellectual inertia, and it’s here we can take a lesson from the greater sense of urgency which other countries bring to their own cultural expressions.

Two large features have finally made it to print this weekend and may be found on the Blog section of the website. The first is a profile of the world’s greatest fibre artist, Sheila Hicks, who will feature in this year’s NGV Triennial; the second, a piece for The Good Weekend on the rising interest in Aboriginal art in the international market. The focus is on actor Steve Martin, as a figurehead collector. The speculation is whether this sudden surge opens the door – ever so slightly – for all Australian artists.

The movie being reviewed is Lie with Me, which tells the story of a celebrated writer returning to the hometown he hasn’t visited in 35 years, where he meets the son of the man who was his first love. It’s another sensitive, well-made gay love story for the mainstream – by now an established film genre. In a world brimming with so much weirdness, hatred, and division, we need to take those love stories wherever we find them.