the Voice and australian equality

Equality for the unequal

Saturday, 22 July 2023 8:21 pm

One prominent proposal of the "No" case in Australia's Voice referendum is that constitutional enshrinement of an indigenous Voice would create two Australias divided by race, one having a privilege the other does not.

I'd like to offer a response to this by reflecting on how we've long managed inequality generally in modern human history. Human societies have always contended with inequality on a variety of levels. Race is one of them. Others might include gender, wealth and education. More again might be added to that list, almost ad infinitum. In a practical sense what's at stake is not only material resources but also access and opportunity. It almost goes without saying that, sans remedial action, such inequalities are perpetuated generationally. 

To the extent that any form of collective action is capable of addressing, ameliorating or even removing inequality, enough people must share a common will to bring about social change. Or in other words there must be some intentional, targeted recalibration, such that real world resources, access and opportunity are levelled out in favour of the disadvantaged. Implicit in such is a recognition that equality isn't the starting place, but rather the goal.

One way we recalibrate is through a welfare system and/or public health system. Another is free or subsidised education. Those are practical social strategies which take both a short and a long term view. In the immediate or short term they reduce the levels of destitution in our communities, granting at least a basic human dignity. In the medium term they may contribute to reductions in crime levels and demands on the health system, and to increases in productivity. In the long-term they expand the nation's skill and knowledge bases, build a contributor culture, and may reduce poverty and dependence. In other words generosity reaps dividends.

Another way we recalibrate is targeted investment in social groups. Women might be a good example. Most westerners today believe women and men to be equal, at least philosophically. Yet we've long recognised that this doesn't play out in real world equality at a number of levels. For several decades Australia has had a federal government department dedicated to women's security, advancement and flourishing. Thanks to this among other contributors, more and more public and private entities have adopted gender quotas for membership, staff, leadership and directorship. Though some elements within the community may resent these developments, most would welcome them as a way of 'rebalancing' access and opportunity. Few would regard them as creating inequality, giving one group a head start on the other; rather we'd generally take the opposite view, that an existing imbalance is being in some way righted.

Where does this place us as we Australians prepare for the Voice referendum? Can I suggest that one critical question, if not the critical question, is whether equality is our starting point or our goal? We are a modern predominantly ethnic European nation (albeit certainly multicultural), with a very western lifestyle and system of government, in which the non-indigenous immigrant base enjoys comfortably the best of the material resources, health, wealth, opportunities for advancement, and access to power. All of that with the uncomfortable 250-year history not only of dispossession but of near-annihilation of the original custodians of this continent, whose prospects of surviving, never mind flourishing, have remained bleak throughout.

Should the Voice referendum be successful (of which the prospects are hardly promising), the best that may be hoped is that our indigenous compatriots may begin to enjoy an access to power and opportunity the rest of us have enjoyed so long we don't even realise we have it.