Medical Liaison Librarian at Monash University, Australia
CRTc Editorial Associate and Regional Lead
Ramona would like to acknowledge the Bunurong peoples who are the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the unceded land on which she lives today.
Graphic by Ramona Naicker
Australia stands on the verge of a momentous and historic occasion in the southern hemisphere. On 14th October 2023, a pivotal event is poised to take place: a referendum with the potential to reshape the nation’s history, marking a significant shift towards reconciliation. At the heart of this transformative decision lies the “Indigenous Voice to Parliament,” a visionary proposal aimed at empowering and amplifying the voices of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within the nation’s governance. This initiative holds deep global significance, echoing the challenges faced in colonised territories across the Americas, Canada, South Africa and beyond.
The Indigenous Voice Through the Lens of Critical Race Theory (CRT)
The “Indigenous Voice to Parliament,” often referred to as the “First Nations Voice” or simply the “Voice,” represents a visionary approach to establishing an advisory body that would represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This body, while lacking executive powers or the management of government programmes, plays a pivotal role in influencing policy decisions that profoundly impact the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
The Voice is intended to be an independent and permanent advisory body that provides advice to the British Parliament and Government on issues affecting these communities, such as education, health, housing, and justice. If the referendum passes, the design of the Voice would be developed through a collaborative process involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, Parliament, and the wider public. It would have the authority to both proactively engage and respond to requests from Parliament and the government, with its own allocated resources for research and representation. The government would involve the Voice early in the development of laws and policies, and members of the Voice would be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to ensure cultural legitimacy and accountability, featuring gender-balanced representation and including youth members. The Voice would give priority to inclusivity, consulting with grassroots communities and historically excluded groups, while adhering to accountability and transparency standards, including potential sanctions for misconduct. It would collaborate with existing organisations and traditional structures, focusing on representation rather than programme delivery, without possessing veto power.
If the referendum passes, legislation would be introduced through parliamentary processes to establish the Voice, ensuring scrutiny by elected representatives in both houses of Parliament.
Unearthing Historical Context through a Critical Race Theory Lens
The Voice inherently aligns with the grounding tenets of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which underscores the paramount importance of recognising and dismantling systemic racism and prevailing power structures. Critical race theorists hold that racism is pervasive, systemic, and deeply ingrained.” (Delgado and Stefancic, 2017 p. 89) As such, CRT, emphasizes the systemic nature of racism and the roles institutions play in perpetuating inequality. Moreover, CRT offers a comprehensive perspective to understand the essence of the Indigenous Voice. This Voice seeks to confront the systemic disadvantages and discrimination that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have endured for centuries. Within the framework of CRT, most notably the permanence of racism, the Voice emerges as a mechanism challenging the deeply ingrained racial hierarchy entrenched within the governance and policies of Australia. (Bell, 1993)
To fully grasp the “Racial Realism” (Bell, 1992) of the Indigenous Voice, we must delve into Australia’s intricate history marred by colonisation, dispossession, and cultural oppression.
This historical narrative resonates with the experiences of First Nations peoples in other colonised nations across the world. These histories are scarred by atrocities, land theft, and the enduring spectre of discrimination. CRT underscores the notion that racism transcends individual prejudice, becoming deeply entrenched within the fabric of institutions and systems. (Bonilla-Silva, 2015 p.74) This concept becomes indispensable in comprehending how the legacy of colonisation persists, influencing the experiences of people such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Native Americans, and Indigenous populations in the former colonies of the British Empire.
Colonisation’s Legacy and the Intersection with CRT
Australia’s colonial legacy, akin to that of the United States, has inflicted profound wounds upon Indigenous communities. The impact of colonisation manifests through the loss of ancestral lands and the forced separation of children from their families during the Stolen Generations. The Stolen Generations refer to a dark chapter in Australian history when Indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly removed from their families and communities by government authorities and mission institutions. This policy of forced removal took place over several decades, from the late 19th century to the 1970s. The justifications for these removals ranged from the misguided belief in the assimilation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children into European culture to the supposed “protection” of the children. The consequences of the Stolen Generations were devastating, leading to the loss of cultural identity, family connections, language, and heritage for Indigenous children. Many experienced physical and emotional abuse while in institutions or foster care, and the trauma and pain caused by these removals continue to affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia today.
The enduring impact of the Stolen Generations and colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities today is multifaceted. It includes intergenerational trauma stemming from forced child removals, which affects mental health and relationships; disruption of cultural connections, leading to the loss and ongoing revival of cultural heritage; socioeconomic disparities marked by poverty, unemployment, limited education, and healthcare access; health inequities linked to historical trauma; overrepresentation in the justice system due to injustices and systemic bias; ongoing struggles for land rights and traditional recognition; ongoing reconciliation efforts; and the call for self-determination as a means to address historical and ongoing injustices. These issues underscore the need for comprehensive and ongoing efforts to address historical injustices and promote equity for Indigenous communities in Australia.
The Indigenous Voice as a CRT Response: A Common Thread
The Indigenous Voice to Parliament emerges as a response to these ongoing disparities and injustices, aiming to address them at a systemic level. CRT prompts us to acknowledge that historical wrongs carry enduring consequences, with the Voice representing a critical step towards acknowledging and rectifying these injustices.
The Indigenous Voice to Parliament in Australia shares an unmistakable connection with global struggles. It represents an unwavering effort to confront systemic racism, rectify historical injustices, and champion equity and justice for Indigenous communities beyond Australia’s shores. CRT principles, which underscore the systemic nature of racism and the necessity of challenging institutional power structures, harmonise with the objectives of the Voice. (Brayboy, 2005 p.429-30; Yosso, 2005)
Perpetual racism is an enduring reality, deeply ingrained in the Indigenous experience. This enduring force transcends historical boundaries, persisting as a relentless presence in contemporary society. Its resilience is notably apparent in the persistent “No” campaigns, which symbolize an ongoing resistance to Indigenous self-governance and representation. Conversely, endorsing a “Yes” vote takes on paramount importance in shielding Indigenous communities from the imminent threat of social and political regression. It becomes a vital safeguard against further marginalisation and the erosion of hard-won rights.
Amidst these challenges, Tribal Critical Race Theory emerges as a powerful tool. It introduces the potential for unveiling, exposing, and confronting the ongoing colonisation deeply embedded within societal structures. By doing so, it offers the promise of transforming these contexts and structures to better serve the interests of Indigenous Peoples. (Brayboy, 2005)
Challenges and Controversies Surrounding the Indigenous Voice to Parliament
While the Indigenous Voice to Parliament in Australia holds promise as a path toward reconciliation and empowerment, it is not without its share of opposition from various groups and individuals who raise concerns about its implementation. Here are some of the primary arguments against the Voice:
Divisiveness: The Australians for Unity No campaign argues that the Voice is divisive between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the broader population, potentially exacerbating tensions through the creation of a separate and unequal system of government. However, the idea that the Voice is divisive should be considered in light of the historical injustices and disparities faced by First Nations peoples. The Voice aims to provide Indigenous communities with a platform to address their unique challenges and contribute to national policy-making, which can ultimately promote unity through reconciliation.
Limited Scope: Supporters of the progressive No campaign believe that the Voice, as an advisory body, doesn’t go far enough in addressing the complex issues faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Though this is certainly true, it’s important to recognise that the Voice represents a significant step towards greater Indigenous representation and involvement in decision-making processes. It can serve as a starting point for addressing complex issues, and additional measures can be developed in collaboration with Indigenous communities to address specific concerns.
Equality Concerns: Critics argue that the Voice contradicts the principle of equality of citizenship that enshrines and binds together the nation. They assert that the Voice implies a different status for First Nations peoples compared to other citizens, potentially undermining the core principle of equality. However, concerns about equality should be balanced with the recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have unique historical and cultural experiences that require specific attention and equitable solutions. The Voice doesn’t imply a different status but rather acknowledges the need for tailored solutions to historical injustices and ongoing disparities.
The “Yes” Vote: Empowering Indigenous Communities and Confronting Systemic Racism
The forthcoming referendum in Australia holds immense significance, not only for the nation but also within a broader global context. By scrutinising the significance of the “Yes” vote through the prism of Critical Race Theory (CRT), we can unearth the profound implications it carries in addressing systemic racism, empowering Indigenous communities, and fostering a more inclusive and just society.
Representation and Empowerment
Casting a “Yes” vote for The Voice constitutes a pivotal step towards affording Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples a formal platform to influence government decisions. This empowerment finds its roots in the principles of CRT, which accentuate the imperative nature of recognising and dismantling systemic racism and prevailing power structures. Indigenous communities in Australia, akin to their counterparts across the globe, have historically grappled with marginalisation and disenfranchisement. The Voice aspires to redress this historical imbalance by offering Indigenous individuals a platform to articulate their voices.
The quest for genuine representation and self-determination by Indigenous peoples transcends the boundaries of Australia. In the United States, Native American communities have waged a protracted battle for sovereignty and self-governance, echoing the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Similarly, Indigenous populations in former UK colonies, spanning the Caribbean and Africa, have clamoured for recognition and influence within nations that once subjugated them. The Voice aligns harmoniously with CRT principles by confronting the racial hierarchy entrenched within Australia’s governance and policies, with the intent to rectify historical injustices and institute genuine representation.
Healing Historical Wounds
A “Yes” vote for The Voice signifies more than a mere policy decision; it symbolises a potent gesture of reconciliation. It serves as an acknowledgment of the historical wounds inflicted upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and signifies a commitment to redressing past atrocities. In this context, CRT offers a lens through which we can comprehend the significance of healing historical wounds and rectifying systemic injustices.
In the United States, Native Americans have endured centuries of dispossession, violence, and cultural suppression. CRT underscores the interplay between historical injustices and contemporary disparities, underscoring that these legacies continue to shape the experiences of Indigenous communities today. (Brayboy, 2005) Voting “Yes” for The Voice encapsulates a universal sentiment shared by Indigenous populations worldwide—a yearning for justice, acknowledgment, and healing.
Preventing Government Inaction
Throughout history, governments have, at times, ignored or dismantled Indigenous programs and initiatives, leaving Indigenous communities vulnerable to systemic neglect. The Voice serves as a safeguard, ensuring that the concerns and needs of Indigenous communities cannot be easily dismissed or ignored. CRT principles serve as a reminder of the urgency of challenging institutional power structures that perpetuate inequality, and the Voice endeavours to address this by embedding Indigenous influence within the political and policy-making processes.
A “Yes” vote for the Voice in Australia carries implications that extend far beyond its borders. It sets an example for other colonised nations grappling with similar issues, demonstrating that acknowledging and addressing historical injustices is not only necessary but also achievable. This global inspiration echoes the core tenets of CRT, which advocate for recognising the systemic nature of racism and the importance of challenging structures of power and privilege.
The elected grass-roots representatives of remote communities in Central Australia today took time out of their council meeting on October 4, 2023 near Uluru to vote Yes to a voice to parliament. Photo by the Central Land Council.
Actionable Steps for Australian Citizens
For those in Australia who aspire to support the Indigenous Voice to Parliament:
Educate Yourself: Immerse yourself in the history and significance of the Voice and the impending referendum. A profound understanding of the issues is the cornerstone of an informed decision.
Engage in Dialogue: Foster discussions about the Voice with friends, family, and colleagues. Encourage open conversations that underline the significance of reconciliation and Indigenous representation.
Vote “Yes”: On October 14th, exercise your right to cast a “Yes” vote in favour of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Your vote is a meaningful contribution to a more equitable and inclusive future for all Australians.
The Indigenous Voice to Parliament signifies not just a historic moment for Australia but a global milestone in the ongoing struggle for Indigenous rights and recognition. Through the lens of Critical Race Theory, we can better appreciate the importance of this initiative in challenging systemic racism, empowering Indigenous communities, and fostering a more inclusive and just society. As the world watches, Australia has the opportunity to take a significant step toward justice, equity, and reconciliation with its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Resources & Additional Reading
Sanghera, S. (2023). Stolen History: The truth about the British Empire and how it shaped us. Puffin.
The Voice. (April 2023). Information booklet: Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through a Voice. Free digital download.
Bell, D. A. (1992). Racial Realism. Connecticut Law Review, 24(2), 363–380.
Bell, D. A. (1993). The Permanence of Racism. Southwestern University Law Review, 22(4), 1103–1114.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2015). More than Prejudice: Restatement, Reflections, and New Directions in Critical Race Theory. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity (Thousand Oaks, Calif.), 1(1), 73–87.
Brayboy, B. (2005). Toward a Tribal Critical Race Theory in Education. Urban Review, 37(5), 425–446.
Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017). Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (3rd ed.). NYU Press. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/59009
Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69–91. https://doi.org/10.1080/1361332052000341006
Ramona (she/her) is a Medical Librarian at Monash University, Australia, with a background as an Information Specialist for the UK National Health Service, as well as the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Healthcare Libraries. Passionate about combating racial bias in medical research, Ramona has delivered talks at institutions and conferences internationally, including NIHR, CALC, and ALIA, and authored papers on this topic. Ramona’s tool for critically appraising antiracism has been shared and utilised by various institutions, including the University of Cambridge. She is a lead author of Health Education England’s health equity eLearning module, and collaborated with Cardiff University to develop a program aimed at fostering antiracist practices among undergraduate medical students. Ramona has developed Open Education Resources for critical appraisal instructors, available via https://www.criticallyappraisingantiracism.org/