Professor Marcia Langton holds the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne and co-authored (with Professor Tom Calma) the report Indigenous Voice Co-design Process to the Morrison Government. She has been campaigning for rights and advancement for Indigenous Australians for decades, and she is one of those at the center of The Voice’s yes campaign. Her own voice is always frank and formidable.
Langton admits she is not “completely sure” of the state of the referendum at the moment, but becomes more positive as the debate progresses. “I’ve gauged the general public’s reaction by doing a lot of reading and watching social media, and I think most people can see that this is a very simple and humble proposal and it will make a difference. And what I’m seeing more and more is most people are realizing, yes, why don’t Indigenous people have a say in the policies and laws that apply to them?
“They realize when they think about it that this has gone on too long, where all these laws and policies that seem to be universally ineffective in closing the gap and causing more suffering have been imposed on us by non-Indigenous people (…) I think most people are still very ashamed of the intervention in the Northern Territory initiated by John Howard.”
While Langton admits she disagrees with Julian Leeser’s preference for changing the proposed wording of the constitutional amendment, she believes Leeser – who has left the opposition front bench to campaign for the yes cause – has shown given of “integrity and decency of the kind most Australians aspire to. You can see from the response he’s getting from across the political spectrum that he’s now even more respected for his stance.”
An important point in the debate over the Voice is how extensive the issues it could act on will be.
Langton says one point “widely misunderstood (…) is that the vote will be a statutory body. And like any other legal entity, it must be treated according to the standards of non-discrimination. If no other legal entity is restricted on the basis of race, gender or age from filing statements with the government, then restricting the Voice from making such statements could be viewed as racially discriminatory.”
An important question being asked is how people are selected to represent their community. Langton says, “We need to accommodate an already existing landscape of indigenous governance. So across the country, we have a huge number of existing agencies, which have no guaranteed way of advising governments. None of them include a formal way of advising governments. I’ll give you two examples.
“One is the Torres Strait Regional Authority. And the other is the ACT Indigenous Elected Assembly. Now indeed both of them can give advice to the state governments, and that is a good thing. But they are not in an integrated framework. (.. .) We developed a set of principles for creating bodies like the native voice arrangements.
Those principles are:
- including participation
- cultural leadership
- community-led design
- non-duplication of work and links with existing bodies
- respect for long-term partnerships
- transparency and accountability
- capacity-driven data
- evidence-based decision-making.
“Those are the principles, and it was our preference that those principles be enshrined in law so that any body that is created, if we are successful, adheres to those principles.”
An important point of discussion around The Voice is whether it will yield practical results. Langton illustrates with an example.
“As for the kinds of problems that The Voice could address much more effectively than governments, I give you the case of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first people to respond effectively, long before governments did, were the Indigenous health organizations (…) The leaders of the Indigenous community-controlled health sector had faced two epidemics in recent history and one in particular had a very high mortality rate. So in response, the Indigenous health sector wrote an epidemic plan, and that was about a decade old, but it was easily revised to become the pandemic plan. So they immediately sprang into action when we started hearing the news from abroad about COVID-19.”
“So who was the first to close its borders? Not the states and territories. It was the Aboriginal landowners who, on the advice of the Indigenous health sector, closed their borders to stop travel to and from Aboriginal lands to keep their populations safe.
“Because the most vulnerable populations to COVID-19 were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations with pre-existing health burdens such as chronic disease, diabetes, kidney disease and so on.
“We expected, you know, a huge death toll in the Indigenous community, we expected at least 3% of the Indigenous population to contract the disease. 27,701 cases was the forecast.
“But because the Indigenous health sector rushed to implement the pandemic plan and created a national task force of public health advice that went out in our media sector, translated into at least 18 languages, we were able to stop the deaths. And so in the first year of the pandemic, I think there was one death instead of 27,000. And so we were the most successful group in the world, I would say, in stopping COVID-19 from claiming lives. So until January 2021, there were only 148 cases of COVID among Indigenous peoples nationwide, 15% hospitalizations, one case in ICU, and no deaths. And there were no deaths in remote communities and no cases related to the Black Lives Matter marches because of our public health advisories.
“So I think that’s, you know, a really good example of why Indigenous people who are in control of their own affairs are much more effective than governments. And we can see the terrible mistakes that governments have made across the country, even though they were advised by the very best of our epidemiologists is because they don’t have the reach in the local population that our indigenous health sector has.