Powerlessness and the Voice
Poverty is powerlessness. It is the incapacity to deal with one’s own issues. It is not addressed through charitable acts, but through empowerment. Responding to the presenting signs of poverty only through acts of charity is like dealing with a major physical ailment only with a pain killer. Indeed, addiction to the pain killer can become the biggest problem. Powerlessness can only be overcome with empowerment.
Signs of poverty are easily recognisable: hunger, homelessness, ghettoes, various forms of violence – including self-inflicted violence, illiteracy, unemployment, incarceration, mental health issues, etc. These are addressed daily in Australia through government welfare, and by charities and humanitarian organisations. Sadly, these presenting issues do not decrease because of these noble and generous activities. Within the Indigenous community of Australia in particular, many of these problems have escalated in recent decades, despite well intentioned initiatives designed to ʹclose the gapʹ. Something more insidious lies behind these presenting problems, a disadvantage which is seldom named and therefore generally remains unaddressed?
This disadvantage does have a name it is powerlessness. At its roots, poverty is powerlessness. It is the incapacity to deal with one’s own issues. It is not addressed through charitable acts, but through empowerment. Responding to the presenting signs of poverty only through acts of charity is like dealing with a major physical ailment only with a pain killer. Indeed, addiction to the pain killer can become the biggest problem. Powerlessness can only be overcome with empowerment.
Powerlessness has many causes, most often historical and intergenerational: loss of culture and language, discrimination, alienation, lack of education, unemployment, mental or physical ill-health, mis-guided governmental policy, colonisation by others, climate change.
Signs of poverty cross all segments of Australian society but predominate amongst our First Nations peoples. Over many decades government policy has attempted to address the signs, but never to address the underlying cause – powerlessness. People do not rise out of a quagmire of poverty because of what is done for them by others, but because of what they are able to do for themselves. It should be no surprise that the gap between quality of life experienced by First Nations people and the rest of the population stubbornly refuses to narrow.
This is why VOICE is such an urgent matter for Australians to understand and support. Embedding recognition of First Nations people in the constitution and enabling a voice to parliament is no more but no less than a mechanism of addressing underlying powerlessness experienced by them, a consequence of severe dislocation.
This is not, as some are mischievously arguing, granting an advantage to some that is denied to the rest. Nor is it simply a symbolic gesture with no capacity to address the various manifestations of poverty and disadvantage experienced by First Nations people. VOICE is a generous invitation from First Nations people to the rest of us to enter a partnership with them to address issues that we all want addressed. First Nations people are not asking for an advantage unavailable to other Australians, they are asking for a mechanism through which they might find the dignity of addressing their issues on their terms.
Let us look at one issue that is almost too shameful to mention and a source of enormous grief to First Nations people – the indigenous rate of incarceration. Currently almost one third of the nation’s prison population is indigenous.
In 1988 the Anglican Social Responsibilities Commission (Australia) issued a report with the title: Prison, the last resort: a Christian response to Australian prisons. In the intervening 35 years the situation has deteriorated, not improved. Politicians find increased incarceration a vote winning response to crime and civil disturbance. Increased punitive action with no commensurate rehabilitative investment has become the norm.
The Voice would enable local leadership (let us say Alice Springs) to make recommendations which they believe will facilitate a life-giving outcome for both the perpetrators and the community they are hurting. As I understand it, if these recommendations have a wider appeal, they will then be presented to regional voice representatives and finally, where appropriate, to those elected to present recommendations to the national parliament. No government agency, local regional or national, would be bound to accept or legislate any recommendation, however, if the referendum is passed, local, regional, and federal law makers will and should feel obliged to consider such recommendations before legislating on behalf of First Nations peoples.
There is much at stake as the Voice referendum comes before the nation in a few months. The advantages for all are obvious. Its failure would be quite catastrophic, not for Albanese and the government, but for the nation. First, it would be a rejection of an invitation from First Nations Peoples to partner with them. The rejection of any invitation always carries its own message and with consequences that cannot be treated lightly.
A rejection would mean no further attempt would be made for a very long time. Secondly it would mean accentuated division between First Nations people and the rest of Australia will become more apparent. There can be no doubt that in a vacuum left through failure, unpleasant division will occur, led, not by those who support the referendum, but by those on either end of the spectrum who oppose it. On the one hand Lidia Thorpe and followers will seek sovereign identity not shared by all Australians while those on the right of politics will rise in high dudgeon spearheaded by the Pauline Hanson’s of this world. The result would be ugly and shameful for us all.
If Peter Dutton’s reluctance to support the voice results in failure of the referendum, this could deliver extremes of argument and presentation, further eroding Australia’s maturity. I would like to think he would find this an unacceptable outcome – but perhaps not.
The Voice referendum is an invitation which offers loss to none, healing and empowerment to some, and common purpose to all. Why would we not vote for it?