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Finding a Voice

Australia’s Prime Minister recently announced his Government’s plans to hold a national referendum on the “Indigenous Voice to Parliament“. The Voice is a key outcome from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the path towards Treaty and Truth. It will require amendments to the Australian Constitution. The inevitable debate about the detail, purpose and scope to be enshrined in the Voice has now been heightened by the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and related issues of Australia’s pre- and post-colonial history, the experience of Federation and the fate of the Republican movement.

NAIDOC guide to Indigenous place names in Australia (image sourced from SBS)

One of the first comments in the wake of the Prime Minister’s announcement came from the Green Party, who indicated that their support for the Voice would be conditional on there being a Treaty first. Indeed, Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe called the proposed referendum “a waste of money”, indicating that she wanted to see a Treaty with Indigenous Australians before any talk of a Republic. Since the Queen’s death, it seems the Senator has changed her mind, and is now calling for both a Treaty and a Republic. But the Prime Minister has determined that the first order of business for his Government is the Voice, and that the Republican debate is not for his first term in office.

The question to be presented in the Referendum will be:

“Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?”

And the proposed additions to the Constitution would read something like this:

1.There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
2.The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
3.The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

While refusing to be drawn on the precise details of the Voice, the Prime Minister has defined what it is NOT going to be: “Not a third chamber, not a rolling veto, not a blank cheque.” Meanwhile, two bodies have been appointed to prepare for the Referendum proposal and implementation: the Referendum Working Group, and the Referendum Engagement Group, whose terms of reference are not entirely clear – and Senator Thorpe complained that the appointees “did not represent First Nations voices”.

Given the history of Referendums in Australia (most notably the failure of the Republican Movement to secure a “Yes” vote in 1999), it’s understandable that people are either wary about the form of the question and/or the Constitutional amendments, or are concerned about the apparent lack of detail that the Government has so far provided on the remit of the Voice. There is a possibility that the electorate votes “Yes” in the Referendum, but that agreement cannot be reached on the changes to the Constitution, or the structure of the Voice. So it’s understandable that some people are seeking more detail, or at least more clarity.

Whatever the sequence of events (Voice, Treaty, Republic?), it’s going to be a complicated process. For example, putting the Republic before the Voice may mean that the latter becomes redundant, assuming the Republican Constitution embeds principles such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And Treaty before Republic would mean that the agreement(s) would be between the First Nations people and the Australian Constitutional Monarchy, whose Head of State is now King Charles III.

Perhaps that is the point – the formal process of healing, reconciliation and reparation cannot be meaningfully done without some involvement by the British Crown, in whose name Indigenous lands were appropriated in 1788. But does that potentially “absolve” Australia’s post-Federation Governments and Administrations from any responsibility for the act of British colonisation? Since Federation in 1901, Australia has had ample opportunity to make amends. It is no longer possible to suggest that any change to the Australian Constitution would require Royal Assent by the King or Queen in person – the purely ceremonial role of the British Monarchy in respect to Australia’s domestic affairs has always been predicated on the advice from both the Governor General (who serves as the Monarch’s local representative, and who gives Royal Assent to Australian Acts of Parliament), and Australia’s own government ministers and civil servants. In any event, it’s long been understood that the Crown would not prevent Australia becoming a Republic; in effect, the Crown could not intervene in any Constitutional amendment. Such a change is entirely a matter for the Australian Parliament.

The Westminster Act of 1931 confirmed that Australia is an independent state able to form its own foreign policy and defence free from British control; and the Australia Act 1986 formally severed all remaining legal ties between Australia and the United Kingdom except for the Monarchy. So a Treaty with Indigenous peoples could have been possible since 1901 when the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act came into force, heralding Federation. (Interestingly, King Charles III has had to be proclaimed by the Federal Government, and by each State – which might suggest the need for multiple Treaties?)

Another argument against embodying the Voice within the framework of the current Australian Constitutional Monarchy is because it would appear to “ratify” colonisation, and thereby imply Sovereignty had been granted (retrospectively?) to the Crown, which would therefore negate the need for Treaty. Indeed, the whole point of Treaty is to re-assert that Indigenous Sovereignty was never ceded, and that unlike other British colonies such as Canada and New Zealand, the British Crown has never attempted to negotiate any form of direct agreement with the Indigenous Nations of Australia.

Alternatively, Associate Professor Hannah McGlade has stated that a national Treaty needs a national body to negotiate (hence a key purpose of the Voice).  Further, she argues that Aboriginal Sovereignty relates to the “right to shape the national dialogue” on issues of primary concern to the Indigenous population. While not quite equating to full self-determination, it does provide a persuasive argument in favour of establishing the Voice to Parliament.

Finally, some other factors to consider as we move through this multi-faceted debate on Treaty, the Republic, and defining Australia’s post-colonial, post-Federation and post-Monarchy identity:

1. A Republic is no guarantee of getting Treaty right – indeed, look at the number of republics that have ridden rough-shod over their own indigenous and minority peoples – oppression and dictatorship is not the preserve of monarchs and emperors.

2. There is the question of how Crown land in Australia will be resolved, both in relation to Treaty, and the Republic. This would include the commercial arrangements for agriculture, mining and tourism, as well as land development and construction.

3. Inconsistencies in how Indigenous people are acknowledged at public events, meetings and in other similar settings. Here in Victoria, we are very used to some statement of recognition towards Indigenous nations and the traditional custodians of the land, along with their elders past, present and emerging. On my recent trip the Kimberley, I was surprised that no such formal statements were made when visiting culturally significant landmarks, usually under the direction of official tour guides, including National Parks. Not that there was an absence of awareness, knowledge or public signage, but I had expected there might have been a more vocal expression from some of our hosts.

4. Despite the need for a cohesive approach to the Voice and Treaty, it would be a mistake to view the Indigenous populations and their respective Nations as an homogenous entity. Even within Indigenous communities, as in any society, there are differences and inconsistencies. So there will be different demands placed on those charged with navigating the Voice, and negotiating Treaty. But a speedy outcome should not preclude the establishment of a solid consensus. After all, what’s 240 years compared to 50,000?

Next time: TBA

 

 

 

 

 

The Jobs and Skills Summit

Last week’s Jobs and Skills Summit hosted by the Federal Government in Canberra was clearly designed to be a statement of intent by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his Labor administration. Part policy endorsement, part policy road map, the Summit was hailed (by the Prime Minister at least) for reaching agreement on “36 immediate initiatives”. By all accounts, it was a jolly affair and everyone in the Government sounded very pleased with themselves. The reality is that despite some significant pronouncements, most of them lack detail, many of them relate to existing initiatives, a number of the “36 agreements” were largely concluded and/or telegraphed ahead of the Summit – and of course, the one item that got most attention was the most divisive: the renewed prospect of multi-employer collective bargaining.

Number of Australian companies by employment size, 2018-2022 (Source: ABS)

There were some contentious views about the small business association’s pre-Summit MoU with the ACTU. Some peak industry bodies and other commentators felt that COSBOA had “sold out” in apparently agreeing to sector-wide negotiations on pay and conditions. However, this does not appear to be the case – COSBOA is merely seeking better co-operation and consultation on areas of mutual interest, and is not endorsing any form of enforced unionisation or compulsory sector bargaining. There have been suggestions that sector-wide collective bargaining will result in higher wages, but without more detail, and pending greater clarity on the “Better Off Overall Test”, this will simply add friction to the current debate about wage and employment growth.

If we do return to a previous form of Industrial Relations policy, it’s interesting to look at the latest ABS data on Australian businesses by employment size (table above). I think it’s worth noting the number of working people in Australia who are employed by SMEs. Large employers are actually small in number, so if multi-employer collective bargaining does come into effect, it could mean tens of thousands of businesses will be involved, and many probably for the first time. On the other hand, in an industry like construction, which is both highly unionised and covered by significant industry awards, many workers are either self-employed or they are employed by independent sub-contractors.

Representation at the summit was reasonably well-balanced, between Unions (including Industry Superfunds), Business (individual companies and industry associations), the NFP and Community sectors, Academia, Think Tanks, and of course Politics. The absence of the Leader of the Federal Opposition meant that his voter base was effectively disenfranchised, although his Deputy (and Leader of the National Party) did attend. Go figure.

Much was said about “streamlining” and “updating” parts of the Industrial Relations regime. Like Australia’s tax laws, the system of Modern Awards as overseen by the Fair Work Commission feels unwieldy, unnecessarily complex, over-bureaucratic, at times vague, and often archaic bordering on arcane. There are currently over 140 different awards in place – some of them relate to an individual company, some to a particular trade or profession, and some cover a whole industry. Interpretation is often in the eye of the beholder as to whether or not it applies to a particular employer and/or employee – here is an extract from one award:

“NOTE: Where there is no classification for a particular employee in this award it is possible that the employer and that employee are covered by an industry modern award or a modern award with occupational coverage.” (Emphasis added.)

I should add that one reason given by the Labor Government for removing the prohibition on sector-wide collective bargaining is because the process for employers to request an exemption from the relevant Minister is “too cumbersome”. I don’t see how this is so given that much of the IR system is overly bureaucratic. Surely the reason for this administrative process is to avoid collusion and other cartel-like activities that would otherwise fall foul of competition law and anti-trust provisions.

The Summit had some notable things to say about gender equality and pay parity, (“Legislate same job, same pay”), training, immigration and child care; but some proposals sound vague without defined objectives (“Boost quantum technology research and education”); draconian if they inhibit workplace flexibility, especially in seasonal industries (“Limit the use of fixed-term contracts”); or too aspirational without more detail such as specific goals and measurable targets (“Leverage greater private capital into national priority areas, including housing and clean energy”). We know that Labor ministers have been vocal in their dislike of the so-called “gig economy” (a “cancer” on the economy, and “I’d like to regulate the sh*t out of it”), but perhaps they need to do more to understand why some workers actually prefer it, and what benefits it brings in terms of workplace flexibility, especially in start-ups and emerging sectors, many of which are SMEs from where much of our longer-term innovation and employment opportunities actually come.

One item that didn’t receive as much attention was the “Digital Apprenticeships Scheme”, which (subject to details…) would likely have the combined support of the Tech Council of Australia and the ACTU. Certainly, despite a vibrant and innovative IT sector, and some notable high-tech and high-end manufacturing businesses in Australia, we lag behind in STEM education, and lack basic digital literacy skills in the wider population. (Hence the need for adjustments to the skilled migration scheme?) A friend of mine who runs a small manufacturing business in Melbourne recently hired an Office Assistant. The successful candidate claimed to be proficient in standard productivity tools such as Word and Excel. In fact, they didn’t know how to COPY-PASTE, nor how to use the SUM-ALL function, which are both very basic routines. They thought they could “wing it” by watching a YouTube video…

Finally, if there is one note of caution or concern about the Summit, it is the niggling thought that this was more of a talk-fest, and that any new ideas to have emerged were either covered by existing programmes and “policy settings”, or were already in train. Going through the list of Outcomes, I counted at least three dozen separate initiatives (Plans, Schemes, Agreements, Reports, Statements, Codes, Programs, Compacts, Task Forces, Working Groups or Funds) many of which already exist, or were part of Labor’s election promises, or have been proposed prior to the Summit. (And that list excludes Federal Ministries and Government Departments.) Sounds a lot like “Talks about Talks”, with “new” money already allocated and spoken for (hence Labor’s push back on some of the implied costs of the Summit proposals). At worst, this “wish list” represents a huge amount of expensive and bureaucratic overlay, whereas we need agile and flexible economic, education and employment measures.

Next week: Finding a Voice

Reflections on The Kimberley

I’ve just returned from a 2-week trip to the Kimberley region of Western Australia. It was the furthest I have travelled from Melbourne, and the longest vacation I have had, since mid-2019 and before Covid struck in early 2020. Covid still managed to make its presence felt, in several ways, but thankfully did not directly impact the holiday. Here are just a few observations from my time away.

Although I have been to other remote parts of Australia, living inside the Melbourne bubble can make you forget just how big this country is, and the Kimberley is particularly difficult to get to thanks to the vast distances, and limited access points. I was travelling with my significant other and five of our friends, so the logistics required careful planning. Scheduled flights are limited, and the knock-on effects of Covid have resulted in higher air fares, more demand for accommodation and hire cars, staff shortages across the hospitality and tourism sectors, pent-up demand from interstate visitors who can now travel to Western Australia, and some indigenous and remote communities remain closed or visitors are being discouraged. (We had to take RAT tests before we were allowed to travel to one remote location.)

Our journey started in Broome (via Perth, as there were no direct flights from Melbourne), and then took us to Kununurra, Bullo River and Darwin. In between, we visited Quandong Beach, Mitchell Falls, the Bungle Bungles, Lake Argyle, Mirima National Park, and Litchfield National Park. Along the way we looked for dinosaur footprints, went whale watching, got up close to some crocodiles (freshwater and saltwater varieties), did some star gazing, hiked to see rock art, saw loads of wild fauna and countless boab and kapok trees, and swam in billabongs, waterfalls and lakes. Most of the journey was made on scheduled commercial flights, or with regular tour operators.* In one case, it was cheaper (and far, far quicker) to charter a pair of light aircraft to take us to and from our destination, instead of hiring a couple of 4WD vehicles.

We heard about the significance of the pearl industry in Broome (and its multi-cultural origins), the importance of the Ord River Irrigation System to agriculture, the historic and ongoing role of Darwin in Australia’s defence strategy, and the efforts being made towards sustainability, eco-tourism and environmental conservation and protection across the region (including some of the enormous and historical cattle stations).

Although we did not have an opportunity to meet with any local communities, one of our guides had been working closely with indigenous organisations, and shared some of his insights and experiences of customary law, the corporate nature of some aboriginal businesses, the challenges of addiction and mental illness within indigenous communities, and the knowledge gaps between the Stolen Generation and the younger members of our first nations people.

In addition to some amazing scenery, stunning sunrises and sunsets, pristine beaches and crystal clear waters, the vacation also provided tangible examples of some of the challenges facing Australia: immigration policies, the Jobs and Skills Summit, the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, the environment, energy policy, agricultural production, and national security – themes which I hope to draw on over the coming weeks.

* Our scheduled flights to/from Melbourne were booked direct with the respective airlines, and a couple of charter flights were arranged directly with the local operators, who were extremely helpful. We did hire a couple of 4WDs for part of our time in Broome, but vehicles were scarce, and tended to be expensive. However, most of our accommodation and guided tours were booked through Georgia Bedding at The Tailor, specialising in personalised travel itineraries.

Next week: The Jobs and Skills Summit

 

 

I CAN live without my radio…

After posting my last blog on digital vs analog music, I saw the media commentary about the decline in Triple J’s audience numbers. There was a suggestion that younger people no longer listen to the radio, and have shifted to digital formats such as streaming and podcasts. As is often the case, the headline doesn’t necessarily tell the full story – and thanks to Tim Burrowes, we also have a deeper dive into the underlying data.

Seems like we CAN live without our radio (especially Triple J…) (Photo of LL Cool J by Janette Beckman, image sourced from Bloomberg)

I’m obviously not part of Triple J’s target demographic (18-24 year-olds), but I find the concept of age-oriented radio (and music) somewhat bizarre. If I was that age again, I’d probably find it highly patronizing that a national broadcaster was trying to force me into a random age bracket, on the assumption that they knew my taste in music, and/or they knew what was good for me. It’s an arrogant, simplistic and reductionist approach to broadcasting. Even now, I may not listen to all the exact same music I liked when I was that age, but my taste in music didn’t suddenly change when I turned 18 (or 24). Humans are much more subtle and idiosyncratic than demographers, marketers and programmers may like to think.

Anyway, it got me thinking about my own experience of listening to the radio, and how it formed my outlook on music. Once I had access to a portable transistor radio, it meant I got to choose which stations I listened to, and what types of music I heard, rather than what my parents or older sisters were listening to in the rest of the house. Although as a young teenager, I still kept an ear out for what was popular, I tuned out of the Top 40 format early on, in favour of pirate stations like Radio Caroline (which played mainly prog rock and psychedelic sounds), and the John Peel show on BBC Radio 1 (during his heyday of 1976-83 – the punk and post-punk era). When I first heard the whole of side 1 of Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” album played on the radio in 1974 (I was 13 at the time), I realised that the 3 minute, 45 rpm, 7″ vinyl single wasn’t the only option…

Alongside broadcast radio, the UK’s infamous weekly music papers were the major source of information about the industry. With three titles, New Musical Express, Melody Maker, and Sounds, dominating the market in those pre-internet, pre-MTV days of yore, the inkies were the main way to find out about new bands, new releases, upcoming gigs, as well as album and live reviews. Then there were the listing magazines (which covered more than music), and the fanzines that proliferated in the wake of punk.

As I had more access to live music during my teenage years and beyond, music radio became less important. And although my gig attendance is more sporadic these days (no reflection on Melbourne’s excellent live music scene!) the only music radio stations I currently listen to are ABC Jazz, SBS Chill (especially Sunday mornings…) and Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone on BBC Radio 6. I can’t bear to listen to most commercial radio or so-called popular music stations (age-oriented or otherwise) – it’s not only because of the music they play, it’s the actual production quality, programme format, presentation style and the absence of “space”: everything is crammed into every available piece of bandwidth, compressed within a decibel if its life, and the content lacks variety, depth or subtlety.

When I moved to Melbourne 20 years ago, ABC Radio National had a weekly programme called “Sound Quality”, that featured some of the most varied, interesting and challenging new music around – in fact, it was probably the only place to hear this stuff on national radio. It also encouraged listener-contributed content, and I was fortunate to have several of my own pieces played on air (ok, so I’m biased). Sadly, the programme was decommissioned in 2015, and nothing comprarable has taken its place.

In a further twist, I tend to hear about new (and old) Australian music via my local record stores, particularly the ones that specialise in vinyl, namely RockSteady Records, Northside Records, Dutch Vinyl and The Searchers.

Next week: Reflections on The Kimberley