Alan Kohler: Why the Voice is an economic as well as moral issue
Some of the most egregious inequality in the world exists within Australia, writes Alan Kohler.
The first attempt at an Indigenous voice to Parliament was in 1934 – the Australian Aborigines League unsuccessfully petitioned King George V, with 1814 signatures, for the ‘Representation of Aboriginal people in Federal Parliament’. No dice.
Four years earlier, in 1930, John Maynard Keynes published an essay in which he forecast that in 100 years from then we’d all be rich and working three days a week, wondering what to do with ourselves.
But in October, Australia’s 13.6 million employed people worked an average of 4.6 days a week, including part-timers.
What happened? How did Keynes get that forecast of plenty so wrong? After all, he was talking about 2 per cent average economic growth a year, and we’ve actually averaged 3.4 per cent.
The great economist didn’t account for distribution. The assumption that wealth and leisure would be evenly spread was wildly wrong.
As Thomas Piketty showed in Capital in the 21st Century, income inequality actually did decline for a while – mainly as a result of Keynes’ own ideas.
But after 1980, when his ideas were abandoned in favour of neoliberalism, inequality went back to where it had been pre-Keynes.
I think it is no coincidence that it took 50 years after the Great Depression for that to happen, because that’s how long it took for those who were adults and late teenagers in 1930 to die, and stop running the world.
The political elites of the 1980s had no direct memory of the Depression, or FDR’s New Deal for that matter, and did not have JM Keynes providing the dominant intellectual framework for economics, so when the voices of the rich insisted that taxes should be cut, they were.
Note that word – Voice.
Some of the most egregious inequality in the world exists within Australia, between the descendants of those who were here first and those who started arriving from England in 1788.
Now, 234 years later, the average income of Aboriginal households is $1200 per week and for everybody else it’s $2329 – almost twice as much.
The reasons for this disparity are complex and challenging, and it would be wrong to put it down simply to a difference in the loudness of voice.
But as the Uluru Statement from the Heart put it: “(The) dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.”
The torment of their powerlessness.
National Party leader David Littleproud says a constitutional voice to Parliament “won’t shift the dial in closing the gap”, but that’s both wrong and misses the point.
It’s no wonder Indigenous Australians are silent and powerless: They weren’t entitled to enrol to vote until 1962, weren’t counted until the referendum of 1967, weren’t subject to compulsory voting like the rest of us until 1983 and to cap it off, the idea of terra nullius – that Australia had been “nobody’s land” – persisted until Mabo in 1992.
It is not just the English invasion in 1788 that the First Nation’s Voice to Parliament is needed to balance, but the habit of not giving the original Australians whose land it was any kind of voice at all for the subsequent 200 years.
It is fundamentally a moral question and a symbol of recognition, but it is also economic and political.
“We are a much unloved people,” says Indigenous activist Noel Pearson. Photo: AAP
The politics were nicely expressed by Noel Pearson in his first Boyer lecture this year: “A large part of the conflagration in these past 50 years since racism became unacceptable in the 1960s, is the fight between progressive and conservative Australians over race and Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people are the subjects of this fight, but they are not its prime protagonists.”
Australia’s Aboriginal problem, he said, is about white Australians in a cultural and political struggle with other white Australians. The National Party’s decision to oppose the Voice to Parliament is a manifestation of that.
The economics are a festering sore at Australia’s heart – unacceptable disadvantage and poverty in a rich country.
Mr Pearson’s point is that the lack of recognition was vital for the original takeover of the land and dispossession of its inhabitants, and that “the Australian colonial project needed this denial and was underpinned by its vehemence until well after the frontiers fell silent”.
And as discussed, the lack of recognition, the lack of a voice, didn’t end there – it became a careless habit that has manifested in grotesque economic inequality.
The Voice to Parliament just might raise the volume of the voices of the dispossessed sufficiently to start to counter the louder voices of those whose household income is twice theirs and whose long habit has been to disregard that fact, and them.
As Noel Pearson said: “We are a much unloved people. We are perhaps the ethnic group Australians feel least connected to. We are not popular and we are not personally known to many Australians.”
In the past decade or so that lack of connection has started to shift at ground level as a result of the Acknowledgement of Country becoming a new habit at the start of events, often along with a Welcome to Country from a local elder.
This has been a wonderful, spontaneous development that has begun to subvert the white-on-white culture war that Noel Pearson spoke about.
But there are still plenty of conservative extremists who won’t have a bar of that either. For example, Pauline Hanson stormed out of the Senate in July during the Acknowledgement of Country, saying words to the effect that Australia belongs as much to her as to the Indigenous community.
And that’s precisely the point.
Alan Kohler writes twice a week for The New Daily. He is also founder of Eureka Report and finance presenter on ABC news.