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For the good of Australian democracy, the Voice must fail
A bad idea, being destructively pushed.
The Voice is a proposal to add a Chapter to the Australian Constitution. (A useful discussion of the Voice and how Constitutional amendment works in Australia is here.)
The referendum will be held on Saturday 14th of October 2023. An excellent background explainer of the history behind the Voice proposal is here.
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The proposed Chapter would read:
Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
there shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
the Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.
So, a group of Australians will have separate Constitutional recognition via a body that “may make representations”.
First question: what would that mean that all citizens of Australia cannot do already? One can just see a future High Court deciding it can’t mean something any citizen can do, otherwise there is no point putting it into the Constitution, it must mean something more.
Those representations will be “on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.
Second question: How is whether a matter is one “relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” to be defined? Almost anything the Australian Government does has the potential to “relate to” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Conversely, almost anything the Australian Government does that “relates to” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will also have implications for Australian citizens who are not Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.
Third question: Given that the latter is clearly true, on what grounds do we Constitutionally advantage one group of Australian citizens over another?
This proposed amendment is about “recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia”.
Fourth question: How do you define who is an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander?
An Aboriginal person means a person who:
Is a member of the Aboriginal race of Australia; and
Identifies as an Aboriginal person; and
Is accepted by the Aboriginal community as an Aboriginal person.
It incorporates race for Constitutional reasons, as for federal legislation the Australian government uses the race power — Section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution — as the head of power to legislate for Aborigines. Shifting to talking in terms of “ancestry” is just a saying “no, it is not race” while Constitutionally differentiating, and advantaging, on the basis of ancestry.
Modern usage of race refers to continental (or sub-continental) ancestry. “Whites” have European ancestry, “Blacks” have Sub-Saharan African ancestry. Use of brown or (especially) yellow is nowadays frowned upon.
Ethnicity uses a rather narrower concept of ancestry. Regino of Prum (d.915) came up with a fourfold definition of nation, based on Classical conceptions, that became the standard definition in medieval Europe:
Diversae nationes popularum interse discrepant genere moribus lingua legibus.
(The peoples of various nations differ by origin, customs, languages and laws.)
Where genere (origin) is ancestry. Ethnicity has the extra wrinkle that people can, and have, adopted new cultural/ethnic/national identities. Indeed, civic nationalism — the pioneer state for which is Republican Rome — is based on the idea that ancestry is not required for you to be a full member of the nation.
Given that race is about your continental origin, and implies nothing about your culture, or even ethnicity, as each continental region has so many of both, race is more directly about your ancestry than ethnicity is.
This also applies to Australian Aborigines, as they come from a multiplicity of language-cultural groups. You cannot give an accurate ethnic definition of Aboriginality, as Aborigines are not a single ethnicity, as the above map so vividly indicates. You certainly cannot give an ethnic definition of Aboriginality that also incorporates Torres Strait Islanders, who are Melanesian farmers.
Race is typically what folk use when they do not wish to refer to a specific ethnicity. This was true even when folk tried to divide Europeans into various races. Moreover, the more one defines benefits that apply to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and no one else, the more one needs barriers to anyone defining themselves as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
The above legal identification is still nevertheless somewhat fluid. Examination of historical patterns in the Census data clearly indicates that such identification shifts according to whether there are costs or benefits of doing so.
We can see from the graph below that identification in the Census as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander has massively increased in younger age groups. (Intercensal = from one Census to another. The numbers on the bottom axis are per cent contribution to increases in identification.)
This is hardly a sign of significant racism. It is a sign of what changes in incentives can do to how one identifies.
We Homo sapiens do have continental-origin populations, who have differences in the distribution of traits, extending to various physical markers. For, between ancestral genetic bottlenecks and ecological and social selection effects, these populations have been differentiated long enough for such differences to emerge. Even so, the level of genetic differentiation between the most genetically distinct populations of Homo sapiens is still not at the level one gets among chimpanzees or gorillas.
Moreover, differences in the genetic distributions graduate by distance, there are no sharp genetic “valleys” (unlike, for examples, chimpanzees). Homo sapiens do not have an internal ancestral “tree”, the pattern of migration and intermixing is more like a trellis.
So, when folk try and say “this is not about race, it is about ancestry” they are being, at best, disingenuous.
Either way, it runs into all the problems that beset the fact that our sub-populations have no biological barriers to interbreeding and do so. The reality of ancestry mixing is what led to the evolution of “one drop” rules.
Fifth question: If someone is of mixed ancestry, why does one part of their ancestry count in a way that the rest of their ancestry does not?
Feel free to peruse the Australian Government’s “the Voice is a great idea” site and see if it has satisfactory answers to these questions.
Overestimating public policy
This is a bad proposal. And it is a bad proposal even if one believes we are being offered satisfactory answers to all the above questions.
For the presumption underlying all this is that the problems that beset Aboriginal communities are fundamentally public policy problems. Problems that arise because they do not have the right sort of input into public policy. The Voice is the mechanism to gain themselves such correct input.
If the Voice does not make a basic difference to how public policy is prosecuted, what is the point?
It is possible that the Albanese Government is hoping to provide a veneer to keep activists happy while not making any substantive change to how public policy is done in Australia: good luck with that. Future High Courts are almost guaranteed to interpret the new Chapter of the Constitution as having a substantive point.
The notion that what besets Australian Aborigines is, at it core, a public policy problem, one solvable by better public policy better delivered, is mistaken. Absolutely, public policy matters, it just does not matter as much as is implied.
Social science still does not properly grapple with the reality that everything social is emergent from the biological. That does not mean the social therefore does not have causal power, it absolutely does. The point of emergent phenomena is precisely that they have causal power.
It does mean, however, that everything social builds on the biological. The relevant elements here being human variability plus selection for life-strategies.
Variability between and within species is what drives, indeed enables, natural selection. For species are just sets of lineages.
Every single genetic lineage currently existing, including the lineage of every human being, has been part of many, many species; part of many, many sets of lineages. Species do not arise by spontaneous generation, they evolve out of previous species.
What is selected for, from within lineage variability, is successful strategies. We did not first develop the physiology to be successful midday hunters and then take up the strategy to be successful midday hunters. Our ancestors increasingly adopted the strategy of being midday hunters, and that worked well enough that we evolved the physiology to become better and better at that strategy.
The fundamental determinant of the relative success (or lack thereof) of groups within societies is what life-strategies they adopt. There are plenty of instances of groups suffering hostile public policy — notably market-dominant minorities such as Jews, Armenians, overseas Chinese — yet doing well, and other groups being favoured by public policy, and yet doing less well (or even relatively badly). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders across recent decades are an obvious instance of the latter pattern.
So, millions and millions of dollars have been spent on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advancement for very, very limited results. This is precisely why the Voice is being proposed.
But if the Voice is enacted, and fails to change this (spoiler alert, this is what will happen) then the obvious move is even more mechanisms to favour Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. For, to admit the entire approach is fundamentally misconceived is not merely to negate the Voice, it is to negate an entire industry that benefits from the channelling public funds to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders due to them doing relatively badly.
The advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders can only happen by the adoption of more effective life-strategies by Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Public policy can potentially assist in that: especially by not encouraging or enabling disastrous life-strategies.
Much of the health problems of indigenous Australians, for example, come from going through the Neolithic farming-diet transition (which was metabolically bad for human health) AND the industrial processed-food transition (which is metabolically bad for human health) at the same time.
The sad fact is, however, that those selected into the policy intermediary activist class between indigenous communities and public policy processes do not have strong incentives to encourage good life strategies and discourage bad ones. Their incentives are to do precisely the opposite.
You pay organisations and people to do what makes their income, social-leverage and resources go up. We Homo sapiens are easily capable of the networked self-deception to rationalise and moralise our self-interest, no matter how dysfunctional that might be to and for others.
The Voice will do nothing to improve this. On the contrary, it will entrench the “vampire elite” pattern of the intersection between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the Australian Government being dominated by folk who gain resources, status and social leverage from such communities continuing to do relatively badly.
Bad for democracy
Entrenching special standing for some citizens against others, on the basis of ancestry, into the Australian Constitution is a bad idea and will not work as its proponents claim.
In many ways, however, what makes this proposal even worse for Australian democracy is how it is being prosecuted. There is a quite systematic pattern of moral intimidation going on — including within institutions such as universities — to block, even punish, those who criticise the Voice. Supporting the Voice is presented as the only acceptable way to be of the Good and the Smart.
They are following the pattern of the “quality” media in the US and elsewhere of letting folk know what are the current markers of being of the Good and the Smart. In other words, following the Pravda-model media strategy of providing the correct belief-as-moral-status identifiers for all good little Progressive NPCs (Non-Player Characters) to push the correct line, with the correct talking points.
The presumption must always be that any argument or cause that relies on such moral intimidation is a bad cause with bad arguments. For if it had a solid case, it wouldn’t need the moral intimidation. It is in adhering to the various required affirmations and not noticings that folk show loyalty to the correct-belief status strategy, that shows one is sound; not its truth value nor the effectiveness of the ideas in practice.
Moreover, if affirming X makes you a good person, clearly denying X makes you a bad one. Moral intimidation, suppression and censorship of alternative views is built into the status-and-social-leverage strategy.
We are seeing much deployment of the Activist’s Fallacy:
The Voice is being pushed to provide Aboriginal and Torres Islanders with better social outcomes;
You are arguing against The Voice;
You are against things getting better for Aboriginal and Torres Islanders.
The Activist’s Fallacy is very much based on the affirming X makes you a good person, denying X makes you a bad one, status strategy.
This removing of legitimacy from various concerns and perspectives is not only bad for democracy, as it profoundly inhibits the ability to publicly bargain that is at the heart of democracy, of government by discussion. It is bad for the functioning of society, as it disconnects acceptable public discourse from various aspects of reality.
If this campaign of moral intimidation succeeds, it will set a disastrous precedent for Australian democracy. For it will establish that such moral intimidation works, so there will be more of it.
In the light of this institutionalised moral intimidation, the best outcome would be not merely for the proposal to be defeated at the ballot box, but for it to be crushingly defeated.
The question to be put to the Australian people is:
A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
Do you approve this proposed alteration?
For so many reasons, the answer should not only be “No”, it should be a resounding “No”.
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