Photograph of Uluru in the day with a blue sky and white clouds

Why Indigenous Australians are special

In Australia, we are about to vote in a referendum to change the constitution, to add an “Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Voice” to the list of government entities. We’ll get to vote Yes or No on the 18th (oops, I mean 14th) October, and it will be the first time in over 20 years that we’ve had the opportunity to do something like that.

I’ve had many discussions with people here about the Voice, and I will probably vote Yes given there are a majority of Indigenous Australians who want it. The idea for it came out of the 2017 First Nations National Constitutional Convention, and had been preceded by many years of discussion of how to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution. The “Uluru Statement from the Heart” summarises the majority position of a large number of Elders from this convention, and includes the statement “We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution”.

I am not going to present here an argument or evidence for why this should be supported. There are good analyses elsewhere. However, one of the things that has come up when I’ve discussed the Voice with others is that if the Voice is seen as a way of addressing disadvantage (which it is intended to be), and if Indigenous Australians are a significantly disadvantaged group (which they are), why should they get a Voice in the constitution in priority over other disadvantaged groups, e.g. refugees? Why should we call out a particular population in the constitution? In other words, why are Indigenous Australians special?

I may not be qualified to answer this. My school education in Australia was at a time when Indigenous Australians were not well covered in the curriculum. I do not have lived experience when it comes to Indigenous Australian communities. However, I have tried to educate myself. I’ve read all six books in the First Knowledges series, books by Stan Grant, Bruce Pascoe, and Bill Gammage, and even Indigenous Australia for Dummies. I have listened to the 2022 Boyer lectures by Noel Pearson, and I’ve visited many parts of Australia with Indigenous tour guides, and try to listen.

Despite that, I haven’t seen an answer to this question so far in the copious material flying around the Internet on the Voice referendum, and it seems central to the claim of the No case that the proposed constitutional change will create an unwelcome new division in our society, so I’m going to give this a crack.

A first response is that this question is an example of Whataboutism, and raising the disadvantage of other groups doesn’t somehow disprove the need for Indigenous Australians to get better outcomes than they’ve gotten historically. Additionally, presumably all groups should get the support they need to address their disadvantage. It’s not an either-or. We should do better. However, I’ll take on the question as if it was asked sincerely.

Another response is that the question is backwards. That it is instead Indigenous Australians that make Australia so special. The something-around 60,000 years of time spent shaping and learning about the flora, fauna and geography of this country has helped us be what we are today. After European settlement, the Indigenous people have played a role in making early settlers, explorers and farmers succeed. My grandmother was helped into the world by an Indigenous mid-wife, for example. While this is a valid response, I feel it doesn’t treat the question seriously.

I’ve come across two arguments for why First Australians are special enough to merit their own constitutionally-endorsed organisation: a legal one, and a moral one.

The legal one is essentially that they have unique rights that no-one else in Australia has, both recognised by the High Court and covered in Commonwealth legislation, but this uniqueness is ignored by the constitution. What is known as the Mabo Case was a claim of “native title” rights to the Murray Islands – part of the Torres Straight islands, off the coast of Queensland – by Eddie Mabo and others. This was due to the people there continuing their traditional activities since before European settlement, and recognition of the traditional laws and society that underpinned these. While no other population of people who have arrived in Australia since European settlement can claim this, it is not a unique situation internationally. For example, in Canada it is also recognised that Indigenous peoples there have rights that pre-existed any colonisation. Importantly, these rights don’t result simply from genetic lineage or “race”, but due to being part of a society that has continued to exist in Australia for thousands of years.

The moral one is Australian governments (both state and federal) have consistently passed laws to the detriment of Indigenous Australians, and are able to continue to do so because of an imbalance of power between the various governments in power and the Indigenous populations. Until Indigenous people have more say over what is done to them, the situation risks continuing. Some examples of Commonwealth government actions that targeted Indigenous Australians include:

Additionally, one legal expert has claimed that “Australia is the only industrialised nation that allows its parliament to make special detrimental laws for the Indigenous peoples of the land.” If so, Australia is not covering itself in glory here.

To guarantee a say about the stream of regular measures and laws that are targeted towards them by the Commonwealth government requires something that is not entirely subject to the Commonwealth government. Previous entities that represented Indigenous interests (NACC, ADC, and ATSIC) each managed to survive for a few years before being abolished by the Commonwealth. Having a new entity established by the constitution provides more balance and continuity in the relationship.

In conclusion, there is no new division here. Indigenous Australians are set apart from other Australians due to access to unique rights, and due to being uniquely and repeatedly targeted by Commonwealth government activities and laws. If the referendum succeeds, this will not change. But we can hope that other things change for the better.

12 thoughts on “Why Indigenous Australians are special”

  1. Always interested in heading your thoughts, even when I disagree with them.
    Firstly, I’m not convinced that a majority of Aboriginal people want this, the ABC fact check article to which you link points out that the first poll was internet based over 4 days, and the second was by phone call to self identified aboriginals. These 2 preconditions in and of themselves bias the surveys away from those living in disadvantaged communities the most.

    Secondly, you cite that you’ve included reading Bruce Pascoe’s work as part of your education. A man whose work has been shown repeatedly to make false claims, and whose family tree can be traced in its entirety to British ancestry.

    As for the moral argument, there were many local community voices that called for the 2007 emergency response, and who vociferously argued against the removal of the cashless welfare card. These were voices of predominantly aboriginal women, whom our most recent government refused to listen to.

    Lastly you cite the disbandment of ATSIC as a negative, despite it running for 15 years across multiple governments and being disbanded with bipartisan support due to its ineffectiveness and gross corruption. If the Voice follows the same path, then what recourse will there be to change it if it’s constitutionally enshrined? If the argument to that is that it gives parliament the power to make relative laws about the constituents and capacity of the voice, then that completely undermines the argument itself.

    I haven’t heard a single explanation from those proposing to vote yes precisely how this voice will improve outcomes for indigenous communities, particularly how it will differ from voices to parliament that we have today such as the NIAA. Not to mention the overrepresentation of Aboriginal Australians in parliament, being 5% of parliamentarians against only 3% of Australians.

    Is there truly no division if we say that we are all Australians? But some of us are more Australian than others?

  2. Thanks Graham for sharing your thoughts here.

    Some of what you wrote is particular to the merits of the proposed Voice, but that wasn’t what I covered in my post, so I’ll respond to the points that relate to it specifically.

    On the moral basis for getting special treatment, whether there were some voices that supported the Commonwealth measures doesn’t change the fact that the Commonwealth keeps making such measures that are targeted at Indigenous Australians. The Commonwealth, with such repeated actions like this, is indicating that they feel the Indigenous Australian population should be treated specially.

    On the failings of ATSIC.. there is a good write-up of the various Indigenous bodies set up by the Commonwealth government over time at
    and it is worth noting that it was Mark Latham who, on the Labor party side, enabled bipartisan support for shutting it down.

    Still, that document covers the point that ATSIC was an organisation that both delivered services as well as provided representation, and having this dual role created a conflict of interest as well as opportunities for mismanagement. This lesson seems to have been learned. Currently the NIAA (National Indigenous Australians Authority) delivers services, but is not run by Indigenous Australians and so does not provide representation.

    The document linked above lists 11 different bodies that have been formed over time. This is an example of how our parliament continues to try to learn from the past and adapt to current needs. As long as any constitutional change does not embed a specific model, e.g. state how many people, the process for selecting them, etc., there is the opportunity to learn and improve.

  3. Hey Andrew! Well done on your article. I will write my own response to your thoughts in due course, but just wanted to address your claims regarding the NIAA, essentially implying that they are not already filling the role of an indigenous “Voice”.
    First, your claim that the NIAA is not run by indigenous people is inaccurate: at present 23% of its staff are indigenous people. While it’s certainly valid to suggest this percentage might be better if it were higher, it’s still about an order of magnitude higher than the percentage of the total population who are indigenous, and a sizeable chunk of the agency.
    Second, the stated purpose of the NIAA on their own website is: “to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are heard, recognised and empowered.” (

    Second, the NIAA also states that their official purpose is to work “in genuine partnership to enable the self-determination and aspirations of First Nations communities. We lead and influence change across government to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a say in the decisions that affect them.”

    They then go on to say that one of their official responsibilities is “to provide advice to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Indigenous Australians on whole-of-government priorities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;” (at the same link).

    There are also a vast number of statements on their web regarding the ways in which the NIAA goes through a consultation process with the unique and varied indigenous communities around the country. Here are two examples:
    “Empowered Communities is about governments backing First Nations leaders who want to introduce positive changes in their communities and regions by putting First Nations culture and participation central to government decision-making.”

    “The Government has committed to work in partnership with Indigenous Australians, recognising that the only way to close the gap is when Indigenous Australians own, commit to and drive the outcomes sought, alongside all governments.”

    So… while you may like to argue that the NIAA is not effective, or that it needs some changes made to its structure and make up to improve its performance, it would be totally untrue to claim that the stated vision, purpose and responsibilities of the NIAA is not to consult indigenous people about their wishes, or not to act as an advisory body to government on indigenous affairs, which is the stated aim of the “Voice” proposal in this referendum. The exact same possible criticisms will be equally applicable to any future “Voice” if (or I believe, when) it fails to deliver the hoped for outcomes.

  4. Already read it thanks, Andrew. The RMIT “fact” lab has presented its opinion as “fact”, but hasn’t really considered the full “facts” at all. As usual, there is a level of nuance and complexity that this article completely glosses over. Their arguments are basically: 1) The NIAA isn’t independent. The referendum wording makes it clear that the Voice can be disbanded at any time, and replaced by a different organisation of the same name at the whim of the government, so it’s not true at all to suggest that the Voice will be independent of government. 2) The NIAA only advises the executive, and advice is secret. The NIAA currently provides advice to the Prime Minister and Minister for Indigenous peoples, and states on their website: “ As a public service agency, our decisions must be transparent, our policies justifiable and our practices beyond reproach. We strive to achieve well-coordinated, efficient and accountable public administration. The information and documents below demonstrate how we achieve this and how you can request further information from us.” So, a clear promise in their current charter to act with transparency, and mechanisms provided on how to get information made public. Not exactly true to say it’s secretive, and not exactly true that it cannot provide advice on legislative matters if needed. 3) The organisation is not fully run by indigenous people (only 23% of staff are indigenous, as compared to 3.8% of the general population), so not truly representative of indigenous people. There’s nothing at all about the current proposal for a Voice that guarantees the future Voice organisation won’t also have non indigenous people involved. The wording of the constitutional change does not provide any guarantee other than the voice will exist, and that the government can choose its constituents. In other words, this is essentially the status quo and exactly what we have with the NIAA right now.
    If RMIT want to be taken seriously as an arbiter of truth, they need to be prepared to at minimum acknowledge the complexity of difficult topics and present both viewpoints, rather than blatantly ignoring the things that don’t fit with their particular bias and branding a valid criticism as just plain “false”.

  5. RMIT FactLab has signed up to the International Fact-Checking Network code of principles, which shows an intention to report fairly and in a non-partisan way.

    Anyway, clearly a government agency is answerable primarily to their minister, so any reports to parliament coming from that agency will largely represent the minister’s views or suit the government of the day. Given this, a government agency can’t faithfully represent the voice of any group of the population. Here’s an article about other advisory bodies that represent different groups, and there is typically a government department or agency that works with them all:

  6. So, with regards to the Fact Lab, is your argument that just because someone promises to be unbiased, it means they automatically are? The bias is very clear throughout that Fact Check article, and several others I’ve read lately.

    As for your second point about the large number of advisory committees already in existence, I am in total agreement with you. Let’s have a look at a few more:

    The Indigenous advisory committee to the department of environment:

    The advisory committee for Indigenous repatriation:

    The Torres Strait Regional Authority:

    The Murdi Paaki regional assembly:

    The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation:

    I could keep going… there’s many, many, many more! All of these are current advisory bodies run either solely or primarily by indigenous people, that provide advice to government about the needs and wishes of indigenous people. And yet, people keep trying to pretend that the Voice will provide something new and different in the way we manage indigenous disadvantage.

  7. I was raising the IFCN code of principles, as you had raised that RMIT needs to do more to be taken seriously. Certainly, that’s their ambition.

    Thanks for sharing the list of Indigenous-related advisory bodies. I was not aware of all of these. These are many examples of how NIAA is not fulfilling the role of representing Indigenous Australians’ views to government and parliament.

    1. What is the relevance of the IFCN? Intention is fine, but action is another. Facebook has already dropped the RMIT Factlab from its list of independent fact checkers due to misinformation related to this campaign. Afghanistan and Qatar are both sitting members of the UN human rights committee, I’d still maintain that they need to do more to be taken seriously too…

      1. From what I can see reported about this, that’s not quite correct. Facebook hasn’t dropped RMIT, it has temporarily suspended it. Also, it wasn’t due to a judgement about misinformation, but an important factor is that RMIT didn’t renew their IFCN accreditation (which is a requirement to work with Facebook). With IFCN, the accreditation process is transparent – you can see the application and why accreditation is granted. See

  8. With respect, it doesn’t give you that at all. Most of these existed *before* the NIAA was established. They are also only a tiny selection of indigenous advisory bodies that provide advice to their relevant area of government, and there is one for just about every government area I can think of that might be even vaguely relevant to the lives of indigenous people. What it does give you is examples of just many many more indigenous voices there are are already fulfilling the role of the proposed “Voice”. These are in addition to, not instead of the NIAA. Between them all, they do also fill the role of advising the “whole of government” rather than just the executive arm, which is one of the other false claims of the yes campaign, that the rest of government is not able to receive advice on indigenous affairs, other than the executive.

    1. From what I can see, you’re absolutely right that there’s overlap between these advisory bodies and what the Voice is proposed to do. I expect that will need to be sorted out in the design of the Voice. However, my original point was that NIAA is different to something like that, as it can’t really represent the voice of Indigenous Australians given it is a government agency under the direction of a Minister. As was learned from ATSIC, we are best to separate something like NIAA from something like an expert Indigenous advisory body.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.