Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

A cogent argument for voting Yes



Being a volunteer in my local community library, I get to tidy the shelves one morning every week. Now and then a book takes me by surprise. Last week I noticed Judith Wright: Selected Writings, edited by Georgina Arnott, recently published by La Trobe University Press. The book included an excerpt from We Call for a Treaty, written by Judith Wright and H.C. Coombes on behalf of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee in 1985. Perhaps, if history can teach us anything, lessons might be learnt here.

As we now know, Judith Wright and H.C. Coombes were, very privately, partners in life for over two decades. She was one Australia’s greatest poets as well as a committed activist, especially on care for the environment and in the promotion of Aboriginal writing.

He, on the other hand, was possibly Australia’s greatest public servant, being among many other things the Director-General of the Department of post-war Reconstruction, Governor of the Reserve Bank, Chairman of the Elizabethan Trust, Chairman of the Australian Council for the Arts, Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and, in 1979, the founder of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee, which called for a formal treaty between Australia and Aboriginal people.

You might think that, if anyone could pull off the establishment of a treaty, a great poet and a great policy maker, working in harmony, would surely have the best chance. But this was not the case: they were unsuccessful. Despite considerable public support, neither Malcolm Fraser nor Bob Hawke showed great interest in proposals for a treaty.

Secondly, perhaps because there were no Indigenous persons on the Aboriginal Treaty Committee, Indigenous leaders showed little enthusiasm for the project. Some saw talk of a treaty as white fellow business, justifying the invasion and settlement of Australia. Others argued that Aboriginal people had achieved a great deal without a treaty and, as a young Marcia Langton then put it, ‘we may be able to devise yet better strategies on the proviso that we don’t lock ourselves into a bounded situation.’

This quotation from Marcia Langton led me to Peter Read’s remarkable essay, ‘Doubts about the treaty: some reflections on the Aboriginal Treaty Committee’ in What Good Condition? Reflections on an Australian Aboriginal Treaty 1968-2006 (ANU Press, 2006). Clearly, there were many voices in the matter then, and many concerns, just as there are today. For some, talk of a treaty was talk about terms of surrender and survival. For others, though, talk about treaty at least helped clarify what it was that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians wanted.


'While Budget allocations for Aboriginal affairs were at the mercy of successive treasurers, there could be no trust between Aborigines and the dominant society.'


Given the difficulties Wright and Coombes encountered in proposing legislative change at a federal level, we should be neither surprised nor disheartened that the current referendum proposal is meeting with considerable opposition. The issues will not go away. Today, the proposed referendum question does not explicitly include talk of a treaty. It simply asks this:


‘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?’


The Proposed Law says nothing about a Treaty, but it proposes inserting the following lines into the Constitution:


In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:

    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 the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth 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 matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.’


While in some places there is talk of a future treaty, and even an intention to establish a treaty, treaty is not central to this referendum. It may or it may not happen in the future. To say the referendum is a Trojan Horse for a future treaty seems to ignore the past indecision about the value of a treaty.

Voting for the Voice is voting for the formal recognition of the First Peoples of Australia and for a formal process for continuing the conversation about future steps, if any, that might be taken. And, as I see it, the concise argument that Judith Wright and H.C. Coombes put forward for a Treaty is also a cogent argument for voting ‘Yes’ in the coming referendum. Here is the argument they put forward in We Call for a Treaty:


While Aboriginal rights and claims remained an electoral football; while Commonwealth and state governments changed every three years or more often (and no succeeding government is bound by the legislation of its predecessor); while Budget allocations for Aboriginal affairs were at the mercy of successive treasurers, there could be no trust between Aborigines and the dominant society.




John Honner is an author and theologian and has been contributing to Eureka Street since its inception.

Main image: Judith Wright (National Library of Australia)

Topic tags: John Honner, Judith Wright, H.C.Coombes, Treaty, Indigenous, Voice



submit a comment

Existing comments

Someday, when Cuba becomes a democracy, the distillers who lost their land to Castro will seek compensation or return.

No doubt, claims were made to the new post-1945 or post-1989 governments for confiscations, respectively, by the Nazis or the former Soviet satrapies.

On the other hand, such claims cover small portions of the land mass of the state, not the whole jurisdiction.

The Uluru Statement is logically vexed. The Statement says the whole of Australia is unceded yet cedes legal sovereignty to the Commonwealth and States while reserving moral sovereignty for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. If the land isn't ceded, neither is legal sovereignty. Landlords can't give sovereignty to agents. Or be their tenants (citizens). The Statement is saying, without saying, that the land was conquered.

Conquest means then-existing land ownership remains until changed by the conqueror. The federal and state parliaments would have to pass laws retrospectively claiming title to all land.

Can a child change how the parent gave it birth? Lawyers might say the parliaments are unable to do anything without consent in some form from the UK Parliament, which Sunak won't give for fear of exposing the UK to unknown consequences.

"Yes" embraces the mess.

s martin | 25 August 2023  
Show Responses

While there's no accounting for the law of perverse consequences kicking in, the alternative, which is to do nothing, logically renders S. Martin's position a reductio ad absurdum.

The First Nations of this world are by now widely acknowledged by our courts as disenfranchised of their property by unjust means in respect of which they are owed a recompense that must be met.

In struggling to see where Cuba, the Nazis & Russia's satraps fit into this scenario, the more confusing issue is S. Martin's insistence that the Uluru Statement, which, as one from the heart, hardly appeals to legal jurisdiction as opposed to matters of sensitivity and feeling, commands precedence over the request for a Voice, to be heard by Parliament but otherwise no more than that, as John Honner elucidates.

In citing Judith Wright, Honner emphasises, as Wright did, the poetic significance of the issue, inviting each one of us to change gear towards a symbolic mode that is exactly the right one to enshrine in a Constitution.

If there is a difficulty it lies within the latter document, which manifestly lacks such an altruistic element, as keenly observed by Veronica Brady in her insightful biography of Wright.

Michael Furtado | 27 August 2023  

Paragraph 1

Doing nothing? Billions of dollars have been spent. All were misspent? Many representative structures were established. All were useless? If there were successes, they appeared from that same money and under those same structures. Tweak the structures, then.

If governments have evaded previous structures (as claimed), won't they be as adept at evading the Voice? Albanese has already said, "No" to reparations. Is it his place to pre-empt the issue? What does that show about the claim that the Voice will be different from previous representative structures?

Paragraph 2

The difference between the Voice and claims for reparations from African Americans and Caribbeans is that, concerning reparations, Christians and atheist rationalists don't have to buy into a doubtful religious/quasi-religious claim to enter the discussion.

For Christians, is a Christian Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islands person a spiritual custodian of the land more than his equal-in-Christ white co-religionist? Under what spiritual jurisdiction?

For the atheist rationalist child of the Enlightenment, is, by genes, an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islands person more of a "custodian" than a white Greta Thunberg-type with an environment science degree?

Doesn't voting for the Voice promote the 'custodian' superstition to a dogma of State?

s martin | 29 August 2023  

Paragraph 4

For the secular rationalist, poetry cannot substitute emotion for empirical sense. The 'custodian' claim is, in secular eyes, a superstition because you can have your own opinion but you can't have your own facts. The fact is, if you want to know how to care for the environment, and make the necessary trade-offs in this imperfect world, you need to have some qualifications in the subject matter. Knowledge doesn't transfuse from the amniotic fluid.

For the Christian religionist, poetry cannot substitute the bread of philanthropy for the word of God. The 'custodian' claim isn't compatible with the Christian theology that all are equal in Christ. And, as God is also the origin of reason, neither is it supported by the same facts as co-accepted by the secular rationalist.

s martin | 29 August 2023  

"Today, the proposed referendum question does not explicitly include talk of a treaty."

The worry is that implicitly it does. The High Court will refer to the context of the Uluru Statement and associated documents when deciding what something in the clause means, and treaty is there.

My view on sovereignty is that, realistically, you have it as long as you can defend it. That's what history shows us. Australian land went from Aboriginal land to Crown land. Add up how much money has been spent by states and federal government on Aboriginal affairs over the decades, and will continue to be spent, means the demands of any 'moral sovereignty' are being met.

Russell Hamilton | 25 August 2023  

The most potent reason for voting "Yes", is that Dutton and his racist ilk are urging us all to vote 'No".

John Frawley | 25 August 2023  
Show Responses

Well argued, John Frawley!

Michael Furtado | 28 August 2023  

Well articulated, John.
However, as polling consistently shows, though a vast majority of Australians are willing to support the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, they are qualified in full 'Yes' assent by a 'thin edge of the wedge' perception, due largely, it seems, to radical demands on the part of prominent architects of the Voice proposal. Unless this changes, the steadily downward poll trend in support for this critical referendum proposal is likely to continue.

John RD | 25 August 2023  
Show Responses

Spot on, John RD!

Michael Furtado | 28 August 2023  

Your article seemingly reduces voting Yes to the forthcoming referendum to a simple matter with limited, if any, ongoing consequences. There are many others, on both sides of the current ongoing debate on this issue, who do not see it as that simple a matter.

Edward Fido | 25 August 2023  

It's debatable whether H.C. Coombs was "Australia's greatest public servant", or its worst.
Former ALP Minister Gary Johns, an advocate for the "NO" campaign in the forthcoming referendum, says Coombs was: "an architect of separatism. He chose a profoundly foolish path which is still causing harm. Living apart is precisely the mode of Aboriginal policy of the last 40 years and it is a disaster."
In "Aboriginal Australia 1967-1976", Coombs lamented: "No Aboriginal Nyerere has emerged...I wish that some Aboriginal leaders could evolve something equivalent to the Nyerere's Ujamaa Socialism as a guide and rallying point for their political action."
Nyerere had been President of Tanzania, and an African socialist with close ties to Maoist China. He believed that by returning to the pre-imperialist time of life structured around the ujamaa, or extended family, he could bring about utopia. He forcibly collectivized the agricultural system. But by 1976, when Coombs was still extolling its virtues, Tanzania had gone from being the largest exporter of agricultural products in Africa to the largest importer. In his retirement speech in 1985, Nyerere gracefully conceded, "I failed. Let's admit it."
Johns notes, "But the Coombs legacy is that a separatist mindset remains."

Ross Howard | 25 August 2023  

Voting Yes or No should be based on a genuine consideration of the possible long-term effects, not on who else seems to be on 'your' side. Julie Bishop, another political 'yesterday's person' has weighed into the issue with comments about the supposed consequences to our international reputation if the referendum is not passed. With major players on the international scene like India, China and Russia and a world in seeming chaos, the results of the referendum will mainly pass unnoticed, except for in a few 'woke' nations like Canada or New Zealand. With the way they both are going; I hardly think that matters. This issue has already become bitterly divisive and accusations of supposed racism are flying around. There are indeed racists out there but there are also those who are conservative, like Tony Abbott, who are on the No side and are emphatically not.

Edward Fido | 30 August 2023  
Show Responses

I'm bemused, especially of late, by bytes that appeal dogmatically to a 'judgment of history' that assumes somehow that history is an impeccable and infallible arbiter what is true and good. I heard in a recent lecture that history is "a cauldron of competing ideologies".
I'm glad I have still in memory the late Peter Steele SJ's comment on history as "the time of God's patience" - a remark that takes due account of human folly and fallenness and God's salvific intent.

John RD | 31 August 2023  

Similar Articles

Father down the road

  • Barry Gittins
  • 31 August 2023

Father's Day: a symbolic marker in Australia's calendar, often evoking mixed emotions. From fond memories of childhood to the challenges of modern fatherhood, the journey is both beautiful and complex as the role of fathers continues to evolve.


All apologies

  • Tony Thompson
  • 31 August 2023

In an era where victories are celebrated and mistakes are concealed, the power of the simple phrase 'I am sorry' seems to be vanishing. From personal slights to public gaffes, our society seems increasingly averse to accepting responsibility and offering genuine apologies. But why has this sentiment become so rare, and what does its absence say about the values we hold?