Australia’s former chief justice Robert French KC says Australians are “better than” abiding by the No campaigns slogan “if you don’t know, vote no”.
With eight days to go until the Voice to Parliament referendum, the former high court chief justice used an address to the National Press Club on Friday to skewer some of the No campaign’s most significant arguments and call on Australians to make an informed vote.
Mr French said the Australian spirit evoked by the No campaign’s main slogan, cited by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, was “a poor shadow of the spirit which drew up our Constitution”.
“It invites us to a resentful, uninquiring passivity. Australians – whether they vote Yes or No – are better than that,” he said.
“We look forward. We can also look back to better understand where we have come from and where we are now.”
He said Australians could “take pride in the history of our First Peoples as part of ours, recognise it and give it voice – not as a matter of apology or reparation but as an act of celebration”.
He said a vote in favour of the Voice was “a new beginning” and something in which this generation, and generations to come, should be able to take “justifiable pride”.
He used his speech to refute many of the common arguments against the Voice, namely that it would create a “Canberra bureaucracy”, divide Australians by race or constrain executive decision-making.
In his speech, Mr French rejected the assertion that the Voice would be a race-based body.
“At federation there were hundreds of different Aboriginal languages spoken across Australia,” he said.
“The unifying characteristic which underpins the Voice is their history as our First Peoples.”
He also took aim at claims levelled by Coalition Indigenous Australians spokeswoman Jacinta Nampijinpa Price who, in her own address last month, said there were no negative impacts of colonisation.
“It does not require a black armband view of history to conclude that colonisation did not bring unalloyed benefits to our First Peoples,” Mr French said.
“Nor does it require rocket science logic to conclude that we live today with the cross-generational effects of that colonisation.
“Our Constitution as it stands passes over these things in silence.
“Awareness of that silence straddles the boundaries between the Yes and the No cases.”
He said the key arguments about the Voice’s potential legal risk were “misguided”.
Mr French sought to pick apart claims made by Mr Dutton that the Voice could “disrupt our system of democracy” by reiterating that the parliament would retain supremacy over the Voice and have the power to place limitations on how the body engaged with officials.
The overwhelming majority of legal experts in Australia say the proposed amendment Australians are voting on is constitutionally sound and would “enhance” the system of government, Mr French said.
He said there was “no available reading” of the proposed amendment that would require either parliament or the executive government to act upon representations made by the Voice.
“They would have to be considered on their merits and in the light of other legislative and administrative priorities,” Mr French said.
Pressed on whether the proposed constitutional alteration needed to stipulate that the Voice would interact with “executive government”, as has been contested in the lead-up to the referendum, Mr French said he didn’t “see how you can have a Voice engaging effectively in terms of representation with the processes of government unless you have the executive government in there”.
“I don’t think it’s a mistake,” he said.
Mr French refuted the accusation that the Voice would be a “Canberra bureaucracy” and divide Australians by race.
“No doubt, members of the Voice will meet and carry out their core function of making representations … in Canberra,” he said.
“But they‘ll be selected from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from right across the country. And if this is a Canberra bureaucracy, what’s parliament?
“Parliament, unlike the Voice, has decision-making powers. On that characterisation, it’s a species of Canberra bureaucracy on steroids.”