Crispin Hull / On Why We Should Vote Yes to the Voice. And the Use of ‘Like’ in Language.

Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney set the broad timeline for the referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament at the weekend.

There are two overwhelming reasons to vote Yes. The first is that after years of detailed consultation and deliberation this is what the vast majority of Indigenous Australians say they want. They want to be recognised and heard by having a Voice to the Parliament.

Surely after more than two centuries of dispossession; marginalisation; and attempted extermination by force or assimilation we (everyone who has the right to vote) can acknowledge the Indigenous people of Australia in a clause in the Constitution and that they should have a means of expressing their views on matters of concern to them and that those views should be listened to.

It is not a big ask. The views carry no force of law or requirement to be acted upon, just that they get put to the Parliament with purely the force of moral persuasion.

The second reason is that the people of Australia through their parliamentary representatives can determine the details of how that will work. As University of Sydney law professor Anne Twomey points out, Parliament can change the details from time to time according to changing circumstances, without having to have another referendum to change the Constitution because too much detail and prescription were put into it in the first place.

The reason there are no details is because Parliament has not enacted them. They come later, as they should. The argument that people should not vote on any change to the Constitution unless all the details are set out in the change it misplaced. 

The so-called absence of detail is a reason in favour of the Voice proposal as it stands, not a reason against it. 

The people get one vote on whether to alter the Constitution to enable a broad change. They then get other votes every three years on the performance of the Parliament and the Government on how they exercise that power.

This is how, by and large, the rest of the Constitution works. For example, the Constitution gives Parliament the power to make laws with respect to post, telegraph and “other like services”.

There were no phones, television or internet in 1901. But no-one argued that the clause needed more detail. There was no need for referendums to deal with phones, television, and the internet because the broad words were already there. And there was vigorous democratic debate about the legislative workings enabling a better result than if the Parliament had been constrained by unnecessary detail.

The 1977 referendum to change the appointment for life of federal judges, on the other hand, is a case of too much detail and too much prescription.

It changed the Constitution to say federal judges must retire at age 70. It should have changed the Constitution to say that federal judges must retire at an age determined by the Parliament.

The 1977 referendum was too detailed. Nearly half a century later when 70 is the new 60, we are losing fine legal minds from the Bench too early.

The Voice proposal avoids that trap. For that reason, and others, it should be supported.

The argument that it should be rejected because it does not go far enough is also misguided. It is akin to saying “I will not take any steps in my journey to Perth or Darwin because I want to be there now.”

The 1967 referendum was one step. It was not enough and mistakes were made. But that was not a reason to reject it. 

The Voice will not provide the closing of the gap instantly. But it will help us do that faster than if there is no Voice. That is a laudable aim.

Ironically, the ultimate aim of the Voice is that one day the gap will be bridged and Indigenous culture fully recognised and protected. Then the Voice will no longer be needed.

Over Christmas-New Year I was exposed more than usual to young people and their language and I have noticed that the verb “to say” has, in the words of Henry Higgins, ”almost completely disappeared”.

It has been replaced by “like” and “go”.

For example:

Youth One: Well, Brad was like: “I have issues if Cheryl is there.”

Youth Two: Yeah, Cheryl was like: “I have issues with Brad.”.

Y1: Then Jason goes: “I have issues with Brad and Cheryl.”

Y3: Then Jade goes: “I have issues with all of them, so I’m like: ‘Let’s not go at all’.”

For many under 30, the word “like” replaces not only the verb “to say”, but a whole wonderful array of adjectives in the English language.

For example:

“The cat like came in with a mouse and I was like . . . . ”. And the sentence is not completed. Was she disgusted? Cross? Fascinated?

No just “like”.

“When Taylah was like she went out with my boyfriend I was like . . . .”

Infuriated? Depressed? Outraged? Perplexed?

No just “like”.

Listen to anyone under 30 and that bland word “like” is unnecessarily and meaninglessly sprinkled throughout the conversation.

Listen and you will hear it: like, like, like. Well, I don’t like.

Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times and regular columnist.


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