Alas, no beauty or poetry, but it’s the verbs in this bill that reveal true power of The Voice

Words matter – particularly when they are related to changing Australia’s birth certificate, writes David Fagan

Mar 27, 2023, updated Mar 27, 2023

Words are the currency of politics – they can be the bouquets or bullets that swing an argument, win over doubters and shape the futures of cities, states and nations.

We’re all soon to vote on a set of words that, depending on interpretation, will establish The Voice, either a start to righting the historical wrong of dispossession of this nation’s first settlers OR the beginning of a constitutional nightmare that permanently disrupts our orderly system of government.

Words matter. All actions start with a form of words. And good words, words with clear meaning carry through the ages – from the Ten Commandments (Thou Shalt Not Kill) to the Gettysburg Address (Government Of The People, By The People, For The People).

Unfortunately this century brings no such enduring words to mind.

Now, the words of the referendum to establish The Voice have no beauty or poetry. But they will have impact. That’s why the intention is to write them into the nation’s birth certificate, the constitution – not just add them to yet another act of parliament.

The words are known and the debate has begun but they are already focussed on one part of the proposal, the ability of The Voice (the body established to represent the views of our First Nations people) to influence executive government.

In my view, this debate skips over more important words that are clear in meaning and set out exactly what role The Voice can have.

Let’s walk through it. The proposed addition to the constitution takes three steps: the first is to establish a body to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. The second allows that the voice MAY make representations to the Parliament and Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. And the third is that the Parliament SHALL have power to make laws relating to the Voice, its composition, functions, powers and procedures.

An old English teacher once taught me that verbs are the engine of sentences. Look for the verbs in sentences if you want to make sense of them. She was right and I’ve been a verb fan ever since.

The verbs in this referendum proposal (aside from the uncontroversial “establish” in step one are the two highlighted above. The Voice MAY make representations. And the parliament, our supreme governing body, SHALL have legislative power over it.

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The same English teacher also advised me to make the dictionary my friend. So what do the dictionaries say about the power that sits with the voice, the powers that it MAY make representations.

The Oxford offers four related definitions: 1. expressing possibility, 2. expressing permission, 3 expressing a wish, 4. expressing uncertainty. The Macquarie doesn’t diverge, again emphasising the uncertainty the word creates. Neither dictionary, nor any use I’ve encountered over many decades playing with words, of stripping sentences apart like motor cars and rebuilding them, suggests that MAY creates a compulsion.

If I say you MAY ask to use my car or my lawn mower or swimming pool, I have not created any obligation to hand it over to you.

The stronger verb here is SHALL. And it describes the role of the parliament as having an ongoing power over the operation of The Voice.

It’s only natural to consider the consequences of changing the constitution, to debate it robustly And some very smart people have expressed their reservations about this change, mainly because of the legal or political consequence if a future government or its bureaucracy chooses not to consult The Voice or listen to the representations it may make.

This will almost certainly be litigated, as it should be. And a High Court that relies on the dictionary will find that government is meeting its constitutional right and obligation, the one that determines it “shall have power”.

Words matter. And in any future game of verbal rock, paper and scissors, the parliament’s “SHALL HAVE POWER” will trump The Voice’s “MAY MAKE REPRESENTATIONS” every time. No maybe about it.


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