Eddie Synot is a busy man. Lawyer, academic and new father, he’s also a prominent campaigner for the Yes case in the upcoming referendum to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the Constitution.
“I’m a senior engagement officer with the Uluru Dialogue,” says the Wemba Wemba man when I ask what his official title is with one of the many organisations pushing the ‘yes’ vote.
An engagement officer? A quick look at Synot’s Twitter feed clarifies what this role entails; engaging with critics of the Voice proposal and refuting, debunking and dismissing their various arguments against it. According to Synot, the ‘no’ campaign ‘‘has no credible opposition …. they resort to misinformation and ideology.’’
Synot says the claim that the Voice would have power over parliament and the government is “a lie. Plain and simple.’ Further, he says calls for the indigenous definition to be clarified ahead of the referendum is ‘‘a ridiculous dog-whistle.’’
“I think there’s a lot of misinformation,” Synot says of criticism he encounters on social media and elsewhere. “I don’t think many people understand much about our constitutional system of governance, how the Constitution works, what it says and then how Parliament works.”
A constitutional lawyer who lectures on the topic at the Griffith University Law School in Brisbane and is also an Associate at the Indigenous Law Centre at the University of New South Wales, Synot’s command of the constitutional and legal details around the Voice puts him in a strong position when arguing with its opponents.
Synot was particularly busy over the summer when the Voice proposal came under heavy attack. On the right, opposition leader Peter Dutton and sections of the media helped the ‘No’ case by arguing that the proposal lacked detail; on the left, indigenous activists headed by Senator Lidia Thorpe attacked it as window-dressing and argued that a treaty should come first.
Referenda in Australia have never fared well. Since the federation in 1901, only eight of 44 referenda have been approved by the public. Many observers are convinced that the ‘yes’ campaign is in trouble. This is a view Synot brushes aside, pointing out that the campaign is still in its early days.
“I think we need to remember how long election campaigns can actually be,” Synot says. “The referendum is not going to happen until the end of the year. The Prime Minister has said October, November or December. It will be in one of those months”.
Neither the Referendum Machine Act, which establishes the rules for the vote, nor the Constitutional Alteration Bill which authorises it, has been passed by the federal parliament.
Synot says the final versions of the question and amendment will be released by the end of the month but expects both to resemble the draft versions already released closely. He says despite the fact that complaints about a lack of detail showing up in polling, how the Voice will function has already been made clear.
“It (the Voice) will make representations to the executive and to the government. Parliament will have the power to decide how it functions. Very clearly, there’s going to be a voice representing Aboriginal people on the unique issues and decisions that affect them and are made about them. The constitution works in exactly the same way when it comes to the defence power or the taxation power.”
Synot often leans on the nation’s founding document to dispel arguments against the Voice, wherever they come from. Comparison with defence and taxation counters arguments from the ‘no’ case that the Voice will give indigenous people extraordinary and unprecedented powers.
He also uses constitutional recognition to differentiate the Voice from previous advisory bodies, something that critics on all sides, but mainly on the left, claim it will just be a glorified version of.
“The constitutional element is absolutely essential. It is the thing that’s different to all previous attempts that we’ve tried to address this issue, says Synott, arguing that a permanent place in the constitution will prevent future governments from removing the Voice and will give indigenous Australians enduring power and influence.
The constitution is less helpful in convincing sections of the indigenous community itself. Longtime activist Gary Foley recently told Umbrella News he didn’t want recognition in a document he regards as racist and a colonial hangover. Senator Thorp and her supporters believe the Voice infringes on Aboriginal sovereignty and want a treaty to be given priority.
While Synot argues that Aboriginal sovereignty has never been ceded, he says the legal and political reality is that indigenous people are part of the Australian state. “Treaty in this country is only ever going to be empowered by legislation passed by the Commonwealth government or by the states and territories. It’s not going to step outside the power of the Commonwealth. The United Nations is not going to come in and negotiate a treaty between two sovereign powers.”
The sequence of reforms, placing the Voice ahead of Treaty and Truth-telling, was agreed upon during the Uluru statement process, which Thorp and her supporters boycotted. “If we just avoid the Constitution and we say Treaty first. A Treaty is going to take a long time to negotiate if it’s done properly, a lot of resources and time, and we could get another hostile government in the future that decides, ‘you know what? It’s not working. We don’t want that treaty’, John Howard nations don’t sign treaties with themselves, that type of stuff, and they rip it up, and we’re back to ground zero. We don’t have a constitutional guarantee, voice or influence or a place where we’re able to be represented.”
None of those things will exist if the referendum fails either, a potentially devastating outcome that activists like Foley say is inevitable.
Synot disagrees, saying research, polling and anecdotal evidence indicate the ‘Yes’ case is well placed with most of the campaign still to come. While he sympathises with those, who are irked that three per cent of the population will have their rights determined by the other 97, he again points to the legal and political realities facing Indigenous people.
“If we want to be able to develop and build change, then we have to have a pragmatic way forward to do it,” he says. “Making demands and expecting the institutions of the state to acquiesce and deliver them the next day is just not going to happen. Overnight, it’s incremental.”