Cast your mind back some six years, when over 250 Indigenous delegates met at Uluru and reached a consensus on a 440 word statement now known as ‘The Uluru Statement from the Heart’.
The Uluru Statement was adopted in full by the Labor Party. After winning the 2022 election, the party planned for a referendum in late 2023. (A referendum was required as the Statement specifically asked for a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the constitution.) On cue, the National party rejected the Statement and endorsed a ‘NO’ vote – but it was the decision of the Liberals to join them that has the nation so divided. To quote Thomas Mayo, a signatory to the Uluru Statement, “the trolls are well and truly off the chain”.
Some Liberals like Julian Leeser and Bridget Archer were so bewildered to be caught on the wrong side of history they took action. Leeser resigned from the frontbench of the Liberal opposition on a matter of principle: “I want my children to be able to say, ‘Our father stood up for something he believes in,’ ” he explained. Bridget Archer stated, “If you consult with people who are affected by the decisions you make, you get a better outcome.”
What are the trolls objecting to in this proposal that has been gleaned from dialogues held across Australia, involving a robust sample of First Nations communities (note ‘communities’, not individuals). In a genuine dialogue, everyone wins – the opposite of the adversarial party politics of government. Why is the Voice so important and non-negotiable? It is because of the endemic, generational, structural problems that spring from not being heard. As the late Yunupingu said, “…..parliamentarians and bureaucrats do not listen because they do not have to.”
It was the lie of terra nullius from colonial times that underpinned the legal system of land ownership, and foreshadowed the protracted struggles to recognise Native Title. Come Federation, Aboriginals were excluded, White Australian sentiments were riding high, and all agreed Aborigines were a dying race. By 1967, a referendum was held to put this myth to rest. The blinkers were finally removed and the survivors were counted.
Royal Commissions have come and gone. Representative bodies (NACC, NAC, ATSIC, NCAFP – endless acronyms) were all abandoned as new governments occupied Canberra. Professor of constitutional law and one of the architects of The Voice, Megan Davis, writes in The Quarterly about the impact of telling the same story over and over and not being heard (‘Voice of reason on recognition and renewal’).
The Voice is essential to break the ritual failure of addressing Indigenous issues. This ritualism involves accepting the legitimacy of goals whilst losing focus on the best way to achieve them. Consider the farcical yearly review of ‘Closing the Gap’, followed by the repeated lamentation of ‘no change’. Royal Commissions end up on the shelf, and recommendations are ignored in the climate of conservatism. Remember how quickly Malcolm Turnbull shelved the Statement, revealing the impotence of genuine liberals up against the hard Right?
PLEASE REMEMBER: THE ULURU STATEMENT WAS ISSUED NOT TO A PRIME MINISTER, BUT TO THE AUSTRALIAN PEOPLE, AS AN INVITATION TO JOIN WITH INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS TO ASK THE GOVERNMENT TO LISTEN.
What a rallying call! Many volunteers are out letter boxing, manning stalls, door knocking and café crawling. All this restores my faith in our capacity to do the right thing. Over 70 years ago when Menzies asked Australians to ban the Communist Party, we voted ‘no’, because political freedom was guaranteed in the constitution. Fifty years ago, we voted to include our First Nation people. Now, it is time to listen. And time to get proactive: contact YES23 for a publicity package, talk to people, set up a stall.
Thomas Mayo wants us to ask ourselves: how will we feel admitting to the next generation that the likes of Peter Dutton, Pauline Hanson and Barnaby Joyce were right – that the Australian people just didn’t have the courage and generosity to acknowledge our Indigenous heritage, and dignify it with The Voice? How ashamed would we be?
(First published in The Inklings)