Ben Abbatangelo
Actions speak louder than the Voice

Let me start with a story. It was passed on to me a while back by Kado Muir, an esteemed Aboriginal artist, anthropologist and archaeologist.

He told me his brother-in-law, when he was a young fella, used to be in a lot of spear fights. “Now, when a spear comes out of the woomera, there’s two rotations that take effect,” Muir told me. “The point and tail remain stable, but in the middle, there are two rotations in the shaft.”

Standing in front of it, the spear looks like a massive propeller. “When you’re waiting down the end with your shield, the idea is to ignore all of the noise around it and focus on the little black dot, which is the tip of the spear,” he said. “Because that little black dot is the difference between you walking or getting carried off. That little black dot is all that matters.” 

I thought about this story as I looked at all the noise around the Voice to Parliament, all the nauseating discourse, the rigid binaries of “Yes” and “No”, the total absence of space for curiosity, for exploring theories of change or examining doctrines of justice and fairness. Everything is the spinning shaft and no one is looking at the little black dot.

There is a grotesque disconnect between what’s being said and what’s being done. The focus on the future is obscuring what’s happening in the present – all of which is a violent continuation of the past. There is so much the Albanese government could be doing right now to improve the lives of First Nations communities, but it isn’t.

Zeroing in on that little black dot, Labor’s litany of recent political decisions continue to invalidate the promise of the Voice. Despite all it says about “closing the gap”, “reconciliation” and “better outcomes being achieved when Indigenous people have input on the decisions that affect them”, there is not yet any proof this Labor government is curbing its contempt, no glimpses that it can in fact be cured.

One would naively think the “unifying moment” presented through the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the upcoming referendum would amount to a moment of ceasefire, that this government would maybe, just for a moment, take the boot off our necks and swing that illusory moral arc towards the dignity and justice that we have long been denied. Instead, it continues to pee on our backs and tell us that it’s raining. Juxtaposing the vision with the reality, it’s evident that the war rages on. Same empire, different face. 

During the month of May, Labor sacrificed one of the world’s most profound archives. Murujuga is colloquially known as the world’s largest outdoor rock art gallery. It boasts more than a million petroglyphs that date back more than 40,000 years and is home to the origins of human thought and expression. 

I have been welcomed onto that Country. Those lands, waters and skies are alive. They are the people. I have felt their spirits wash over my body – in fact, the shivers engross my body as I reflect and write about it now. 

Despite its invaluable significance and unrelenting opposition from Traditional Owners, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek inked approval for portions of Murujuga to be destroyed to make way for the $6.4 billion gas-guzzling and climate-wrecking Perdaman fertiliser factory. 

Last November, Plibersek said the destruction of Juukan Gorge was shameful. “We have to do better,” she said. “We are committed to doing that in true partnership with First Nations.” That was then, I guess.

Labor has also pumped $1.5 billion into building the Middle Arm petrochemicals plant – a development on which Larrakia Traditional Owners haven’t been consulted and to which they have not consented. Located in the relatively pristine Darwin Harbour, the newly rebranded Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct is slated to support the aggressive expansion of gas production across the Northern Territory, including the fracking of the Beetaloo Basin and the Barossa offshore gas field and pipeline – projects that are, of course, fiercely opposed by respective Traditional Owners. 

Much to the donors’ delight, these projects go hand in hand with the disgraceful safeguard mechanism scheme, which gives vandalising companies a licence to continue pillaging, plundering and polluting the living lands, waters and skies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The consequent masses of nuclear waste from the outrageous AUKUS agreement will inevitably be sent to our communities – as Australia cedes its fictitious notion of sovereignty in order to uphold American hegemony and the self-indulging rules-based global order. 

But the shamelessness doesn’t stop there. Nor does the cognitive dissonance.

Anthony Albanese choked up during the press conference where he announced the final wording for the Voice to Parliament referendum. Flanked by prominent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander faces, he proclaimed that his Labor government “are all in”. Just over a month later, he was at the coronation of King Charles III, swearing his allegiance to the same crown that invaded our lands, massacred our peoples, stole our children and stripped us of our cultures.

When the late Uncle Archie Roach passed, Albanese was quick to speak about the pain and trauma that Uncle carried as a survivor of the Stolen Generations. His words were and will continue to be an abomination for as long as his government refuses to implement the “Bringing Them Home” report. That report has been collecting dust since 1997, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children continue to be forcefully removed from their kin at record rates. 

You’d think the government would commit to picking the lowest hanging fruit, but even that has proved too far out of reach.

As I have previously written for The Saturday Paper, Labor has reformed rather than abolished income management, taking it back to its racist roots. Government-administered welfare cards continue to target Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities – making income management an almost-exclusive feature for Indigenous peoples, just as Labor initially designed it to be.

The offensive rise in the welfare rate, which ignores the findings and recommendations of the government’s own Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee, weighs heavily on First Nations peoples and is another choice to keep our communities in poverty. 

While our loved ones continue to die preventable deaths in custody, the findings and recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody continue to be ignored – just as they have been since they were first published in April 1991. 

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus and his state counterparts are refusing to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14, despite the overwhelming medical and legal evidence. Aboriginal legal services have been starved of necessary funding and are at risk of freezing services. The recent injection of money will keep the lights on, but it is nowhere near enough. 

Labor state governments continue to wage war on Aboriginal young people across the country. The Queensland government recently overrode its Human Rights Act to pass more bail laws to cage more First Nations children. Instead of confronting the lynch mobs roaming the streets of northern Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk and her government have chosen to entertain them. 

The Royal Commission and Board of Inquiry into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory has proved to be nothing more than a political sedative. Children as young as 10 still linger in the condemned Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. The jail has been expanded, not abolished. The recommendations remain null and void. Often, 100 per cent of the children are Aboriginal: the vast majority on remand.

Natasha Fyles’s Northern Territory government has been able to unsee the unseeable, as it passes more and more laws that funnel First Nations children into prison and out of home “care”.

It’s the same in Western Australia and Banksia Hill. Aboriginal children, nearly all of whom have a cognitive impairment or foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, are caged in torturous and inhumane facilities. After the recent uprising in defiance of their draconian treatment, then premier Mark McGowan labelled these young people “terrorists”. 

This archaic commitment to cruelty has culminated with Australia being on the verge of becoming the first OECD nation to be placed on a non-compliance list for failing to meet basic human rights obligations relating to the prevention of torture. Sit with that thought for a moment. 

One in 20 people in the Northern Territory is homeless. The overwhelming majority of these people are Indigenous – refugees on their own lands. Displaced, again. Despite the rate being 12 times higher than the national average, the Northern Territory receives the least federal funding because the calculations are done by population not by need. Or, where the resources are and where they aren’t.

As Albanese’s government and its state counterparts cast a rosy picture for the future, they continue to double-down on the same violent precedents and policies of the past. Their whole focus is on the Voice – but everything else here is the little black dot, the forces killing and dispossessing us right now.

Hindsight has proved that the 1967 referendum constitutionally enabled the federal government to count us as humans but treat us like animals. 

Any objective accounting would conclude the Voice won’t change this. We will still be treated like animals and the government will continue to act as zookeepers. We will remain caged and controlled, starved of our rights to be free on our own lands and the authors of our destinies. 

After all, what good is having a Voice when the people you’re speaking to either don’t know how to listen, don’t care or simply believe they know better?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "Actions speak louder than the Voice".

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