With the fearmongering tactics from sections of the “No” campaign intensifying, the referendum later this year is becoming a question of courage.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have demonstrated courage. As merely 4 per cent of the population, we are bravely inviting our non-Indigenous fellow citizens – 96 per cent of the population, many of whom have never met an Indigenous Australian – to decide if we should be recognised in the constitution through a Voice to Parliament.
We have done so knowing that if the referendum should fail, our situation will become much worse than the already unacceptable status quo.
Presently, Indigenous Australians are proportionately the most incarcerated people on the planet. We have a life expectancy of almost 10 years less than other Australians. For all the efforts by those in power to address the underlying issues – too often feigned, though sometimes genuine – the failures continue.
Just last week, the 2023 Closing the Gap report illustrated an ongoing, widening chasm, rather than a healing wound. Only four of the 19 Closing the Gap targets are on track. Some of the measures have worsened.
When we wrote the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017, we decided we need to take a new path to improving our lives, rather than more of the same. We made an informed, conscious decision to ask the Australian people to provide us with agency:
“When we have power over our destiny, our children will flourish, they will walk in two worlds, and their culture will be a gift to their country.
“We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.”
We are at great risk in this referendum. We are to be the subject and the Australian people the arbiter. We need voters to put themselves in our shoes.
Imagine your home and worldly possessions were stolen. You have been relegated to the margins of your yard with nothing. Your children have been taken and your family has been broken.
For hundreds of years, you have been discriminated against and gaslit. Through it all, you maintained your dignity and pride. You have petitioned the intruders to invite you in, many times. Your modest request is they listen to what you have to say.
Just when you thought that the people who now reside in your house were ready to accept the truth and come to an agreement about coexistence, they panic. They slam the door shut in your face.
You are locked out, at least for another hundred years.
A dark, cold winter storm is coming.
How would you feel?
Let’s move from a hypothetical to some historical fact in this country. Learn from how Indigenous people, in the Australian way, have courageously worked to provide you with this invitation. We, who have been on the margins of our own lands, physically, economically and politically.
Understand who we were before all of this began. Let’s debunk the first lie told by white ghosts, as we saw them in 1770. Markai in my language, Kalaw Lagaw Ya. You, like I was at school, may have been taught that my ancestors lived a wretched life – savages, unintelligent, uncivilised.
No history of this great land should begin without first acknowledging the peaceful and abundant life Indigenous people lived.
I have found the best way to help people understand what life was like for my people before colonisation is to ask for self-reflection. Think about how you feel when you visit that special place. The green valley vista with a cool breeze caressing fields of purple and yellow wildflowers. The deep blue sea fringed by white surf and silver fish playing by broad, golden sands. That waterhole, tucked into the folds of an omnipresent red rock, surrounded by a desert like an ocean of ochre. Those wetlands, reflecting a brilliant orange and violet dusk as magpie geese forage at the foot of an ancient escarpment.
Like you, my breath catches at the beauty and abundance of this great country. How ignorant must we be if we continue to deny that colonisation was anything but ruinous for Indigenous peoples?
Captain James Cook remarked in his journal on the lives of the people living here when he arrived. “In reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniencies so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of the Condition.”
So now let’s get back to the matter of courage, using historical fact.
When the British colonies arrived and quickly expanded, Indigenous Australians fought in defence of our families and our country, as you would have. Less practised at war, not conquerors of each other’s lands, we could not stop the frontal assault of colonisation. Yet we have survived.
After the Federation of Australia was forged in 1901, and the colonies became the six Australian states, the constitutional premise was that my people would soon die out. This premonition was assisted by the massacres that continued for decades into the 20th century. The institutionalised cruelties, forced assimilation and neglect are in living memory. Yet here we remain, a proud and distinct Indigenous people.
When we defended Australia abroad, fighting shoulder to shoulder with our fellow Anzacs, we were paid less, even as we fought in the trenches as equals. On our return to the lands of our ancestors, we were outcast and discarded by a white Australia that remained fearful of us gaining an equal place among them. White Australia wanted the country to be “spotless” – “snow white”, as was stated by a member of the house of representatives back then. Yet here we are, proudly Indigenous and proudly Australian.
We have petitioned and made statements, each time proposing political representation – for almost a century we have consistently called for a Voice. A petition to the King in the 1930s, the Yolŋu bark petitions in the 1960s, the Larrakia petition to the Queen in the 1970s, and again in the Barunga Statement in 1988 – aspirational moments dismissed.
First Peoples have not meekly waited for a Voice. We established representative bodies with the support of non-Indigenous allies in the 1920s through to the 1960s. We have convinced benevolent governments to do so as well in the 1970s, through to the most recent iterations: the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
One thing is undeniably certain from the history of our struggle: hostile governments always come along. They always take away our Voice. No Voice we have gained has ever had the opportunity to develop, evolve and improve as other institutions have in our democracy. Our representations are always intimidated, dismissed, defunded, demonised and repealed.
Yet our courage has been immutable.
Again, Indigenous people have bravely invited Australians to accept our representations. Why? Because we know the best outcomes are achieved when policies and laws that are about us are made with us. We know we deserve a rightful place in Australia’s founding document, the constitution.
This referendum is a question about our courage, now, fellow Australians. I know you have it in you. So, what is there to fear from saying “Yes”?
Australians will lose nothing if en masse we vote in favour of Indigenous recognition through a Voice. No one will lose their backyards. The wheels of government will not grind to a halt. A Voice, concerned with improving the lives of Indigenous Australians, won’t be telling the government where to park its submarines. Each of these concerns have been dismissed by the greatest Australian constitutional experts, in case common sense wasn’t enough.
We really have nothing to fear but our own shadows.
The “No” campaign is led by a group of shadows. They loom near a new dawn of unity and acceptance. They hang ominously over an awakening Australia that is ready to bloom in the warmth of our proud Indigenous heritage and culture – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, dances, songs and art. They gather and fulminate as Australians take a step closer to accepting that the longest continuous civilisation on the planet is foundational to who we are.
Like you, I see the shadows who are leaping and prancing across sections of our media unchecked. I feel the shadowy tactics of intimidation on social media – the trolls lurking under the bridge, coaxed from the gutter by Peter Dutton’s “re-racialising” Australia comments, infecting the heart of our democracy with their toxic tongues.
Take notice of how these shadows are poised, salivating with hunger for their precious – for power. They seek to loom large in the absence of truth, to re-create Australia in their grotesque image.
The “No” campaign will try to convince you this referendum will be divisive. Yet are we not already divided – we on the margins, and those in the house?
I implore you, in the coming months, to not fear the shadows of doubt. Instead, work as hard as we did. Take your fellow Australians by the hand and let us walk together into the sunlight, so future generations may bloom.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2023 as "A very simple ‘Yes’".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription