Daniel James
The unavoidable consequences of the referendum

Today we will know. We will know what sort of country we want to be, whether the narrow path to victory for the “Yes” campaign has petered out into a track to nowhere or whether, beyond the telling of every opinion poll, today will result in a rare successful referendum. For many First Nations people, if the result is “Yes”, it will be heard as a whisper. If the result is “No”, it will be deafening.

The past 45 days have revealed what Australia is. It is a place of many good and honourable people, but one where we are trapped in the noxiousness of a political and media landscape that encourages the worst in people. Many have shown themselves to be horrible, a test for those among us who look to see the better side of human nature. There have been people taking pleasure in the misery of others, refusing to see the complicity we all have in the plight of the first inhabitants of this land. These people have shown an inability for nuance or empathy for the stories of others.

With a few exceptions the hatred directed at First Nations people – whether for, against or undecided over the Voice – has been led by men in a dialogue framed by men. Man-children who rarely heard the word “No” growing up now deem themselves the arbiter of its usage. They are the deciders of what can be given, what can be taken and what can never be contemplated again. First Nations people have been told to get over it, pull yourself up by the bootstraps. The more pretentious among them, man-children such as the faux statesman and thinker Tony Abbott, say our pain and trauma is no more than a neo-Marxist myth. Each of these men reveal a deep desire for the world to be seen in their own, white image.

The debate, in all its forms and platforms, has deflated so many trying to participate in a civil discourse. Arguments have been reduced to clickbait and slogans, appealing to wilful ignorance or the apathy throughout the electorate. It is that collective ignorance, both understandable but in some cases unforgivable, that has given oxygen to the disinformation, the lies and the overt racism that has now been flushed out into the public domain.

On an intellectual level, it is a positive thing to see the howls of hatred come from out of the shadows and into the daylight. It’s better to see people for who they really are and then perhaps hold them to account. On a spiritual, social and emotional level, however, it hurts and it damages. Throughout the course of this debate, things have shifted. What has emerged is an environment where you are attacked for calling out racism, for daring to be merely decent. It paints an unpleasant picture of what Australia has become, a place where it is far easier to be a racist than to be held to account. Those who parrot Martin Luther King Jr’s famous lines about content of character as an argument against the Voice fail to mention that the bar for what is deemed good character has never been set so low. Time will tell whether this referendum was an outlier or whether a new base has been set for racism, bigotry and hatred, a potential new norm for public discourse.

As damaging as the unrelenting vitriol over the past 45 days has been, just as damaging has been the great silence. There has been an incredible reticence from the conservative “No” campaign to call out the numerous abhorrent words and actions carried out in support of their case. There have been Neo-Nazis on the streets of our capital cities, half-arsed comedians mockingly acknowledging “violent black men”, former footballers urging crowds to boo welcome to Country ceremonies at football finals across the country – all met with silence from leading “No” proponents.

It wasn’t until a Neo-Nazi filmed himself threatening Senator Lidia Thorpe while burning an Aboriginal flag – an obvious and ominous visual representation of the hate coursing through the veins of the country – that Peter Dutton was forced to condemn the action. The images were too damaging on the nightly news.

For the past few months, the referendum has been the main topic of conversation that friends and foes have been willing to engage in with First Nations people. As I am sure is the case for many others, I cannot think of a social or professional situation over the past 45 days where the referendum has not been raised. As the tenor of the debate has become more toxic, more overtly racist, each innocent query has felt more and more loaded.

It’s gruelling enough for the Indigenous leaders of the “Yes” and “No” campaigns, and for those of us who have access to print and radio to project our voices, but imagine those simply trying to live their lives, parents who send their children off to school every morning wondering what the schoolyard may or may not parrot from the “No” campaign. Think about the Elders, the grandparents – leaders by quiet example only, who must put up with the race-baiting and the lies about the impacts of colonialism or be looked upon by mainstream society as failures because of the plight into which they were born. This debate has been horrific for them.

They will have in their lifetimes shouted the mantras that have rung out across hundreds, perhaps thousands, of land rights rallies or Invasion Day marches. They have stood in the community protests over the ongoing outrage of Black deaths in custody, the calls of “nothing about us without us”, “always was, always will be”. All of that has now dissolved into memory. There has been nothing but talking about us these past 45 days.

No matter the result, today will mark the end of the last great action for a generation of activists and leaders and the lines of heritage that led them here. Don’t get me wrong: the fight will go on – it must – but this will be the last open dialogue with the Australian people in which everyone is asked to consider our plight and passively act on it by writing one word. For us, there has been nothing passive about the whole exercise.

Perhaps after today, for some of our leaders and for many others across First Nations communities, the dialogue on reconciliation will be over – met with silence. It is a sad thought. Despite the small victories etched by generations of activists, people who have fought tirelessly for their people will feel a sense of waste. Tirelessness gives way to tiredness. History, in all its tragedy, has shown the sense of loss, rejection and the frustration that goes along with it.

For some, these 45 days will be among their last. The stats tell us at what stage of life the Aboriginal children of the 1967 referendum are at. I know many of them and they deserve better than what we as a country have been able to dish up.

Invariably, witnessing the experience of those living, the ones we treasure, evokes memories, images and voices of the old people who are no longer here. Many of them too would have witnessed or been involved in the ’67 referendum – the first time the nation put its collective thought to the question of the Aborigine. The overwhelming “Yes” in that poll instigated the social justice and land rights movements of the late ’60s and ’70s, something far more powerful than the constitutional reform itself.

It was the Aboriginal children who bore witness to the referendum that went on to stake the tents outside Parliament House. It was these children who, as adults, dedicated their lives to improving health, education and justice outcomes for their people. They must have thought Australia was on a new trajectory, that they lived in an Australia that finally heard their voices and sympathised with the collective plight of the First Australians. This was something their old people could not have possibly imagined.

Yet time and history show us that faith in Australia’s ability to work with Aboriginal people has eroded. Promises of treaty have been made and broken, promises of land rights given and then extinguished. For our Elders it’s been a life of one step forward, two steps back. The social and economic landscape is not an even playing field for First Nations people – it’s more akin to a slippery slope.

No matter today’s result, there will have to be a reckoning. “Yes” is a chance to draw a line through what we’ve all just endured. “No” won’t be more of the same; it will be worse. You can hear the vitriol ticking away, waiting to explode later tonight or in the small hours of tomorrow. Either way, tomorrow won’t bring any energy to what needs to be done. It will take time to heal, to reorientate ourselves in order to work out what is true and good once again, because over the past 45 days everything has shifted.

Whether the result is a whisper or a roar in the ear of First Nations people, the echo from this moment in history will ring on, long after this argument is over. 

Listen to Daniel James’s five-part series about the Voice on 7am, wherever you get your podcasts.

Paul Bongiorno is on leave.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "A whisper or a roar".

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