Claire G. Coleman
Australia’s refusal to listen

I cried myself to sleep, eventually, in an uncomfortable bed in an Airbnb about 4am on Saturday morning. It was not fear or anxiety; it was not concern or panic about the referendum to come, fear of an uncomfortable result; it was not a reaction to the horrific abuse myself and other Indigenous people were receiving during the referendum.

I was on a work trip in Vancouver and, because of the mysteries of time zones and the date line, the Voice referendum polls closed at midnight Friday, Vancouver time. I waited until midnight to watch the count begin, hoping for a good or even close result. Then, when we had results, there was no way to sleep. I watched the ABC vote count like a driver slowing down at a car crash on the freeway.

The referendum result was a shitshow of epic proportions, far worse than even I could have imagined, and I imagine dystopias for a living. The referendum campaign was a living nightmare and I really shouldn’t have been surprised when the result was worse than I thought possible.

It seems people will be unpacking and examining the referendum result for years to come. We need to understand why a referendum that started with universal support descended into hell and failure. If by some miracle there’s another referendum offering Indigenous people equity, we can use what we learnt to campaign, just like we tried to use what we understood from the failed republic referendum 24 years ago.

I am sure this information will be useful in 50 years or so when this comes up again, if it ever comes up again. I don’t believe we will have another opportunity like the Voice referendum in my lifetime.

I wait with bated breath for some people who campaigned for “No” to discover what their real prize is. I think many of them are not going to get what they think they asked for, a bit like Brexit. People had different ideas of where a “No” vote would lead, what a “No” vote would bring besides the nothing on the ballot. Some imagined there was more to “No” than an end to negotiations. To me this was an enviable power of imagination.

The progressive “No” movement, built out of the Blak Sovereign movement, seemed to imagine a “No” to the Voice was a “Yes” to treaty or Indigenous sovereignty. They believed the referendum questions were “Yes to a Voice” versus “Yes to a treaty”, as if those two political responses were somehow related, in some way mutually exclusive, and that a “No” to the Voice would magically evoke treaty.

It is certain some people who voted “No” were buoyed and encouraged by that thinking, by believing they were supporting Indigenous sovereignty by voting “No”. There was never any evidence this would happen.

Peter Dutton’s “No” – the campaign of Nyunggai Warren Mundine, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and a million social media trolls and bots – seemed to have an imagination just as vivid. Their theories were somehow even wilder, bordering on nuts if we are being frank. Theories of alternatives to a Voice ran wild, changing by the hour, new crazy shit jumping out at us at random intervals. Some of those intervals were only random on the surface. I watched as trolls all started saying the same things at the same time, perhaps planning their next talking point and when to launch it in some other secret place.

Some of the imaginings I heard were that a “No” to the Voice was a vote for an audit of Indigenous funding, or that a “No” vote was a vote for another referendum proposed by Dutton, one they claimed would include recognition in the Constitution but no Voice. Some also claimed a “No” vote was a vote to get rid of the “fake Aboriginals” they see around every corner and under every bed.

These wild theories, from the two mutually incompatible but positionally aligned “No” camps, forgot something important: the referendum was only a choice between the Voice and no change at all. There was no intent to follow up with another referendum, an audit or treaty. Nobody, not the government nor the opposition, had any intent to do something else after the vote. The “No” vote was a simple negation, a rejection of the first ask in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Voting “No” was a vote for literally what the word says: no, nada, nothing, zip, fuck-all.

In that way it was reminiscent of the 1999 republic referendum, during which a successful campaign was run to convince some supporters of a republic to vote against it, if they didn’t agree with the model presented. There was an implied, and sometimes explicit, offering that if that referendum failed, we could have another one. Twenty-four years later and the idea of a republic is no closer. There has been no other offer, no other chance.

I am relatively confident the sovereign “No” voters were genuine in their beliefs and it’s easy to understand why they campaigned against the Voice. Their belief that the Voice was the wrong idea or didn’t go far enough was not malicious or hateful. If anything it was foolish, lacking an understanding of the political reality in this colony.

That reality is that 3 per cent of the population is not enough to enforce political will in a democracy. Even if 100 per cent of Indigenous people voted together, which is in itself a big ask, we don’t have the numbers to meaningfully effect the vote. This is the reason many of us have a strong belief in negotiation and campaigning as the most powerful tool we have. The only way we have political power is by inviting mainstream Australia to work with us on a solution.

We alone cannot force the rest of the country to do something. We cannot demand sovereignty and expect to get it. We cannot demand treaty and expect it to be given to us. A mouse cannot make demands of a lion. Many if not all mob in remote communities were aware of this problem, asking the mainstream for help rather than making demands.

That was the essence of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its strength. It was a generous, opening offer from Indigenous people, an offer in a negotiation, a request for partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

I asked people early in the campaign, “What will progressives feel if they vote ‘No’ thinking Aboriginal people don’t want the Voice but discover after the vote that most Aboriginal people in remote communities voted for ‘Yes’?” This is precisely what came to pass. People voting in the mobile booths that collected votes in remote Aboriginal communities and homelands in the Northern Territory, literally the Aboriginal people from the “bush”, were overwhelmingly for “Yes”. Most Indigenous people wanted the Voice. People didn’t believe that or didn’t want to believe that.

In the end there is only one sensible interpretation I have to explain why the “No” vote won – or, more accurately, why the referendum failed. The people of Australia simply don’t want Indigenous people to have a voice in our own affairs. They don’t want us advising on laws and policies that affect only us.

If Australia wanted to listen to Indigenous people, it would have voted “Yes”. If Australia wanted to listen to Indigenous people, it would have listened to the Indigenous people explaining why to vote “Yes”. Voters would have listened to Sally Scales, Megan Davis, Rachel Perkins, Marcia Langton, Thomas Mayo and the many other Indigenous people who said we need the Voice enshrined in the Constitution. Australia told us something on Saturday: it doesn’t want to listen to Indigenous people.

That is why I cried myself to sleep in Vancouver, Canada. Until that point I had imagined Australia was willing to listen to our voices. I knew the referendum was doing poorly in the polls but I held on to hope. In the end, Australia, you rejected the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and in doing so, you broke mine.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 21, 2023 as "No, nada, nothing".

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