The referendum campaign has cemented racism into the body politic, and the ‘baseless’ rejection of ‘Yes’ will create a bleak future for Australia and those who stood with First Nations people. By Marcia Langton.
Marcia Langton: ‘Whatever the outcome, reconciliation is dead’
I take no pleasure in writing this piece. I have spent my life campaigning for recognition and reconciliation in this country. Through all that time, I have found ways to feed hope. I have believed often in our better angels.
Now, though, I can see the truth: whatever the outcome of today’s vote, whether the double majority required to make this alteration to the Constitution is achieved or not, reconciliation is dead.
Australians had the opportunity to accept our invitation in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Only they had the power to decide whether to accept or reject constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by voting “Yes” or “No” on a representative body enshrined in the Constitution.
I hope I’m wrong, but everything around me is saying that today Australia will reject that invitation. It will choose to leave our hand outstretched.
In a recent column, Chin Tan, the outgoing race discrimination commissioner, rightly identified a key lesson from the referendum campaign: “What we do already know and what has been reinforced during this referendum is that Australia urgently needs a national anti-racism framework and bipartisan response to racism.”
It’s a rational response, based on the overwhelming evidence of the surge in race hate and anti-Semitism during the referendum, not just from common or garden-variety race haters, who think we’re going to take their backyard, again, but Neo-Nazis spreading vile falsehoods in videos and memes online, threatening the lives of not just Senator Lidia Thorpe but numerous Indigenous and non-Indigenous campaigners for the “Yes” vote.
I agree with Chin Tan intellectually, but if he’s talking about bipartisanship in overcoming racial discrimination, he is dreaming. The nation has been poisoned. There is no fix for this terrible outcome. The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, has made racism his calling card. He has injected fear and race hate into his campaign against the referendum proposal with such gusto, such deceit, there is no hope that a national stance against racism is within reach for generations.
Dutton has cemented race hate into the body politic in a way we did not foresee last year but that now is very clear. He has killed any hope of reconciliation, ably assisted by Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Nyunggai Warren Mundine.
Dutton began his “No” campaign by claiming the referendum proposal would “re-racialise” Australia. He has been a member of cabinet for a decade, a parliamentarian since 2001 – it is improbable that he has not read the Constitution or at least been briefed on it, particularly the “race power” at section 51 (xxvi). He was a minster in a government that used that very power to harm Indigenous Australians.
His other lie to Australians was “no detail”. Again, he was in cabinet when both the interim and final of the Calma–Langton Voice co-design reports, totalling more than 400 pages, were tabled and released for further consultation. It’s doubtful he read them because the detail he keeps asking for is right there in the pages.
Beyond this, the key message sold by his “No” case is that we, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia, are entirely to blame for our predicament. “Colonisation,” Price said at the National Press Club during the campaign, had a “positive impact”. She elaborated with another monstrous lie: “I mean, now we’ve got running water, we’ve got readily available food.” She said there were “no ongoing negative impacts of colonisation”.
This was just one of the extraordinary, baseless statements made during her appearance at the National Press Club. She clearly does not know or care about the enormous body of evidence that contradicts her, nor the people to whom this evidence refers.
Just last year, a report from the Water Services Association of Australia showed that tap water in more than 500 Indigenous communities was not regularly tested and often wasn’t safe to drink. In remote areas, communities are receiving drinking water with unacceptable levels of uranium, arsenic, fluoride and nitrate. Fixing this is estimated to require an investment of $2.2 billion.
Price also rejected the suggestion that colonisation has led to generations of trauma and suggested families of convicts faced similar struggles. Again, the medical evidence for trauma and intergenerational trauma is substantial and very much a part of the allied health initiatives that are available to those who have access to a health service.
We know from this evidence that trauma causes high blood pressure and stress, which leads to heart problems and shortens life. It reduces one’s capacity to engage in normal social interactions, such as in the workplace or in school and in the family.
I don’t know a single Indigenous person who hasn’t encountered these issues, who hasn’t come from families that struggled and were discriminated against in profound ways. The denial of these realities by the likes of Mundine and Price, and the motives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people willing to back their views, is truly difficult to understand. Getting to this point in the logic of your argument deceives the public in the face of centuries of knowledge, understanding and experience from those of us who have done the hard yards for decades. It is denying the real experiences of Indigenous people.
Of course, there are hundreds of dedicated and passionate community-controlled organisations across the country that are doing the invaluable and gruelling work, not only on the frontlines caring for the people who are experiencing these dire realities, but also gathering the data and evidence to present to each successive government to try to advocate for change in these areas. It’s a slow and often ineffective process. These people are doing the work that would become the work of the Voice if the country sees fit to enshrine it.
In the event of a “No” vote, it will be these organisations that will continue to experience the dual trauma of witnessing the real-world, real-time consequences of ineffective and discriminatory government policy and decision-making on their communities, while simultaneously trying to work and advocate within that same system. The “No” campaign and the architects of it will have a political win that will only further entrench structural racism in our lives. They will gloat about it. They will go out of their way to make our lives worse simply because they are filled with a hatred of the marginalised. This is a curdled view of the world, based on a perverse neoliberal agenda that divides people into those who deserve support and those who don’t. Pull up your socks, get a job, the gap will be closed.
In the highly unlikely event of a successful referendum outcome, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has committed to establishing a parliamentary committee chaired jointly by a representative from Labor and from the Coalition who will work together to legislate the Voice. How the Voice will look – its membership and functions – would be decided by parliament, as plainly stated on the ballot paper and in all official statements of the question.
The Voice would make representations to the parliament and to the executive government, the barest measure imaginable that would give Indigenous Australians a formal say in policies and legislations that affect us, an opportunity to advise against using the “race power” to discriminate against us. This would be nothing more than advice: the parliament would retain absolute sovereignty in legislating all matters, as it has constitutional powers to do so.
But who from Indigenous Australia would serve with Dutton’s appointments to this parliamentary committee?
If the majority of Australian voters agree with the “No” campaign and laud the New Right version of racism, the approach to Indigenous Affairs will be poisoned from the top level of party policy to the bottom of the bureaucratic chain. Thousands of pages to the contrary, the data from medical specialists, epidemiologists and other experts will be out the window in favour of cheap, nasty, false, racist sloganeering.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves will be ignored and excluded from policy decisions because the electorate has said “No”. No to including us in the constitutional fabric, no to empowering us to advise on our own futures. No to submissions to parliament and executive government to avoid using the “race power” to discriminate against us. Any Indigenous person with an iota of self-respect and regard for the futures of other Indigenous Australians will stay well away. To be a puppet for the foul vision created by Dutton and his mates, the great replacement theory advocates, would be conceding to their core belief – that we are members of an inferior race and incapable of making decisions for ourselves. Only political grifters such as Price and Mundine, both of them incapable of understanding the import of the Closing the Gap statistics, will sign up for a tour of duty with this vision.
Both major parties say they support the recognition of Indigenous Australians. This is not true in practice. In fact, the appearance of policy agreement on Indigenous constitutional recognition is a saga of deceit and treachery, kicked down the road for more than a decade. The prime minister is erring on the side of good faith in citing Coalition statements in support of recognition, when those of us who have been along for the ride have watched in dismay as each government manoeuvred out of their commitments by delaying until the next election and then tossing their responsibility to the next government.
Since the Council for Aboriginal Affairs was established in 1967, in response to that year’s referendum, there have been 11 Indigenous representative bodies in total, operating with varying degrees of success. Each one of them has been dismantled on a political whim. With each election, the advances we make are swept away and new and far too often inappropriate policies replace them, policies in which we have little to no say. For more than a decade, we have had no representative body, no single group to give advice on our behalf to the parliament.
Both major parties have been responsible for abolishing these Indigenous representative bodies. The Council for Aboriginal Affairs reported directly to then prime minister Harold Holt, but following his death it was redirected to report to a new minister in charge of Aboriginal affairs, William Wentworth, and received little cooperation from the rest of the government. It was dissolved by Malcolm Fraser in 1976.
To support the aims of Aboriginal self-determination, the Whitlam government in 1973 created Australia’s first elected Indigenous representative body, the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, to provide advice on Aboriginal policy. More than 27,000 Indigenous people voted to elect the 41 members of the committee. As it was created administratively, no parliamentary action was necessary when it was abolished in 1977. It was succeeded by another “administrated program”, the National Aboriginal Conference, which was abolished by the Hawke government in 1985.
One of the more longstanding representative bodies, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, was created by Bob Hawke in 1989. This commission, known as ATSIC, was intended to combine representative and executive roles by taking over the responsibilities of the former Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
John Howard vocally opposed the creation of ATSIC, saying its legislation struck at the heart of the unity of the Australian people. In what is now an old familiar argument, re-run by Price, Mundine and others, he said: “If the government wants to divide Australian against Australian, if it wants to create a black nation within the Australian nation, it should go ahead with its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission legislation and treaty.”
To no one’s surprise, when Howard became prime minister, he conducted multiple reviews and audits in an attempt to expose fraudulent activity that would justify the shutting down of ATSIC. Following discretionary funding cuts, the commission was abolished in 2005. That same year, Howard appointed the National Indigenous Council. There was no consultation with Indigenous people. The council was dissolved by the Rudd government three years later.
So appalled were many Indigenous people at this, they began consulting across the nation on the structure of a replacement body that would be constituted by its Indigenous members and independent of government and legislation. The consultations and design process were led by Professor Tom Calma, Tanya Hosch and others, and resulted in a corporation rather than a government body, specifically so it could not be dissolved by government fiat. The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples began operating in 2010 and its members voted for the representatives on the national body. However, following the global financial crisis, the government refused to create a permanent endowment to fund its ongoing operation and by 2013 the body was relying on paid subscriptions from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members and organisations. (The congress went into voluntary administration and ceased operating in 2019.) Also in 2013, the Abbott government appointed a new Indigenous Advisory Council, chaired by Nyunggai Warren Mundine. This body was never formally abolished but appeared to stop operating after the 2019 election.
This chronology demonstrates the absolute commitment of the conservative governments to ignore the grassroots Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices and appoint their own hand-picked favourites as a foil for ignoring the majority.
Not to be deterred by “identity politics”, in 2018, then prime minster Scott Morrison appointed Tony Abbott as his “special envoy for Indigenous affairs”, with a focus on “improving remote school attendance”.
In addition to representational bodies, our leaders have developed umbrella organisations or federations of community-controlled Indigenous corporations and sector-specific bodies in the fields of legal services, health and housing during the past 50 years to prosecute their policy and service approaches with Australian governments. In 2018, the largest of these, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) brought these bodies together to form the Coalition of Peaks as a non-incorporated non-government organisation. It comprises more than 80 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled peak and member organisations across Australia. Other bodies became members because of the urgent need to address the failure of the Closing the Gap strategy. These included the ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body and several large Aboriginal land councils.
The formation of the Coalition of Peaks was in response to concerns that governments were proposing a new Closing the Gap strategy without any involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The chair of the Coalition of Peaks has said the proposed Voice to Parliament is complementary to its role.
This revolving door of Indigenous advisory mechanisms has an extraordinarily destructive impact on our people and their communities. The ability of representative bodies to provide independent, evidence-based advice to make a lasting impact is extremely limited when the body itself is under constant threat of abolition.
What has been notably absent throughout these decades of political football is bipartisanship on policies based on evidence, policies and programs that are allowed to run long enough to show some success in reaching parity in health, education, employment and income levels. What is also noticeable is the persistent refusal to acknowledge success in Indigenous affairs. The narrative of failure is wheeled out repeatedly to bolster the larger Australian narrative: Indigenous people will inevitably die out or be assimilated; Indigenous people are incapable; Indigenous people must be governed.
The Closing the Gap strategy was launched 15 years ago. It was a desperate measure following the abolition of ATSIC, an attempt to reduce the stark disparity between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians. Designed by Aboriginal leaders, including Professor Calma, and experts relying on epidemiological data, the strategy introduced targets for reducing child mortality and increasing life expectancy and life outcomes in education, literacy and numeracy and employment, to name a few.
In 2018, the government’s 10-year progress report indicated that only three of the target areas were likely to be met, with many ongoing concerns. Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare details the life-threatening conditions a majority of our population faces. This kind of evidence washes over most of the population, their eyes glazing as they try to comprehend it.
I am not the only Aboriginal person concerned with how to communicate this dire situation without using the thoughtless deficit language of the social sciences, language that dehumanises minority and Indigenous groups. We are not making any significant advances in closing the gaps and the progress that we have made is far too slow. Of critical concern is the desperate situation facing our young people.
In 2021, a third (33.1 per cent) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians were aged under 15 years compared with 17.9 per cent of non-Indigenous people. This is vitally important to understand, especially given the extent of the disadvantages they face now and will face increasingly in the future.
They will be unable to vote on the Voice, a critical decision that will affect their future disproportionately to anyone else’s. The leading cause of death for this age group is intentional self-harm and suicide.
On other important targets such as adult mortality rates and infant mortality rates, we will not close the gap in my lifetime or even the next generation. The way that Indigenous affairs is conducted is not working to ensure we survive as First Peoples. It is not working to ensure we survive with a life expectation at parity with other Australians, that our cultures and languages survive. We face an existential threat in the future if these issues continue to be administered and imagined as they have been for the past 50 years.
On the other hand, the “No” campaign has no answers to this existential threat. It has made no serious policy recommendations, apparently wanting more of the same. It’s they who are incapable of an intelligent policy response.
To all this, Price repeats the lie that dividing the country has been the goal of the “Yes” campaign – that the Voice will exist to make Australians feel guilty, to split our nation along the lines of “race”, to bemoan colonisation. She is demonstrably wrong. The referendum proposal is a simple measure for empowering Indigenous people by giving us the dignity of acknowledgement and a say in our futures.
Price would deny us this so she is heard above our voices as the new face of assimilation. Unlike the great gentleman and senator Neville Bonner, who realised the truth of his role as a symbol of assimilation in the old parties of the Coalition, Price has no such inclination. Rather, she spouts falsehoods and berates her own people as backwards and unworthy.
It’s worth thinking about what else will happen in the event of a “No” vote this weekend, aside from seeing Peter Dutton’s gloating face in the media and fire in the bellies of the alt-right and Neo-Nazis. Should the referendum fail, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will face an even more profound crisis of confidence in the Australian government.
I am hoping the Albanese government will work with our leaders to develop a robust policy stance following whatever outcome in the referendum, to turn the tide of the vicious assault on us as peoples and our right to exist, our right to health services, our right to live as long as other Australians and to thrive rather than just survive.
A slight positive from this campaign is that we have seen with our own eyes the Australians who now know more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the challenges we face.
These voters can see the value not only in the representative body but in Indigenous peoples themselves, as human beings. They are aware of the mortality rates of adults and youth, the increasing infant mortality rate, health conditions that were eradicated in the rest of the population decades ago, and soaring incarceration and child removal rates. They know that this is unacceptable.
Reporting on this disadvantage and conversations about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has moved from the margins to the front pages of newspapers. This campaign has forced those Australians with goodwill in their hearts to think about the tremendous disadvantage that has occurred because of colonialism.
We need to move past the narrative of deficit and towards a future where mainstream organisations spend more time understanding what is happening in our communities and how to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to play a role in their futures.
Our ancestors arrived more than 60,000 years ago. The world they created was destroyed in less than 250 years. Indigenous people were here first, long before the Anglo-Saxon peoples came into being.
Our peoples could have been given an honourable place in this postcolonial nation. This could have been the unifying gesture by those who gained most from colonisation – descendants of the British settlers and the non-British who have come to enjoy the benefits of colonisation. Australians would not need to feel guilty or ashamed about the fact they live in a country that the British colonised in brutal warfare against our peoples. They could accept the plain fact that our ancestors were here first and acknowledge our existence in the Constitution.
A line could have been drawn, ending the postcolonial politics of blame and guilt. But no: Dutton, Price and Mundine have conspired to inject hate and fear into Australians – fear of us, fear of recognising us as human peoples with peoplehood and deep history, fear of making us equal, fear of a future Australia in which the Indigenous foundations of the nation are given principled place.
Nyunggai Warren Mundine called the Uluru Statement from the Heart, from which the Voice as the vehicle of recognition is drawn, a “declaration of war” against the nation, appealing to the deep sinkhole of racism where rational thought and evidence go to die. This new twist on fascism lies at the heart of the “No” campaign and it has turned our nation against the truth.
Noel Pearson said it so well in his National Press Club speech:
“This referendum is testing the idea that a nation conceived in the fiction of terra nullius – a continent empty of owners – can come to a new understanding of who we are.
“A nation blessed with an Indigenous heritage spanning 60 millennia, a British democracy captured in its Constitution and a multicultural unity that is a beacon to the world.
“If affirmed, this referendum will seize our first best chance and last best hope for a lasting settlement.”
The rejection of this offer of a settlement is the end of the notion of reconciliation.
What could follow this heartless, baseless rejection?
We are left with only the wit and determination of Indigenous people themselves to find another way to live alongside the descendants of strangers who hold us in contempt.
Those who stood by us throughout the referendum campaign will be invited to join us, but they too will face a bleak future. Australia will not be the land of the “fair go”.
The dark heart of the White Australia policy will be no whisper but a new national slogan for those who rejected our offer.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "Marcia Langton: ‘Whatever the outcome, reconciliation is dead’".
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