Although the Voice referendum was lost, and despite the racist vitriol it unleashed, the movement for Indigenous rights and recognition has grown. By Thomas Mayo.

Analysis: The movement that follows the Voice

Yes23 campaign director Dean Parkin hugs a supporter after the referendum.
Yes23 campaign director Dean Parkin hugs a supporter after the referendum.
Credit: Jenny Evans / Getty Images

As a parent of five, I am acutely aware of the way in which our children absorb everything – conversations, body language, snippets of the news and the bits and pieces they share with friends at school. We try our best to protect them from the harsh realities of the world until we think they are ready. They might seem oblivious to it all, but they know more than they tell, as if they are reciprocating our care.

Though I knew this of our children, I wasn’t prepared for my 12-year-old son’s reaction to the referendum loss on Saturday. When I called my wife soon after the loss became official, to see how they were, she told me he had cried. He went to bed early, barely consolable.

The next day, when I checked in on them, she told me William was okay. She remarked on how he had mentioned several times that he felt calm that morning, as if the feeling were strange to him. We came to realise he had been feeling the weight of the referendum on his little shoulders. For the first time since the loss, I cried too.

The Indigenous leadership of the “Yes” campaign called for a week of silence that ends today. There was a need for contemplation after an intense campaign. Anyone who put up their head for “Yes” was brutalised. We were labelled communists, greedy elites, puppets of the United Nations and promoters of a racially divided Australia. None of this is true.

The racist vitriol we felt was at a level not seen for decades in Australia. Indigenous advocates for the Voice could not speak out about the abuse without some sections of the media, whose audiences we needed to persuade, falsely claiming that we were calling all “No” voters racist. Even if only in the way the headlines were worded.

Respected Elder and lifelong champion for Indigenous peoples Marcia Langton probably experienced the worst of this. The stories with negative headlines exploded and continued for more than a week because she dared to mention the race-baiting of the “No” campaign.

The “No” side, on the other hand, was barely scrutinised. When their figureheads claimed racism against them, some journalists showed sympathy and the “Yes” campaign was scapegoated. When leading spokespeople for the “No” campaign were racist beyond reasonable denial, their leaders doubled down defiantly. Most of the media’s focus quickly moved on. The abhorrent “No” campaign cartoon, depicting me in a racist trope and printed in The Australian Financial Review, is one example of many.

In the week of silence, I have had time to reflect on last Saturday’s outcome. I have concluded Indigenous peoples were correct to take the invitation in the Uluru Statement from the Heart to the Australian people. We were not wrong to ask them to recognise us through a Voice.

For a people with inherent rights but who are a minority spread across this vast continent – with a parliament that will continue to make laws and policies about us – it is inevitable that we will need to establish a national representative body to pursue justice. We need to be organised.

Delaying the referendum was never an option, not even when the polls were going south. Had we convinced the government to postpone the referendum, we would still be wondering what could have been, especially if the gaps continue to widen. We had a responsibility to try now, to use the rare opportunity we had, in the interests of our children. At least now we know where we stand.

As a leader of the campaign, I accept that, although we tried our best, we failed. I agree there were aspects of the “Yes” campaign that could have been better and I ponder what else I could have done. These thoughts hurt, like an aching emptiness in my chest.

An honest assessment compels me to mention Opposition Leader Peter Dutton as well. Dutton has shown he is bereft of the qualities held by the Indigenous leaders I have worked with. He is well short of the calibre of his opposite, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

While Albanese listened to Indigenous peoples respectfully, Dutton ignored us when in power. When Albanese negotiated the constitutional alteration with the Referendum Working Group, he did so in good faith, while Dutton was duplicitous, two-faced, deceitful.

At the next federal election, the record will show the prime minister had a go. He followed through with his pre-election promise to hold a referendum in this term of parliament. He kept his word, even when the going got tough, whereas Dutton has already reneged on his promise to hold another referendum should the first one to fail to pass.

It is noteworthy, because it exposes that this is all politics on his part. If he ever becomes prime minister, it is an indication that he places no value in speaking with Indigenous people before making decisions about them. His promise of a second referendum was decided without consulting Indigenous leaders, not even his own spokesperson on Indigenous affairs.

None of this is bitterness on my part, just truth. Peter Dutton chose politics over outcomes. His career came before fairness. He sought victory at any cost.

When I go home on Sunday – just my 25th day in Darwin this year, having worked almost every day since May 21, 2022 – I can proudly tell my son that though the referendum failed, the movement for Indigenous rights and recognition has grown.

In 2017, we were almost 4 per cent of the population calling for Voice, Treaty and Truth-Telling. As of Saturday, we are nearly 40 per cent, walking together. Almost seven million Australians voted “Yes”. Both major parties would kill for a first preference vote like that.

Probably the most important analysis from the referendum was that polling booths in predominantly Indigenous communities across the entirety of the country overwhelmingly voted “Yes”. We have thoroughly established that this is fact: a great majority of Indigenous people support constitutional recognition through a Voice to Parliament. We seek self-determination over who speaks for us. Claims otherwise are an incontrovertible lie.

To my fellow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, I say we continue our push for our common goals. Don’t be silenced. Be louder, prouder and more defiant. Of course, you will be. The survival of our culture and our babies depends on it.

To the parents I met so many times, who turned up for their first doorknock with their little ones in tow, their “Yes” shirts worn proudly, sunscreen smeared on their faces: keep having those conversations with your neighbours at every opportunity. Keep turning up.

To the small number of people who registered to attend the town hall in Yamba and Grafton, and the hundreds more who turned up without registering, and who expressed their gratitude at how the forum had brought the community together: stay committed to this unselfish cause. In regional communities across the country, the town hall attendances were magnificent. Keep turning up.

To the random members of the public who have hugged me, to the beautiful Elders who treated me like a son, to the fellow union members who organised their communities, not just their places of work, maintain the love for what makes this country unique – more than 60,000 years of continuous heritage and culture.

While the outcome was disappointing, in all my years of advocacy for Indigenous rights, I have never felt such levels of solidarity.

Across the country, lifelong friendships have been made. I have new Aunties and Uncles, like the strong Aboriginal women at Baabayn Aboriginal Corporation in Mount Druitt, who themselves have formed bonds with the local ethnic communities as they campaigned for “Yes”. I love you, Aunties.

In this campaign we saw Liberals and Nationals give speeches alongside Labor and the Greens. We saw corporate chief executives leafleting with union officials. All denominations have prayed together. The “Yes” rallies, more than 200,000 people strong, brought colour, joy and diversity to the streets, in unity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Late this week, ending the week of silence, an official statement from Indigenous leaders was made public. In summary: we continue our calls for our voices to be heard, for reform and for justice, and we need your ongoing support.

This is the task ahead. I say to all the hundreds of thousands of people I have spoken with over the past six years, the many friends I have made on this journey: we were always on the right side of history. Young Australians voted “Yes” with us. Imagine what we can achieve if the almost seven million Australians who voted “Yes” continue to have conversations with their neighbours, meeting “No” voters with an understanding that they may have voted “No” because of the lies they were told. In time, we will turn the “Nos” into “Yeses”.

Let us talk of our strengths while addressing our weaknesses. Let us believe in ourselves, our communities and our country, rather than looking over our shoulders at the shadows Peter Dutton has thrown across Australian politics. Let us call on the parliament to shine a light on those shadows, those deathly shadows, lest they continue to undermine our democracy. Ask yourself, which group will be targeted next?

When I was writing my first book about the Uluru Statement from the Heart, published in 2019, my son was just eight years old. He asked me what the title of the book would be. When I asked him what he would call it, he proceeded to do a series of armpit farts. We both laughed. Then I told him I would call it Finding the Heart of the Nation. He asked me, “Where is the heart of the nation?”

I put my laptop down beside me on the couch. I pulled him close. I put my hand on his chest, and I said, “The heart of the nation is here.”

The heart of the nation is still here. It always was and it always will be, waiting to be recognised by our fellow Australians. Whether you voted “Yes” or “No”, I say to you with humility and respect, open your hearts and your minds henceforth. The truth should be unifying, not divisive.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 21, 2023 as "After the vote".

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