After a week of silence, leading ‘Yes’ campaigners have begun to detail three ways forward for the movement – including fighting to keep Peter Dutton out of office. By Daniel James.

The ‘Yes’ case responds: ‘It’s a white flag from Labor’

Peter Dutton and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price walk around a blue curtain.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and shadow minister for Indigenous Australians Jacinta Nampijinpa Price after the referendum was defeated.
Credit: AAP Image / Jono Searle

Less than 14 days after the resounding rejection of the Voice, Indigenous leaders and thinkers are already in talks with each other and with the government in order to find a new path for better outcomes and social justice.

According to several sources attached to the “Yes” campaign, who have chosen to speak on condition of anonymity, three broad fronts are emerging to harness the momentum from the campaign and advance aspects of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The first is a reinvigoration of the closing the gap agenda through the Coalition of Peaks. The second is the development of a new body, similar to the Voice, to not only represent First Nations interests but to also advocate for strengthening democracy and truth in public life. The third is ensuring the Peter Dutton-led opposition does not win the next election.

The early political manoeuvring within the “Yes” camp comes on the back of an open letter to the prime minister and every member of the House of Representatives and the Senate, sent this week in response to the referendum result. According to sources, up to 85 Indigenous leaders from various fields were involved in the drafting of the 12-point letter, which was released after a week of silence. In stark contrast to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the letter was no humble offering on a united way forward.

The letter offered no pragmatic resolution or new beginning. Instead, it gave an early, detailed synopsis of what had just happened and why. It acknowledged the shock and grief at the result and the rejection both of First Nations people and their good-faith attempts at reconciliation. “The truth is that the majority of Australians have committed a shameful act whether knowingly or not,” the letter reads, “and there is nothing positive to be interpreted from it. We needed truth to be told to the Australian people.”

Throughout the campaign, many “Yes” organisers would not countenance any notion of a plan B should the Voice proposal fail, much to the frustration of some supporters. The open letter to the prime minister and parliament may be the first seed of a new movement.

“We want to talk with our people and our supporters about establishing – independent of the Constitution or legislation – an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to take up the cause of justice for our people,” the letter says. “Rejection of constitutional recognition will not deter us from speaking up to governments, parliaments and to the Australian people. We have an agenda for justice in pursuit of our First Nations rights that sorely need a Voice – we will continue to follow our law and our ways, as our Elders and Ancestors have done.”

The letter continues: “We will regather in due course and develop a plan for our future direction. While this moment will be etched into Australia’s history forever, today we think of our children, and our children’s children. Our work continues as it has always done. We will continue to fight to seek justice for our peoples. We are three per cent of the population, and you are 97 per cent.”

In the past week, The Saturday Paper spoke to several sources associated with the “Yes” campaign, trying to understand what might come from the ashes of the Voice referendum.

One source, taking stock of the political fallout, said: “This government has got another 18 months before the next election. This referendum is going to really hurt them electorally.”

They continued: “The referendum result is going to make it more difficult for them to win the next election. If Dutton gets into power with Jacinta Price as the minister for Indigenous Australians, it’ll be on for young and old. It’s open season on our mob and all we have built. We must prevent that from happening and to do so we must ensure they are never elected to government on the back of this result.”

Another source spoke of feeling under siege in the current cultural environment: “Fifty years of work to get to this point. Dutton and Price are just going to trash it.”

Early representations have been made to the prime minister in order to work collaboratively with his government to set a new agenda across all major portfolio areas. The Saturday Paper was told the intention was not only to improve outcomes but also to bolster the government’s credibility on Indigenous affairs in the lead-up to the next election.

Another “Yes” campaigner said: “Look at that stunt Price and Dutton pulled, calling for a royal commission into child sexual abuse when there are already a stack of reports which haven’t been acted upon. That sort of thing vilifies us as a people and sucks the oxygen out of everything else confronting us as a community.”

The Coalition’s call for a royal commission, as well as an audit into expenditure on Indigenous programs, comes at the same time as an emboldened right has moved quickly to seize on the result. These figures are keen to tear down any notion of what leading “No” advocate and former prime minister Tony Abbott called “separatism”. One source said, “Abbott means assimilation when he says separatism. I don’t know why he doesn’t just come out and say it.”

Some “Yes” advocates could see how dire the defeat of the referendum would be for Indigenous Australia. They argue the defeat has pushed the country backwards. “Many said, including the prime minister, that a vote for ‘No’ was a vote for the status quo,” one said. “In reality, it is far worse than that and we need to acknowledge the racism inherent in the outcome and the ongoing impact that is going to have on our people in the years to come.

“Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. The only change which would counteract some of this stuff would be if the government legislates a Voice. But they won’t.

“So, we begin the long slog. Nothing has changed except they can no longer blame old dead white men for the sin of the Constitution.”

Within days of the referendum outcome the Queensland and New South Wales governments, both centre-left, retreated from commitments to truth-telling and treaty. These decisions show how spooked Labor governments are by the referendum result.

Even in Victoria, where the truth and treaty process is furthest advanced, the opposition is ruminating on opposing truth and treaty as a way of harvesting support ahead of the state election.

The early back-pedalling by Labor governments at the state level has not gone unnoticed by “Yes” advocates, which has led some to question federal Labor’s commitment to finding a new way forward. Among campaigners there is little faith in either side of politics. “The response by [Deputy Prime Minister] Richard Marles was a disgrace when he said, ‘The government will pursue a practical agenda’,” one said. “That approach takes us straight back to Howard 2000.

“Reconciliation remains what Howard says it was. Does Marles even know that’s a Howardism? It’s a white flag from Labor. They give up. Won’t even try. I don’t think Labor quite understands what happened here. Nor do they care.”

Midweek it was reported Labor might continue with the plan for local and regional Voices, for which funding was allocated in the May budget. These Voices would not be protected by the Constitution. Speaking to The Australian, a spokesman for the minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, said: “We are going to take the time to listen, engage and seek advice from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Our approach will be guided by our commitment to making a practical difference and to close the gap.”

Despite scepticism of the government’s ability to set a new agenda, there is a consensus among “Yes” campaigners the blame for the defeat of the referendum and the toxic debate it provoked lies with Peter Dutton and the Nationals leader, David Littleproud. “It did seriously run 60-40 for five years until Dutton said no,” a source said. “Also, the truth in political advertising. We need reform in that area now. We were beaten by lies. They lied and lied and lied.”

This sentiment was echoed in the letter to the prime minister and parliament. “Lies in political advertising and communication were a primary feature of this campaign,” it said. “We know that the No campaign was funded and resourced by conservative and international interests who have no stake or genuine interest in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

Among “Yes” campaigners, thought is now being given to the new leadership and structures required to organise in the short to medium term. With a number of Indigenous leaders now in their 70s, there has been criticism across Indigenous communities, including from within the “Yes” campaign itself, of the lack of succession planning or the transference of leadership from one generation to the next.

One of the more experienced campaigners associated with the “Yes” case countered that criticism, telling The Saturday Paper: “What better schooling could there be in leadership than what we’ve all just been through? We now know which way people voted down to the booth. We know that there is no lie too big and small that conservative forces won’t throw at us to get their way. It means the next generation of leaders can advance with their eyes wide open as to what to expect from this country as they advocate for change.”

The referendum was not only a revelation regarding people’s attitudes towards First Nations people but also the way institutions and democracy itself can be tarnished to garner desired political results.

There will be much replenishment required in spirit and energy before a new movement formally takes shape. In many ways, evolution of the “Yes” movement is another early entry in the struggle for Black rights in this country.

The stakes are now higher than they’ve ever been, as one source said. “They are coming after us now. They can see we’re battered and tired, but now is the time we must unite and be stronger than we’ve ever been. Because if they get their way, it’s over for us.”

As the Indigenous leaders wrote this week: “Australia is our country. We accept that the majority of non-Indigenous voting Australians have rejected recognition in the Australian Constitution.

“We do not for one moment accept that this country is not ours. Always was. Always will be. It is the legitimacy of the non-Indigenous occupation in this country that requires recognition, not the other way around. Our sovereignty has never been ceded.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "The ‘Yes’ case responds: ‘It’s a white flag from Labor’".

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