Behind the ‘Yes’ campaign is a carefully calculated mix of ruthless political expertise, business experience and grassroots involvement. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
‘Unfinished business’: The people behind the ‘Yes’ case
When The Saturday Paper speaks with Rachel Perkins, she’s on the floor of an airport departure lounge writing a speech. The conversation continues as she’s boarding her flight. “One lesson my father gave me was if you have two choices, choose the harder one,” she says, referring to Charles Perkins, the acclaimed civil rights activist. “You’ll grow that way. But there are times when I’ve chewed off some terrifying things and wonder what I’ve got myself involved in. Like now, as I’m trying to write a speech on an airport floor.”
Perkins says this with good humour. She’s grimmer when she contemplates the prospect of a loss in the referendum for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. “That would be a blow, because it would be seen as a vote against Indigenous people,” she says. “We’ve endured so much, and to not have the country stand with us would be a very significant emotional blow for us, I think. So, I’m doing everything I can do to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Perkins is co-chair, with lawyer Danny Gilbert, of Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition (AICR), one of the most prominent “Yes” organisations in the country. Speaking to people close to the campaign, it is clear there is a co-ordinated and sophisticated approach to the running of the “Yes” case. There is a focus on simplicity and a muteness on the technicalities of the Voice.
The composition of the AICR board is carefully calculated. It comprises Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, corporate figures and unionists, progressives and conservatives. The influential pollster and communications strategist Mark Textor sits on the board, as does Aboriginal activist and respected community leader Noel Pearson. There is Tony Nutt, once described as an iron fist in a velvet glove, who served as one of John Howard’s closest advisers during his long prime ministership. There is Lachlan Harris, who worked as Kevin Rudd’s press secretary, and Chloe Wighton, a Wiradjuri woman and director of First Nations cultural engagement at the multinational construction firm Lendlease. Thomas Mayo is a wharfie, author and maritime unionist; Karen Mundine is the chief executive of Reconciliation Australia; Tanya Hosch is an AFL executive.
Finally, there is Catherine Tanna, a director of BHP; Andrew Fraser, a former Queensland treasurer and current chancellor of Griffith University; and Michael Chaney, chair of corporate behemoth Wesfarmers.
Perkins says that the board’s composition was, in its way, influenced by the 1967 referendum, in which Australians overwhelmingly voted for the constitution to be altered so the Commonwealth could make laws for Indigenous Australians, and to have them included in the census. “I’ve studied history in my filmmaking, and we’re meant to learn from history, right?” she says. “You look back at the 1967 referendum and look at how that was achieved, and that was a combination of people from all walks of life. Left and right, it was very much a collaboration between Australians, and that’s what our board represents in a lot of ways. Indigenous people shouldn’t have to rectify this alone: we didn’t write the constitution. It’s something we need to do together.”
I reach Danny Gilbert a day before I get to Rachel Perkins. As Perkins’ co-chair on the AICR, he is reluctant to speak about himself. The veteran corporate lawyer is wary of appearing pompous or self-absorbed. He tells me there are more important questions than ones about his past. “My growing up on a farm,” he says, “will be of no interest to anybody.”
In 1988, Gilbert co-founded what would become one of the country’s largest corporate law firms, Gilbert + Tobin. Before he did, as a young lawyer in the early 1980s, Gilbert became involved in the community legal centre movement in Redfern. This, he says, had a formative effect on him. “I got involved with the community in Redfern, significantly through the Catholic Church there and a priest – Ted Kennedy – who was heavily involved with the Indigenous community. He was instrumental in getting church premises handed over to the Aboriginal Medical Service. He and I became very close friends and I became involved with the late Shirley Smith, better known as Mum Shirl,” he says, referring to the beloved social worker and Indigenous activist.
“Redfern was a very different place then. There was a lot of alcoholism and homelessness and racial violence. There I came to know people like Patrick Dodson and Marcia Langton and gradually I came to think about the grave injustices that had been perpetrated upon Indigenous peoples since the First Fleet, and who were bearing the brunt of a couple hundred years of trauma. Racism, cultural denial, land and language dispossession. When I co-established this firm, we decided it would have a very significant pro bono practice.”
In 2019, after long discussions with his old friend Noel Pearson, Gilbert helped establish the non-profit AICR, although it sat dormant for a time. “Not long after the Uluru Statement from the Heart, we felt we needed to set up a vehicle to promote constitutional recognition and to participate in the process,” Gilbert says. “But we had to virtually put it on the shelf, because the charities commission under the former commissioner would not give us deductible gift recipient status. We were only able to achieve that when Labor came into office, and that filing became operable in February.”
Members of the AICR tell me they work in concert with other “Yes” groups, such as the Uluru Dialogue and from the Heart. Board seats are left open should members of those other groups wish to occupy them.
This week, the “Yes” campaign alliance launched a new ad campaign called “Join Us”, which features Indigenous Elders and will appear online, on television and on billboards and public transport stops across the country. In their televised commercial, Gadigal Elder Uncle Allen Madden narrates: “Australia’s Constitution is 122 years old and still doesn’t recognise Indigenous Australians. This year, Australians have a chance to fix that with a referendum to give Indigenous Australians a real say in their future.”
The campaign’s intention is to make a positive moral appeal for constitutional recognition that cuts through the often rancorous, Canberra-centric debate that has defined much of the conversation thus far. “Our most recent ad, as a filmmaker, it’s very simple,” Perkins says. “There’s no manipulative emotion, or sunsets, slow-motion or soft focus. There’s no artifice. It’s straightforward. And that’s our approach: speaking to the Australian people in a straightforward way, to give them clarity about what they’ll be voting on.”
“Our message is simple,” Gilbert says. “It’s a message about the recognition of these people, as the first people of Australia, and the need for them to have some say, the ability to make representations about policies and laws that impact their daily lives. When people ask me why we should we privilege Indigenous Australians in this way, I have two answers to that question. One, they are the most disadvantaged group in the country. And two, there is no other group of Australians – not one – that in every state and territory there is a [dedicated] minister ... and there is a bureaucracy, all of whom [are] directed towards providing solutions to alleviate poverty and disadvantage for Indigenous people across all policy areas: health, housing, employment, wealth creation, alcohol consumption, incarceration. The modesty of what’s being asked for is amazing to me. They are asking for very little, when so much has been taken.”
Perkins was not yet born when her father organised the Freedom Ride in 1965, a tour, with other students, of rural NSW, inspired by the fight against segregation in the United States. The group invited media along and with their own cameras documented flagrant racism.
At one point, locals tried to ram their bus off the road. In Walgett, in northern New South Wales, they explicitly challenged the ban on Aboriginal ex-servicemen by the Returned and Services League. In Moree and Kempsey, they confronted rules that excluded Aboriginal children from local swimming pools.
A year later, Perkins became the first Indigenous man to graduate from an Australian university. Twenty years after, he would serve as the secretary for the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
As a child, Rachel Perkins watched her father hold meetings. She saw, as he worked to forge consensus, how he found a balance that would bring people with him.
“His activism dominated our entire existence,” she says. “And his activism was inseparable from our home life. It was a constant presence. And I think we understood the weight of his work, the importance of it, and there wasn’t any pressure about balance. We were very much a part of it. We went to the demos, and the meetings, and were up in his office after school. It flowed through our household in a very natural way. They were exciting times. And looking back on it, I feel very privileged to have been a part of it and to have called Uncle and Aunty those who were leaders in the movement.”
The “Yes” campaign is defined by the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which was not an appeal to Canberra but to all Australians. That appeal for constitutional recognition will not be achieved through parliament but by public assent. The “Yes” campaign is earnest in distinguishing itself from “the Canberra bubble” – in defining the issue of constitutional recognition not as a political preoccupation of “elites” but as a historical, moral and soulful question for each of us.
As such, the campaign stresses “grassroots” engagement – community barbecues, town hall chats, church visits. “We want to get a message to the Australian people, emanating from the Uluru statement, which is positive and constructive,” Danny Gilbert says. “It’s not about having to persuade the politicians in Canberra, it’s about informing the Australian people about the importance of what’s being asked for here.”
The campaign deliberately avoids technicality – for example, matters of wording or the location of that wording in the constitution. Organisers believe the issue has been complicated by political contest and dense legal arguments. It wants to replace this with a sense of simplicity and moral urgency. “It’s calling upon the goodwill and good nature of the Australian people,” Gilbert says. “I’ve made speeches recently about how communities came together during bushfires and floods, their willingness to support each other, and I think it’s those elements of the Australian nature that we’re appealing to here.
“I think some of the concerns that have been raised, by those who think it’s constitutionally unsafe, have impacted some people in the business community. But the average Australian, I suspect, will have no interest in these matters, except to the extent that they create fearmongering. Our campaign is not going to focus on those negatives or on technical, legal arguments that most Australians have no interest in, or indeed knowledge of. It’s about time we recognise the First Peoples of this country. And what’s happened to date has not worked. It’s time to give them the opportunity to have a say in the future of their lives, to better empower them to take control of their own futures in this country.”
I put to Gilbert the same question I put to Perkins: How would he deal with a loss when the country votes in the referendum? The question seems to trouble him and there is a pause before he answers.
“One can’t really entertain either the thought of loss or the consequences of rejection,” he says. “Because that just might force people to give up, might take them to a point of just shrugging their shoulders and turning their back and giving up, and we can’t do that. These issues are unfinished business. These are issues that the country must deal with, and a failure of a referendum is just kicking the issue down the road. It is not going to go away. And those people who oppose it must entertain some thought that this will be the end of it. But it won’t be. They are entitled at our point in history to a seat at the table.”
Next week: the “No” campaign and those who endorse a Voice and constitutional recognition but argue the wording and its location is potentially flawed.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 29, 2023 as "‘Unfinished business’: The people behind the ‘Yes’ case".
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