November 14, 2023

Beyond the Voice referendum

By Inala Cooper
A woman rides her bike past the Australian flag, the Indigenous flag and the flag of the Torres Strait Islands, Canberra, October 13, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Looking towards the next 65,000 years

I wasn’t at Uluru in 2017. The event was the National Constitutional Convention, which aimed to consolidate a national consensus on how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want to be constitutionally recognised. I had hoped to be there but knowing many of the 250 people who did attend, including some of my family members, I trusted those people and the process, and decided to watch from afar. I had participated in Melbourne/Narrm dialogues in the lead-up and was keen to see what would come from Uluru.

Australians were delivered an invitation in three parts: enshrining an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in the Australian Constitution, negotiating treaties and establishing a Makarrata Commission for truth-telling – in that order. Over the years since Uluru and leading up to the Voice referendum, I had wrestled with and attempted to critique the order in which the invitation was extended. Voice, then Treaty, then Truth. My instinct was that we needed Truth first, but I wasn’t at Uluru. My Elders, leaders I admire, mob that I trust, experts in constitutional law, experts in lore, and others were on board with this proposal, so I got on board with it too. My instinct to trust my Elders has always been strong and this was the first time I was hesitating on the order of things.

The manner of delivery of the Uluru Statement from the Heart was generous, graceful and humble. Note, however, that the qualities of ferocity, pride, strength and sovereignty were not absent. The question of sovereignty being ceded through inclusion in the Constitution was solved by several legal experts, including Cobble Cobble woman Professor Megan Davis and Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, who both affirmed that sovereignty can only be ceded by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; recognition in the Constitution does not mean our sovereignty is extinguished. This was re-affirmed by Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, Professor Marcia Langton, Thomas Mayo and many others in support of the Voice. My own question about the relationship of my sovereignty, as a Yawuru woman, to being included in the Constitution was at rest. The strength of my identity as a Yawuru woman is such that I can handle being included in another constitution without threat.

In the 12 months leading up to the referendum I received dozens of invitations to speak on the Voice proposal, on panels or as a keynote speaker. Each time, I said no, replying that I wasn’t at Uluru and it wasn’t my work. There are many other experts who were there to whom I would refer the inviter. Usually, their reply was that those people were unavailable, which had brought them to me. I weighed up the opportunity to speak on the matter purely as an Aboriginal person versus someone who participated in the decision-making at Uluru. I realised that my hesitation around the order of the Uluru invitation, putting a Voice first, remained my hesitation. I could not escape the need for truth-telling first.

As the referendum drew closer, I knew I was always going to vote “Yes”. Putting aside my question of Truth coming first, I knew we had an opportunity to change Australia and make a statement that we are not as racist as was once thought – notwithstanding the so-called progressive “No” voters. How wrong and naive my optimism, which was so brutally quashed by results across the majority electorates that returned a “No” result. We must remember it is the racist “No” vote, not the progressive “No”, that has prevailed.

My electorate of Hotham returned a “Yes” vote of 49.8 per cent, with “No” narrowly prevailing on 50.2 per cent. The electorates around my workplace (Melbourne, Cooper, Higgins, Macnamara, Maribyrnong, Wills) all returned a majority “Yes” vote, which meant that when I left the house and travelled to work on the Monday after the referendum, I did so knowing that I had some safety, that the neighbourhoods around my home and workplace mostly voted to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That my identity as an Aboriginal person was safe enough that I could move through the world without anticipating hostility or intimidation in the wake of the result.

I have been reflecting on what this does to one’s sense of identity, that I can come to work confident that I have the support of senior colleagues, access to dedicated mob-only space and additional leave if I need it. These elements tell me that I am valued, seen, listened to, worthy of a place. This privilege should not be confined to mob in my workplace only though. Perhaps there are mainstream workplaces supporting mob? Are there examples of them in Toowoomba, Broken Hill, Kalgoorlie, Shepparton or Rockhampton – towns within electorates that returned a majority “No” vote? What about the mob in those places, who still get up, stand up and show up? Who still work the cash registers, balance the books, manage personnel and provide customer service in their workplaces? The mob who are looking after Country, volunteering at the local school, running health services and providing legal advice? Mob who will continue to bring their professional selves to their workplaces every day after this referendum, who don’t receive any recognition or support? The referendum result will impact both how non-Indigenous Australia views us and how we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people view ourselves. Let no one lose sight of our staunchness, beauty, knowledge, culture and distinct place of the lands and waters of this continent.

It is clearer than ever now that truth-telling should have been the first step. Analysis by the ABC found that education levels in electorates that returned a “No” result were lower than those that returned a “Yes”. The majority “No” were also electorates furthest away from capital cities. This does not mean that all voters outside of capital cities are racist or uneducated, but it shows a distinct need for education in those areas around what the referendum was asking, as well as the need for laws around misinformation in campaign materials. Truths around our history and our present are there, but it’s easy for people to disengage, switch off or completely ignore them. Apathy combined with cost-of-living stresses are huge contributors to individuals focusing only on themselves. Effort and time are required to focus on the requests of others, and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and his friends made it extremely easy for people to absolve themselves from effort due to their consistent and malicious lies throughout the campaign.

Core to accessible information on the history of colonisation on this continent, and its continuing impacts in the present day, is truth-telling. We have not been silent, but our anger and frustrations have been fuelled by the absence of listening. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been telling truths for more than 200 years about the reality of our existence. Truths have been told over and over in royal commissions, Senate inquiries, native title claims and government forums. Truths are now part of the national curriculum, lest anyone remark that they didn’t learn about us at school. As if the only things we ever learn in life are when we are at school.

Noel Pearson told Australia again and again there was nothing to fear by supporting the invitation offered by the Uluru statement. Racism is born of fear, and fear can be eliminated by the expansion of knowledge, reassurance and confidence in the absence of any threat. But with the “No” result, racism has been given a free ticket to thrive and infect the continent. This is something racists will embrace, as their comfort and protection is upheld. It’s heavy work to undo this protection, but it must be done.

For the next 65,000 years, I want everything. Just like I wanted everything before the referendum date. I want justice, recognition, treaties, reparations, truth-telling, anti-racism action, land back, our kids safe with family and more. For those who were disillusioned or fooled into thinking we only wanted a Voice, you have obviously not been paying attention. The Voice was an invitation to listen and the first step in a process that sought to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the basic rights and respect we are owed. Do not be seduced by the lie that you will lose anything by us having a say on our lives, by you hearing truths or engaging in treaties. Fear is what drives these lies, and racism feeds on it.

Hate never rests but neither does sovereignty. We know we have work to do; it is the one certainty of our survival. We have been shown how the racist “No” sees us, but we are also strengthening our identities as warriors and defenders of our people and cultures. How we see ourselves as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has individual, family and community layers. None of these are wrong. We define ourselves with everything that is of our history, everything that is good and beautiful about us, and it is all correct. We say who we are.

Whether mob wanted to be recognised in the Constitution or not, the voters have told us “No”. It has hit many of us hard; no to listening, no to our humanity, no to our rights. They say it’s not personal, they say it’s just political, they say it’s just that they don’t want to change the Constitution. They will say anything to put their racist attitudes to bed at night. The racist “No” will only make our focus stronger, make us fight harder, and as we look to the next 65,000 years we will take the wisdom of our Elders, the leadership of the present, and the spark of future ancestors we will not meet in this life to assert our place as the oldest living culture on Earth. Watch us.

Inala Cooper

Inala Cooper is a Yawuru woman with German and Irish heritage. She is the director of Murrup Barak, the Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development at the University of Melbourne, and the author of Marrul: Aboriginal Identity and the Fight for Rights.

From the front page

Members of the Kanakanvu tribe perform at a Saraya harvest festival, Donghua Village, Taiwan.

Who is Taiwanese?

Taiwan’s minority indigenous peoples are being used to refute mainland China’s claims on the island – but what does that mean for their recognition, land rights and identity?

Image representing a film still of abstract colours

Tacita Dean and the poetics of film editing

The MCA’s survey of the British-born artist’s work reveals both the luminosity of analogue film and its precariousness

Image of David McBride

David McBride’s guilty plea and the need for whistleblower reform

The former army lawyer had no choice but to plead guilty, which goes to show how desperately we need better whistleblower protections

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Mars attracts

Reviving the Viking mission’s experiments may yet find life as we know it on Mars, but the best outcome would be something truly alien

Online latest

Image representing a film still of abstract colours

Tacita Dean and the poetics of film editing

The MCA’s survey of the British-born artist’s work reveals both the luminosity of analogue film and its precariousness

Image of David McBride

David McBride’s guilty plea and the need for whistleblower reform

The former army lawyer had no choice but to plead guilty, which goes to show how desperately we need better whistleblower protections

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

Image of Margret RoadKnight playing guitar and singing.

The unsung career of Margret RoadKnight

Little-known outside the Melbourne folk scene for decades, singer Margret RoadKnight’s 60 years of music-making is celebrated in a new compilation