October 2023

Life Sentences

‘Grasp the nettle’

By Rachel Perkins
A regular phrase of the author’s father provides an apt description for the grand test facing Australia in the Voice referendum

This was a regular phrase of my father’s, stated to us often as we grew up. He always said it with a wistful smile. I thought the saying referred to the difficulties to be endured in accepting a challenging task. But I stand corrected by The Phrase Finder, handily accessible on inflight wi-fi.

I am once more flying away from Alice Springs, back to the referendum campaign trail. It has been and continues to be a tough campaign. I have thrown myself wholly in it. Right now, I am hoping to smash out 700 words before the flight lands. Thirty thousand feet below me, the Simpson Desert blooms outwards in ochre pigments. Epic, beautiful and with only the occasional red line of dirt road marking the presence of “civilisation”. Apparently empty, these vast tracts of country remind me of how occupied they were. How the first people who walked across it knew it by name, cherished it and became part of it. Walking across a landscape for 65,000 years will do that to you. As the Uluru Statement describes, we are “people who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors”. It is the recognition of this simple profound truth that is the core of constitutional recognition. This is the nettle that our country must grasp.

The way in which the nettle is grasped is the nuance I didn’t quite understand, but The Phrase Finder offers an explanation: “to be bold and ‘grasp the nettle’ derives from the property of the plant to inject toxins into the skin of any person or animal who brushes against its stiff, hollow hairs. If the plant is grasped firmly… the hairs tend to be pushed flat and avoid penetrating the skin.” The website goes on to quote the first recorded usage of the phrase, courtesy of 18th-century English poet Aaron Hill: “Tender-handed stroke a nettle / And it stings you, for your pains / Grasp it like a man of mettle / And it soft as silk remains.”

We are indeed testing the “mettle” of this country on a grand scale. Noel Pearson describes it as the Mount Everest we must climb. Recognition without boldness has been tried before. This is what we would call “symbolic recognition”, that is, a few simple lines in the Constitution acknowledging that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were here first and we have a lovely culture, or whatever. In 2007, John Howard first tried to take it to a referendum, against our wishes, and failed. Stung. Recently, the leader of the opposition promised to try it again: we see you, but we don’t want to listen to you in the way you want to be heard. Even this minimalist empty recognition was rejected by his own Indigenous spokesperson, Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. Her stance is no surprise to those of us from Alice Springs. She relentlessly campaigned against a simple Aboriginal flag being erected in our town. She lost that battle, but now plays in a much bigger political sandpit.

History will recall our country’s response to the Voice referendum for generations to come. But you can be sure that “Yes” campaigners are grasping the nettle with everything we have. As are our fellow Australians. We have the largest number of volunteers. We have the strong support of sporting codes, major Australian corporations, religious groups, multicultural groups, every major Aboriginal Land council on the mainland… The list goes on. But the “No” case is deploying the most insidious tool of all: lies. Look no further than the referendum booklet sent to every household in Australia, stamped with the Australian Electoral Commission’s logo. As The Sydney Morning Herald’s chief political correspondent David Crowe stated, “The arguments about the Voice have been marked by misinformation and outright falsehoods for most of this year, and those lies will be fired with rocket fuel now that voting day is so close.”

While handing out “Yes” pamphlets on the streets, I see how lies leak into the national consciousness. Some voters regurgitate the falsehoods when they refuse a pamphlet. Others just abuse me. But many more cheerfully say, “I am voting ‘Yes’.” Those moments make my heart melt. Weeping in train stations clutching pamphlets is new for me. I get so emotional because back home in Alice Springs my community suffers. The worst social and health conditions of anyone, anywhere in Australia. Last week I visited my countrymen, the traditional owners of Alice Springs. They live in overcrowded tin sheds, with no immediate way out. It has to be seen to be believed. Most Australians will never experience it. And this is why we give everything to this cause. We need things to change. A “No” is for the status quo.

I now understand the true meaning of grasping the nettle. And my father’s wistful smile setting me on this course.

Rachel Perkins

Rachel Perkins is a director, writer and founder of Blackfella Films. She leads a foundation that is recording languages and songlines through the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

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