By JUDITH WHITE
This should have been a day when we all walked a little taller as Australians. When we took a step towards healing with First Nations peoples, and a reckoning with the colonial past. Instead we have a day of pain and shame that many will struggle to overcome.
It’s day of pain for all of us who voted Yes, but far more so for indigenous Australians who generously offered the hand of reconciliation, only to have it rebuffed. Elders who lived through the 1967 referendum. Survivors of the Stolen Generation. Families whose children are incarcerated at 20 times the rate of the non-indigenous. Leaders who have traversed the country speaking out with a vision of a better, more inclusive society.
It’s a day of shame, when history called and Australia turned its back, when indigenous people asked for a Voice and this country refused to listen. When we are left among the world’s most backward nations in terms of indigenous rights.
We’re not going to sit in silence now. The shame is on those in politics and media who spread the lies and disinformation that sullied the campaign. Coalition leaders turned the Uluru Statement from the Heart into a political football from the start. Prime Minister Tony Abbott (now a No) gave the green light to the process of dialogues among indigenous people that resulted in the 2017 Statement. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (now a Yes) rejected the Statement, starting the lie that the Voice – a very modest request – would be a third chamber of Parliament.
The right-wing media, with Murdoch’s Sky News darling Peta Credlin in the lead, ran consistently with the lie that Yes would be divisive, and fostered yet more outrageous lies. Even some ABC programs muddied the waters in their pursuit of so-called “balance”. Even thought 83% of First Nations people supported Yes, they trawled indigenous communities for a No voter in response to every Yes voter interviewed.
On the campaign trail we found “hard No” voters clinging to absurd fabrications: that they would lose their homes and have to pay levies, that Parliament would lose its powers.
Social media of course played a part in spreading disinformation. But it has to feed on something, and as elsewhere in the world it feeds on social division and uncertainty. One of our most active volunteers here in Tweed, on the border with Queensland, pointed out weeks ago that “hard No” voters are not generally happy people. They are fearful, in the cost-of-living crisis, of losing the Great Australian Lifestyle. They look for someone to blame, and don’t want to confront the historical roots of their problems.
Most would not consider themselves racists – but they’re vulnerable to the dog-whistle, perfected by John Howard and taken up by Peter Dutton, with its underlying racist, colonialist assumptions. So how do we shift them?
In the last week of the campaign Mick Gooda, former chair of ATSIC, was asked on the 7am podcast whether he would continue to fight for change if the result was No. “We’ve got no option,” he said. Indigenous people have had no option for 235 years. The rest of us must learn from them. A new era of truth-telling begins here. We must listen, and we must take part.
There is no lack of knowledge about the disadvantages faced by First Nations peoples, or about the history we need to confront to move forward. Indigenous people have never stopped telling their stories. For more than 50 years historian Henry Reynolds has documented the frontier wars, and given the lie to the myth of peaceful “settlement” by Britain. Lyndall Ryan and her team at Newcastle University have drawn the map of massacres. Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu, Bill Gammage in The Biggest Estate on Earth and Margo Neale’s in the First Peoples books have shed light on the sophistication and complexity of pre-colonisation society. Stan Grant and other indigenous writers have told us what it was like for them to grow up confronting racism. Drawing on many hours of talking with dozens of elders, Melissa Lucashenko in her new novel Edenglassie has given us a compelling picture of life under colonisation.
This is not only the oldest continuous living culture in the world, it’s the most resilient. Driven to the verge of extinction, in the past 50 years it has had an extraordinary renaissance. Indigenous artists make our greatest, most original contribution to the world’s art. Musicians, dancers, film-makers and playwrights find a thousand ways to tell stories that matter to us all. Literature is immeasurably enriched by First Nations writers.
Every day of this campaign we have learned something about the history and culture that can enable us to cherish Country. Even in conservative Tweed Heads, we shared unforgettable moments. We walked 400 strong down the main street on the day of the National Walk, in the company of elders from the 1967 referendum and with unexpected support from bystanders. At the rally afterwards you could have heard a pin drop as Uncle Victor Slockee, in his welcome to Country, told us of the 30 Bundjalung families dumped during white “settlement” on Ukerebagh Island in the Tweed, with no housing or resources, among them the family that would produce the first Aboriginal Senator, Neville Bonner. And of the Bundjalung leader the British misnamed “King Johnny”, whose grave on the road to Uki was desecrated by bulldozers.
The learning must continue. We can start by drawing on the strengths of the Yes campaign. With their vision of inclusion and knowledge-sharing, Megan Davis, Noel Pearson, Thomas Mayo, Rachel Perkins, Patrick Dodson, Marcia Langton and many more have proven to be leaders not only of First Nations peoples but of us all. They have had the support of sporting and cultural heroes, from Cathy Freeman and Evonne Goolagong Cawley to composer Deborah Cheetham Fraillon, from Adam Goodes and Johnathan Thurston to musician William Barton and Yothu Yindi.
They won massive backing from non-indigenous musicians, artists, writers and other professionals. Writers for Yes, Artists for Yes, Doctors for Yes, Unions for Yes, even judges for Yes joined the campaign. The most highly educated, creative, ethical people in our community all voted Yes.
Let’s build on this. Let’s stand with our indigenous brothers and sisters in the long, patient work of educating the Australian public, unmasking the lingering lies of colonialism and ensuring that the true history of this country seizes the imagination of the people.
This is what’s required for Australia to be truly independent, to be the nation that the Statement from the Heart asks us to be – a nation, as Noel Pearson puts it, that weaves together the triple strands of 65,000 years of indigenous culture, the democratic society developed since Federation and the rich influences of multicultural immigration.
Today must be not an end, but the beginning of a wave of truth-telling to sweep away ignorance and fear.
We stand, now and forever, with the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
VOICE, TREATY, TRUTH!