Regenerating in the wake of the referendum

6 Mar 2024

Ben Abbatangelo writes about the regenerative lessons woven into the landscapes once charred from bushfires. The Voice's demise was inevitable, but we are now actively repairing, and readying to come back with renewed strength and focus.

Ben Abbatangelo writes about the regenerative lessons woven into the landscapes once charred from bushfires. The Voice's demise was inevitable, but we are now actively repairing, and readying to come back with renewed strength and focus.

The 2009 Black Saturday fires are charred into the memories of everyone who survived them. The searing heat and roaring winds were somehow chilling. Despite the communication failures and blackouts, the vengeful mandarin-orange skyline and dense taste of smoke spoke to the horror on the horizon.

Mum’s woodland property in St. Andrews was bordered on the township of Kinglake, where 120 people tragically died – including our friend’s entire family. Mum recounts the Elvis water bomber flying directly overhead and then within a matter of moments flying back in the direction it originally came from. She knew this was the final warning. It was time to flee. 

The wildfires took the lives of 173 people, severely injured 414 more, perished more than a million wild and domesticated animals and torched 450,000 hectares of land. But as those who have been impacted by disaster would know, the devastation runs much deeper, is further reaching and more complex than any statistical summary can convey.

In the wake of cataclysmic events, where scarcity mindsets organically reign supreme, it feels as impossible as it does disrespectful to imagine beyond the immediate grief. Destruction manifests a debilitating sense of intractability and despair – and it’s only exacerbated if the community’s prior position was already one of pain and ruin.

In the extended aftermath of the Black Saturday fires, I learned that destruction is also a nucleus for unbridled beauty. Although there are wounds that never fully heal and scars that refuse to fade, seeing the rich greenery bursting out of the once barren and ash-ridden mountains and the broken communities fortifying back together opened my eyes to the powers of regeneration. 

The fires taught me that regeneration takes time; and it primarily happens in front of our eyes, under our noses and most-often without us even knowing. 

These formative lessons from that Black Saturday – and the regenerative power of fire more broadly – is a helpful prism to visualise how First Nations communities can renew from within the referendum-induced rubbles and revive a politics of yesteryear; one that is grounded in our inherent right to decide the fate of our futures and relationally bound to the ideals that transcend the prohibitive borders and systems that have been imposed on us.

We will grow from the rubble of the referendum

I spent much of the referendum campaign heeding the lessons from Black Saturday (and subsequent disasters that have since become commonplace). I did this to conceptualise how we can move beyond the two-decade political impasse that culminated with a self-defeating proposal and decisive referendum defeat. 

I did this not just because of the inevitability of the referendum outcome, but because the nature of the proposition in front of us meant that Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people were faced with a lose/lose predicament. 

The referendum’s failure was inevitable because  Australia is very transparent about who it is and what it believes. The continued deaths in custody, unrelenting theft and institutionalisation of children, continued vandalism of Country and forced displacement of our communities doesn’t occur in a vacuum. 

Australia doesn’t just know that it can do horrible things to Aboriginal people, but it fundamentally believes that it should. If we are honest with ourselves and each other, there should be no surprise at the referendum result. Nor should we be shocked at the vitriolic nature of the campaign. 

Beyond the result, which has been the focal point of most analysis and commentary, constitutional recognition not only provided governments with almost two decades of dislocation and distraction, but it also thwarted the generations of political momentum and clarity that was eloquently laid out in every petition and protest that preceded it. 

Had the referendum defied 236 years of Aussie gravity and triumphed, the ‘Aboriginal problem’ would have been classified by many as solved despite all of the structural and material conditions remaining the same. The state would’ve built the perfect bridge to transfer all of the responsibility across to Aboriginal people, but not the rights, tools, resources or power required to solve them.  

Upon its inevitable failure, governments not only had one more excuse to kick ‘the problem’ further down the road, but secured permission from the wider populace to wind back all of the other remnants of progress that have been made – namely the state-based Treaty processes in QLD, WA and the NT. 

This is the true genius of the Voice proposal and why a conga-line of fierce opponents to true Aboriginal self-determination could effortlessly file in behind it. For them, the equation was win/win. 

I won’t tell you ‘what now’, but here are some things to think about

Almost five months on from October 14th, we are now standing at a new juncture. The roadblocks in front of us are undeniably complex. To aid the process of regeneration, we need to ask the right questions and collectively shift our attention to ensuring the failed referendum becomes a springboard for progress.

I haven’t narrowly focussed on the questions at the forefront of most people’s minds- that is, “where to now and what comes next?”. I’ve instead leaned into probing uncomfortable questions that will instead unlock defining learnings and strategic insights. To ensure that this next push is successful, we need to earnestly look within before we can look ahead. 

This includes asking how we get back in the ring with gusto after the bureaucratic leadership effectively threw in the towel?

How do we reclaim and reassert our rights, when Aboriginal people ourselves have proactively propagated to the wider populace that we don’t inherently have any?

How do we come back for more after dedicating close to two decades establishing a ceiling below the bare minimum?

And how do we showcase the full breadth of our humanity after begging this place to further strip us of it? 

Even though constitutional recognition via a Voice to Parliament was the metaphorical equivalent of running the ball into the back of our own net, the wider population, under the false-assumption that we were actually kicking in the right direction, decisively refused to let us score. 

There is a great irony in this because the power and possibility the Voice proposal was knowingly ceding continues to live on in the non-relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that Australia overwhelmingly voted to maintain. 

With climate change now affecting the masses and the restoration of balance hinging on the health and prosperity of Indigenous peoples, the non-relationship the penal colony has with First Nations peoples will only become increasingly untenable. 

Under the backdrop of rapid demographic shifts and strengthened global ties, Australia – which prioritises its image and standing amongst the international community – will continue to be isolated as an outlier. When the time comes to launch the next play, we should place a greater emphasis on leveraging these international settings in order to influence the domestic ones. 

I also hold great optimism about the fact that the Noel Pearson ‘middle ground’, which is not only littered with one-way compromises and concessions, but as Professor Chelsea Watego analysed, is actually located on the ‘far right’, is no longer a viable pathway. It cannot be overstated how healthy it is that this realisation occurred in 2023 and not two decades later. 

I’m buoyed by the renewed re-engagement of the older generation while a new era of culturally-grounded, politically-astute and internationally-minded leaders arise . The scar tissue this next wave of baton holders have been forced to bear in such a short period of time will bode well in the future. The full suite of learnings might not show themselves for years to come, but fast-tracking the match-fitness of a hungry generation of young Blackfullas is a beautiful prospect.

There is no doubt the referendum has emboldened the chest beating base of snowflake nationalism, but it has also enabled countless others to close space on our collective cause. 

Because the Voice was “so pathetically understated”, I think the referendum in many ways still fell short of drawing a line in the sand. There’s undoubtedly many who voted ‘Yes’ because the proposal didn’t impact them whatsoever. On the other side of the coin, lots of people would’ve voted ‘No’ (or abstained altogether) because they believed that the proposal wouldn’t actually solve anything. Although it’s hard to quantify what the true numbers look like, my estimate is that the voting bloc today is larger and more engaged than it was prior to the referendum. 

Power is sustained and consolidated by those who capitulate to it. It’s not that we can use this moment to regenerate, but rather that we must. Together, we can say goodbye to the era of ‘something is better than nothing’ and usher in the long overdue reckoning that is grounded in our inherent rights. 

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