The Voice – is the pendulum swinging far enough?

24 Mar 2023

The final wording for the Voice to Parliament referendum question has been announced. However, there is still apprehension from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people around the country about what this ‘Voice’ is going to look like in practice. Although the additional detail during the referendum question announcement looks to include greater representation than initially thought, we’ve been burned by promises from the government before, as Natalie Cromb explores.

IndigenousX shared some powerful words from Bundjalung sister Vanessa Turnbull Roberts on Instagram the other day. She said that having questions, or even critique, does not equate to “No.” These words really resonated with what I have been observing online from inside and outside of our communities, in discussions around this ‘Voice’.

The conflation of critique with racism and “No” is really something. As Vanessa said, having questions, critique or even criticism of any particular reform model does not mean “No;” and it does not automatically align those with questions to those in the conservative“No” camp. It’s concerning and something many mob predicted would be the case when the referendum was announced. 

Luke Pearson recently wrote a piece where he discussed his concerns about this time and the difficulty thinking it through with all the white noise. There are a multitude of perspectives and approaches in our communities and there should be space to consider these, facilitate critique, questions and discussions with and among our communities.

In 2016, all of Australia was asked to vote on changing the definition of marriage, to finally allow same sex marriage. The loud and incessant commentary was very damaging for the LGBTQI+ community, being targeted vitriolically for such a simple ask – equality. Just like then, the debate from people who are not members of the community impacted by the proposed vote is the loudest, the least relevant, and the most harmful.

So many mob within our communities are grappling with what this model means to them and their communities. They are asking the practical questions about what this will change when it comes to the cost of living in remote communities where people have been forced from their lands; they are asking whether it will address the overrepresentation of our people in the criminal justice system and stop Black deaths in custody; asking whether it will keep our families together and stop punishing poverty caused by the oppressor?

However, it is really hard for the media and, by extension, the country to take the time and space to consider this meaningfully with the forceful way ‘allies’ are inserting themselves into conversations.  These so-called allies speak from an entitled place to argue the pros and cons with mob (often speaking over and taking space from mob with expertise who worked on the model), as though mob’s legitimate criticism and cynicism is not well placed. They disregard the fact we have living memory and ongoing experiences of governmental betrayals or  experiences of continuing oppression. 

We need yarns about this, not being talked at

Goreng Goreng Artist Rachel Sarra expressed similar concerns on her social media platform in recent days that the nature of getting the Voice by calling on the 97 percent of the population to decide on something impacting the 3 percent we represent doesn’t sit well. Perspectives  like these need to be  considered, because there are mob who wish to have the yarns to understand and some just want to make sense of how they are feeling within themselves about this. This is perfectly acceptable to need time to process in an environment of so much noise and information.

There has been some really deep and insightful yarns happening on social media in a really accessible way by Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi poet, creator and storyteller Lorna Munro, Birri Gubba and Kungalu, Murri singer, poet and lyricist Teila Watson, Gamilaraay Kooma community organiser and freedom fighter Ruby Wharton and Indigenous and Tongan storyteller and poet, Meleika Gesa. These mob have been yarning about the origins of the movement for self-determination for our lives and communities. They also discuss the model for achieving self-determination, land back and reparations. These conversations are demonstrating there is no homogeneity among our mob on this Voice,  despite how much these allies would like there to be. There are counter views and critiques from mob that are valuable and come from a place of knowing. Knowing the impact of policies, knowing the lies told by authorities and knowing of the broken promises and the way that symbolic gestures do not achieve meaningful change. There is weight and value in the argument that we are not without voices, that we are not lacking but rather it is the political and societal will lacking when it comes to addressing the truth, addressing the ongoing oppression and taking responsibility to address and redress the acts and omissions of the settler power structures since 1788.

A history of symbolic gestures, but little has changed

Many non-Indigenous Australians like to think that society is constantly improving. They imagine that ‘sure, racism is still here but it is better than it was a generation ago and in another generation it might be gone altogether!’ This is the modern rejuvenation of an old white idea called ‘The March of Progress.’

You only need to read the caption under ‘modern man’ to see why it feels more than a little problematic to apply this theory to issues of racism. 

Where racism does improve, it rarely does so because society decides to improve itself, but instead happens because of the tireless work of oppressed peoples fighting against their own oppression. Too often, whenever there is a positive victory, small or large, it is followed by a negative response. Sometimes the response is instant, other times it may take years. 

This is known as ‘the pendulum effect of race relations’ and was first articulated back in 1999  by director of the WVU Center for Black Culture and Research, Marjorie Fuller in which she makes a conceptual connection between the way race relations operate and Newton’s third law – the physics concept of equal and opposite reactions. 

This theory shows that rather than constantly getting better with each passing year, decade or generation, issues of race relations seem to swing back and forth. In America you don’t need to look much further than Trump following Obama, but in Australia we have had so many Prime Ministers in such a relatively short time that it becomes even more obvious when we look at Keating leading to Howard leading to Rudd/Gillard leading to Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison and now Albanese. It is fair to be suspicious, or to lack trust in the belief that this is a sign of progress, or to be concerned about even if it is a sign of a positive pendulum swing, what price will we pay when the pendulum invariably swings back again? 

We often refer back to the Paul Keating Redfern Speech on 10 December 1992 to point to a political speech that was truthful and remarkable. It was remarkable because it was the first governmental speech of its kind acknowledging the theft of country, the dispossession, the violence and the taking of children. This speech, while a moment we won’t forget, was not the turning point people had hoped it would be. While during Paul Keating’s Prime Ministership he did implement the Native Title Act, this was not of his own volition or progressive government policy, but rather a response to the High Court decision in the Mabo case. A case that was brought by the late great Eddie Koiki Mabo. A case that ultimately proved the point that sovereignty of this country has not been ceded and recognised our continuing land rights. The Native Title Act then sought to legislate the decision to set controls in place for how claims could be made and the priority of claims against other interests.

This colony loves to applaud grandiose moments like Keating’s speech, but mob are asking for substance over form and that is not an unreasonable ask. The Blak sovereign movement has always been about our country, about our self-determination and about the means (because, you know mining companies and other ‘resource’ companies should not profit from the theft of this continent) to self-determine.

Like too many moments in history where there are small victories, the years following Keating were violent re-assertions of power dynamics. The John Howard government that followed Keating’s was a government of cruelty. Howard not only eroded the Native Title legislation but it introduced the Northern Territory Intervention, scrapped ATSIC (it is this very act that the Voice is seeking to avoid in future – the ability to scrap our bodies on a whim), denied genocide was committed against our people and refused to apologise, all the while arguing that Australia was not, and never really had been, a racist country.

The next Government, and the next ‘moment’ in recent memory was Kevin Rudd and his Apology to the Stolen Generations on 13 February 2008. This was a very emotional time for our communities, but particularly survivors of the Stolen Generations and families impacted by the government policies of child removal. I remember the emotions and the hope for change that these moments brought. But later, it was the Rudd government that extended the intervention and led to a threefold increase in child removals in the Northern Territory.

Following the Rudd/Gillard government being ousted for the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments, we saw a reprisal of the dog whistling and racist rhetoric that is so damaging to our people and communities. The return of the deficit narrative and saturation of the media with stories and language seeking to demonstrate our incompetence.

A Brand New Day?

While the 2022 election of the Albanese government has promised many things, there is healthy scepticism in our communities about the promises being made and what they will achieve. While it is incredibly promising that there is governmental appetite at all for the concept of a Voice that was outright rejected by Turnbull, the questions on efficacy and impact remain. 

The Referendum path is being tracked forward, and if successful, this would implement constitutional change to protect the Voice from future governments scrapping it at their whim, such as John Howard scrapping ATSIC or Tony Abbott with National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. However, enshrining the Voice into the constitution should not be decided without discussions  among and within the communities it will impact. The Voice working groups need to conduct yarning sessions in our communities, without the disruption of allies, because our people really do want to understand in accessible ways what this means. For many mob, this is still abstract – they see people in cities making decisions about them so yarning with them will be an important step for our people understanding this path.

Our community does not want another governmental pat on the back for themselves while allies rejoice at being the ones to defeat racism. What our communities want is to be able to practice proper self determination. To be able to point to a mechanism that will stop deaths in custody, a clear path to justice for wrongs committed against us, be able to get land back and stop the destruction of our respective Countries, and for governments to stop taking our kids.

Allowing mob to consider the Voice and make their own decisions, change their mind and be undecided is something we need to create space for and protect. Even where we don’t agree on a reform model – one thing is for certain – I know mob will look out for each other in the almost certain deluge of racism that is only just beginning. 

I know this path is not linear, it is not perfect – because any time reform is proposed to address the theft of this continent, the historical and ongoing atrocities and oppression, it challenges the settler power structures. Any challenge to the power structures reinforcing our oppression is going to be railed against.  While there is promise of change, of our voices being heard and informing policies and the things impacting us – the current level of detail is not providing the comfort in our communities.  The lack of requirement on the part of the government in consulting and implementing mob input also raises concerns and our conversations continue in this regard.

So while promise is in the air, I can’t help but brace for the inevitable counter to this. In history, when we have had moments of promise and progress – there has always been consequences and we bear the brunt of that while the governments of yesterday laud themselves for what they ‘achieved.’

Another important question that I can’t escape is that if this is the pendulum swinging back in our favour, if only for a moment, is this a big enough swing on the back of the past ten years of Liberal party governments? Is it a big enough swing to justify whatever is going to come next when it inevitably swings back the other way? 

Whatever happens next though, let’s just remember who we are, where we come from and who we are to one another while we go through this.


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