As First Nations activists, proudly brandishing the colours of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags, we have marched along many a mottled grey road and occupied the foyers of imposing, sterile buildings. We disrupt the orderly, mundane motions of a society because otherwise, society is indifferent to our plight. Our willingness to get out on the streets isa vital part of our movement. But have we been disruptive enough to abolish the colonial systems that harm us?
As an activist, I have come to realise that for all our protests and rallies in the past decade, our efforts have fallen well short of achieving lasting beneficial change. After all, there remains no justice for hundreds of deaths in custody, and the fatal dimensions of our crisis remain — writ large in the statistics. From our pain and suffering, billions of dollars are made by the business and bureaucratic elite. And what for our children?
As the Uluru Statement from the Heart states, “Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth, languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.” A quarter of Indigenous children’s deaths are suicide.
The reality is that our actions on the streets are failing to keep the decision makers accountable for their failure to address our plight. The colonial systems remain unaltered. We must do better.
Our more diplomatic forms of advocacy have struggled to cause lasting change as well — our many voices to Government. With formality and decorum, we’ve had countless meetings with Ministers and the upper echelons of bureaucracy, usually behind closed doors. The missions to Canberra walking the posh polished floors, in a harsh hard building, on a grassy green hill stolen from the Ngunnawal people, gives cold comfort for our mob. We’re not without some success. But with each cabinet reshuffle or new Prime Minister, or at best each three years at election, we hold our breaths, uncertain, “will we need to start over again?”
Then there is the colonies most effective strategy, played against us since they first arrived — divide and conquer. I see the heart-breaking divisions in every community I have been to. I’m not talking about differences of opinions — that’s human. With a consensus building structure, our various perspectives could be a strength. I’m talking about the argument we have all heard. The argument that often comes with lateral violence and is loudest when we are on the cusp of progress — “He/She doesn’t speak for me!” And it’s likely they’re right. See, this is why Howard destroyed Black political structure, ATSIC. It’s one of the reasons he bastardised Native Title. My blood boils right now. I imagine he snickers in sickly mirth when he hears of us tearing each other down.
This assessment does not discount the great gains First Nations people are making — healing, reviving, learning, teaching, caring and surviving. Nor is the assessment harsh, because the statistics don’t lie. Only we control our advocacy — only we can shape up and fight.
If we are to protect our hard fought for gains and bring down the colonial systems that harm us, we need to do much more than a disarray of rallies, reactive protests, and diplomatic missions to Canberra. We need to be cohesive, and we need to be able to pursue our goals strategically. To do this, we must achieve the proposal from the unprecedented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander consensus from the delegates present at Uluru — a constitutionally enshrined First Nation’s Voice.
The Voice proposal was forged from our collective experiences and perspectives. To put it simply, a constitutional Voice means a guaranteed representative body — the structure that is required to utilise the power of unity — a vital step we must take.
Establishing a Voice is how we can change the nation.
Imagine the power we would have to pursue our people’s interests with a constitutionally enshrined Voice — representatives chosen by us, accountable to us, well-resourced and unapologetically for us because they are protected by the rule book of the nation, the constitution. Imagine this Voice coordinating with our specialist peak bodies and our actions on the streets; bringing our Elders to the forefront, giving our young people and brilliant thinkers a space to learn political advocacy among their own, for their own. A Voice is the power we need to make lasting beneficial change.
With a constitutionally enshrined Voice, we could campaign for reparations for all First Nations— the #paytherent task cannot be left to a few. We could campaign for stronger land rights, actually addressing the problems with Native Title. And we would pursue these goals not just for First Nations people, but for all Australians, because we are all constrained by the poverty and injustices inflicted upon First Nations people.
This is why I am a die hard supporter for a First Nations Voice as called for in the Uluru Statement. It is a campaign to achieve sovereignty in practice, because sovereignty means power and authority.
If you have heard that our sovereignty will be diminished if we are constitutionally recognised, this is wrong. Our sovereignty cannot disappear because of a whitefella document — our identity is not so fickle — we have survived for more than sixty millennia. And think about it; recognition in State constitutions haven’t changed who we are, nor rendered us unable to make treaties if we desire; and when we were “counted in reckoning the population” of Australia after constitutional change in 1967, we didn’t suddenly become assimilated. We resurged. Always was, always will be.
To my brothers and sisters who show up, if you want to be heard in the colony and begin to dismantle the structures that oppress us, be courageous enough to fight for a First Nations Voice. It is a radical proposal — it is sovereignty and unity in practice — it will change the nation.
We must fight for constitutional rights, because there’s no power and authority for us in the status quo.
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