Voice to Parliament: Why mob are staying silent

19 Jul 2023

At this moment, Blackfullas are being routinely punished, in their personal and professional lives, for daring to speak freely about a referendum that will supposedly change our lives forever. Munanjahli and South Sea Island woman and Associate Professor Chelsea Watego shares why mob are staying silent when asked about the Voice to Parliament.

Voice to Parliament: Why mob are staying silent

Look I’m not a fan of writer’s festivals for the most part, but I’ve learnt to play my part – well sort of. 

When I released my debut book Another Day in the Colony it took me a while to adjust to the white applause for the supposed sophisticated articulation of our oppression while on various festival stages over the past year or so.

The writer’s festival circuit isn’t my usual stage. I’m not in the business of selling books to make a living. I wrote a book to make sense of the violence of this world and the work of trying to make a living, of raising a family in this place. 

This place, that is ours.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a writer, as opposed to those orators that move us as a people, those who’ve shaped our movement, in such profound moments in our history.

Instead, writing is my weapon of choice. 

But when I wrote that book, I remember a certain Black man and seasoned performer at such festivals, leant over to me moments before a national television appearance to condescendingly ask ‘so Chelsea this is your first book?’. 

It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. To put me in my supposed place. 

I didn’t realise, despite having been an academic for decades, that I wasn’t considered a writer, until I had published a book for white consumption. 

But, soon enough, I became accustomed to the theatre that is the writing festival circuit, of turning up as a scholar, but being treated like a sideshow or spectacle for supposed white sympathy. I have had white women, who themselves were not academics introduce my book as a non-academic text, and have had Black men with no original intellectual work of their own, erase the last 20 years of my academic writing career, and not to mention, various agents of the state relegate commissioned expert reports I’ve provided, to that of opinion. 

Writers Festival - Chelsea Watego

The saving grace is the occasional writer’s festivals where I get to be considered an actual writer, as a thinker. Not just about race, but to be seen as capable of thinking about the world, much like white authors of fiction and poetry are able to. I enjoy the freedom of being able to speak on running, humour, the craft of writing and you know, just being human. 

And it’s actually fun to think, to play, to laugh, to debate, and laugh some more. You see, the writer’s festival circuit takes up my weekends and personal leave when they clash with my working week. As such, I value them when they give me joy, because those

honorariums don’t justify the labour, nor does it compensate for taking me from my five children who I have sole responsibility for and everything that piles up upon my return home. 

But alas, it didn’t matter what the topic, or the curator, or wherever I appeared, or the joy that I found. There was always that one white person that would ask, ‘so what’s your thoughts on the Voice?’.

At first, I hated that question, because I’m not a constitutional lawyer, and I felt I was not qualified to answer. I had been told by a Black lawyer, who has since blocked me on Twitter, that I didn’t know enough about constitutional law to have an informed opinion. 

And then after some appearances, I still hated that question, because I remember a senior Black academic at a writers festival berating me and any other Blackfullas who dared express scepticism, for not having viewed the Boyer Lectures

‘You haven’t done the readings’ the Black experts insisted. As though the Blackfullas pushing trolleys, the admin officer, the truck driver, or the single Black parent trying to survive the violence of the state at every turn, were to blame for holding our people back, for not having done their homework. 

Those who have expressed doubt about the cultural authority of the Yes campaign and the emancipatory claims being made, have all been accused of being on the same ledger of the ‘real racists’, ironically by those aligned with mining companies. 

There is a very real demonisation of Blackfullas who dare answer the question of yes with a no, as though it is we that are betraying our people – as if we are the ones blowing up sacred sites. 

Ben Abbetangelo Quote - Chelsea Watego Article

At this moment, it is Blackfullas being routinely punished, in their personal and professional lives, for daring to speak freely about a referendum that will supposedly change our lives forever. It is literally the livelihoods of Blackfullas being threatened in private spheres, in the course of responding to those demands to express our views publicly. 

This is the danger right now. 

A danger we do not deserve. 

A danger we did not ask for. 

A danger we did not bring upon ourselves.

I remember Murri academic Dr Lilla Watson insisting that we are not the protagonists as Indigenous peoples in a settler colonial state.  

Yet, here we are, Blackfullas are being forced into refusing to declare a position, to sit on the fence, to stay silent on the Voice, or concede to voting yes to avoid the backlash. Because it just isn’t safe, not just ‘culturally’ but literally. 

Author Derrick Bell is instructive for this present moment when he states:

Power in the hands of the reformer is no less potentially corrupting than in the hands of the oppressor’

 We are witnessing what happens when one’s employer takes a public stance in support of the Voice. 

We are witnessing what happens when one holds a divergent view from the political party they’ve long represented. 

We are witnessing what happens when one reports on the utterances of sovereign Blackfullas in mainstream media. 

We are witnessing what happens when Blackfullas express doubt, raise questions, and make statements as sovereign Blackfullas. 

We are witnessing what happens when Blackfullas refuse proximity to settler institutions, to speak to the interests of one’s nations, and to the generations who will follow long after they are gone. 

We are witnessing the violence of Black reform right now in the vote yes campaign. A campaign promoting an Indigenous voice to parliament, while casting sovereign Blackfullas as radical, fringe, marginal, as a minority that doesn’t matter, or worse, at odds with progress

American social reformer Frederick Douglas’ seminal speech, ‘If there is no struggle, there is no progress’ speaks to the dangers of a philosophy of reform, divorced from struggle. 

He states:

‘Those who profess to favour freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters’. 

The yes campaign, in its strategy, reveals the very real dangers associated with enshrining a voice to parliament. To enshrine a voice that in this moment is silencing and domesticating the diverse voices of sovereign Black nations across this continent offers more concern than it does hope for the future.

Douglas reminds us, 

‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will. Find out what any people will quietly submit to and you have found the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both’

What is the point of a voice, if we cannot tell the truth of how power is operating in this place, and most significantly, speak of our own power as Blackfullas. Our people have long spoken of the hard truths of settler colonialism, a truth that doesn’t demand one do the readings, but rather, just calls on us to remember. 

I am not accepting the lie that it’s now or never, or that a seat at their table is the best that’s on offer. I’m not entertaining that what the political left offers is better than the overt racism of the right. 

What the Black reformers have forgotten is that Indigenous sovereignty, of the unceded kind, can never be reduced to a matter of settler colonial affiliations of left or right. 

It’s the settlers, to the left and to the right who remain on the same ledger when it comes to undermining Indigenous sovereignty. 

Both sides of the settler yes/no campaigns reduce Indigenous sovereignty to a matter of service delivery. They aim to ameliorate our conditions and save us from our supposed despair. That is not the foundation from which we should be negotiating our relationship as First Nations’ peoples. 

Black lack and settler benevolence are as much a settler fantasy as terra nullius. 

We will not be saved, at least not from settlers. 

We need not be, for we have survived after all. 

We owe neither side a thing – but we owe ourselves so much more. 

If those yes vote evangelists are as committed as they say they are, to us having a Voice, then Blackfullas should be able to express what we think, we feel, andknow – with or without the readings, law degrees, children’s books, or whatever. 

Blackfullas should be able to speak of the limitations of the proposed Voice, without being cast as intellectually incapable, mentally ill, politically disloyal, professionally inept, deceptive, treacherous, and a threat to be contained, complained about, blamed, or blocked. 

But this is the gaslighting and the sorry satire of settler colonialism. Those who claim to support us having a voice, are the ones most threatened by the varying voices of Blackfullas in this moment. – Even in their knowing that our voice, in terms of our vote, doesn’t count for shit. 

Settlers meanwhile roam free with their outlandish claims to benevolence or destruction on either side of the campaign. It is not they who are perpetually required to declare and defend their voting intentions at writer’s festivals or wherever else, nor are they being summoned to the principal’s office as a result of such utterances. 

While the nation muses over whether to vote yes or no to an Indigenous voice to parliament with no actual power, we are witnessing how power actually operates on the lives and livelihoods of Blackfullas in this place right now. 

Another day in the colony indeed.

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