Only a few months ago, spirits in Australia’s indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities had been high. Polling had showed the majority of Australians likely to accept the proposal to create an indigenous ‘Voice’ to Parliament in the upcoming referendum, which would have seen the right of First Nations representatives to advise the government on issues concerning their communities being enshrined in the constitution. In a country in which the life expectancy of indigenous people is eight years shorter than that of the general population, many hoped that this would be a step towards change.
However, it was clear within 75 minutes into the counting that the proposal had been defeated.
‘This is the torment of our powerlessness’
In 2017, delegates from First Nation communities all over Australia convened in the shadow of Uluru- a colossal, sacred sandstone formation in central Australia which has long been a symbol of aboriginal land rights and the strong spiritual ties between aboriginal people and the continent. It was no coincidence that it was here that they reached the largest consensus position between First Nations peoples on constitutional recognition in history, issuing The Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The Statement contained three key demands to the Australian public: ‘Voice’, ‘Treaty’, and ‘Truth’. The first in the sequence, ‘Voice’, was to precede the others, and was to consist in the creation of an advisory body consisting of First Nations representatives, with which Parliament would be obliged to consult- although not by necessity to heed- before adopting policies or passing legislation concerning indigenous communities
Whilst the demands were dismissed as too ‘radical’ by then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, they were taken up again by the incumbent Anthony Albanese upon his assumption to office, who set the process towards the realisation if the Uluru Statement demands in motion by proposing the adoption of the Voice.
The Statement had its roots in over a century of Aboriginal activism. Whilst indigenous people have existed in Australia for over 65,000 years, the arrival of British colonizers in the late eighteenth century led to the devastation of First Nation communities, as local people were violently displaced from their land, massacred, and exposed to new illnesses brought over from Europe.
Systematic state violence continued in the centuries that followed, as indigenous people were often forced to labour in conditions tantamount to slavery. The policy of separating mixed-race children (the ‘Stolen Generations’) from their families with the intention of eradicating indigenous culture persisted from 1910 until 1970. Although all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians gained the right to vote in 1967, and indigenous communities were recognised as possessing legitimate title to their land in 1992, inequalities between indigenous people and their non-indigenous counterparts are still deeply ingrained.
First Australians are the most imprisoned demographic of people in the world, and despite representing less than 4% of the Australian population, they made up 23% of those who died in custody between 2021 and 2022. Many remote aboriginal communities lack consistent access to water and electricity, whilst the Australian government has been accused of heavy-handedness in their treatment of others, with an alcohol ban on many such communities in the Northern Territory having existed since 2007. A recent report warned that the elevated numbers of indigenous children being taken into state care means Australia could risk another ‘stolen generation’.
One of the reasons for the persistence of these inequalities, Professor Megan Davis, co-chair of the Uluru Dialogue, told the Washington Post, is the absence of a formal structure which would allow indigenous people to have a say in policies and laws concerning their own communities.
Such, the Uluru Statement from the Heart reads, ‘is the torment of our powerlessness’.
Moderacy, mistrust and misinformation
“If you don’t know, vote no”.
If you had happened to be in Australia in the months leading up to the referendum, it would have been difficult to miss this message emblazoned on posters, booming from TVs, and tacked to social media feeds all over the country. The reality was that a lot of Australians weren’t entirely clear on what the Voice was, with fact at times being difficult to sort from fiction in the media and online, many being disengaged from the referendum, and trust in politicians being low. In a political system under which voting is compulsory, official and unofficial ‘No’ campaigns capitalised on this.
Following a ‘Yes’ victory, “no one will have any ownership rights whatsoever under native title… millions will be out on the street” trumpeted a Facebook post which was subsequently screenshotted and posted on Telegram, where it amassed over 13,700 views.
Misinformation surrounding the proposal was rife in the run up to the decisive 14th October, with members of migrant communities in particular being targeted in train stations and shopping centres with lies, which were subsequently spread through word-of-mouth, and Yes23 hashtags being flooded with anti-Voice fabrications.
“People may not realise that there are ‘disinformation for hire’ businesses overseas where you can go and pay someone to come and absolutely manipulate opinion around an election very effectively using social media”, Yes Campaign advisor Ed Coper told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“A lot of the accounts on Twitter that were spreading misinformation around the voice were doing so very late at night and using Americanised spelling”.
While such unofficial disinformation campaigns certainly played a significant role in the outcome of the elections, right-wing supporters of the No vote asserted the legitimacy of certain reasons for opposing the constitutional amendment, arguing that the proposal would have negated the principle of the equality of Australians in the eyes of the law and pointing to ambiguity around the form a theoretical advisory body would take. It was the decision of the Liberal opposition party to oppose the Voice by arguing along these lines which hammered another nail into the coffin of the proposal, turning an ostensibly moral issue into a political one.
To suggest that all mainstream opposition to the Voice came from a place of genuine commitment to fairness and equality- misplaced or not- however, would be disingenuous. July witnessed a racist caricature of Voice Yes campaigner Thomas Mayo appearing in the widely read Australian Financial Review, an incident which was preceded by months of racially charged discourse in the public sphere. At the same time, a rising tide of racist abuse led to a jump in the numbers of First Nations people seeking support for their mental health. White Australia is not willing to “give blackfellas anything, even when it’s nothing,” remarked aboriginal author Melissa Lucashenko, underlining the incongruence between the moderacy of the proposal and the degree of hostility it provoked.
A small portion of the resistance to the proposed advisory body took a completely different tone. Indigenous Senator Lidia Thorpe became one of the leading critics of the Voice by proclaiming its inadequacy in the face of the injustice experienced by indigenous people. From this perspective, the creation of the ‘powerless’ advisory committee could serve no other purpose but to allow the Australian government and wider Australian society to hide their reluctance towards achieving actual progress for members of the indigenous community.
Its very proposition, she argued, was an “insult”.
A ‘country that does not know itself’
In the week following the referendum, indigenous activists observed a period of silent mourning. The proposal- which was backed by a strong majority of First Nations people- was rejected in every state, as well as by 60% of the Australian electorate.
A deep sense of sorrow, rage, and bewilderment permeated many indigenous communities. In the verdict of the Central Land Council, representing Aboriginal people in part of the Northern Territory, the results demonstrated that Australia was a “country that does not know itself”, whilst others termed the no result “an unparalleled act of racism by white Australia”. Many denounced Prime Minister Albanese’s call to “take our country beyond this debate” as “flippant”, when moving on is not a luxury afforded to indigenous people.
The road ahead seems unclear. Some argue that the Voice should be put forward as a motion in Parliament, while others advocate for its adoption on the part of individual states. There are also those, on the other hand, for whom the rejection of the “modest” proposal signals the time for a more radical politics.
Only one thing is certain: the wounds from the past year will take a while to heal.