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Denying First Nations people a voice will achieve nothing

For some reason, I find myself yet again writing about this referendum. Why can’t people comprehend the simplicity of it? Is it because Aboriginal people solely occupied Australia before white people came along? “They didn’t own the land: The land owned them” (as our editor would say).

Two contrasting Redfern occasions

On the occasion of the “International year for the world’s indigenous people,” Paul Keating delivered a speech that later became known as the “Redfern address” (delivered on 10 December 1992) and is considered one of the finest political addresses ever. It was 1992.

Here is a short extract:

“Isn’t it reasonable to say that if we can build a prosperous and remarkably harmonious multicultural society in Australia, surely, we can find just solutions to the problems which beset the first Australians, the people to whom the most injustice has been done.

And, as I say, the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians.

It begins, I think, with that act of recognition, recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing.

We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.

We brought the diseases – the alcohol.

We committed the murders.

We took the children from their mothers.

We practised discrimination and exclusion.

It was our ignorance and our prejudice.

And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.

With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds.

We failed to ask how would I feel if this were done to me?

As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.

If we needed a reminder of this, we received it this year.

The Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal -Deaths. in Custody showed with devastating clarity that the past lives on in inequality, racism and injustice.

In the prejudice and ignorance of non-Aboriginal Australians, and-in the demoralisation and desperation, the fractured identity, of so many Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

For all this, I do not believe that the Report should fill us with guilt. Down the years, there has been no shortage of guilt, but it has not produced the responses we need.

Guilt is not a very constructive emotion.

I think what we need to do is open our hearts a bit.

All of us.

Perhaps when we recognise what we have in common we will see the things which must be done, the practical things.

We have to give meaning to “justice” and “equity” and, as I have said several times this year, we will only give

them meaning when we commit ourselves to achieving concrete results.

The Mabo Judgement should be seen as one of these.

By doing away with the bizarre conceit that this continent had no owners prior to the settlement of Europeans, Maba establishes a fundamental truth and lays the basis for justice.”

Yes, it was delivered 31 years ago. It was Keating’s address, of course, but his speech writer Don Watson deserves credit for his finely attuned words that were so very much in tune with the truth.

That truth is as indisputable today as it was then. We have been trying to recognise that our First Nations people are just as good at sorting through problems as we are. We have failed because we have not grasped the thinking of the heart.

Some white people want Aboriginal people to live with us under our thinking without recognising that they, not us, are the rightful custodians of this land. They have life and death invested in it. We are but bystanders to their history.

All they desire is for their unique credentials to be recognised in our constitution. It is a cry from the heart for their own voice.

In practicable terms, we, the whites, have failed to improve their lot. For decade upon decade, we have imposed on them a philosophy of superiority. We know what is best for you. And we have spent billions on our “knowing best.”

Our First Nations folk want any opportunity to have a say in the future of any government decision that affects them or, indeed, to raise matters that do. To have a voice in their concerns is a paramount right for any First Nations people. So far, we have failed them and, in so doing, told them that we are righteous. Know your place.

Are you doing what is essential? What you believe in, or have you just adjusted to what you are doing?

Even though Aboriginal leaders are still finalising their crucial advice to the cabinet, the government plans to progress two bills to set up the Indigenous voice referendum in this two-week sitting:

“The referendum working group was expected to confirm its advice to government on the exact wording of the question and the constitutional amendment on Thursday. But a communique from its meeting in Adelaide, issued by Indigenous Australians minister Linda Burney’s office, said the process was still ongoing.”

And as is familiar with conservatives, minor issues are being raised to delay, frustrate and confuse humanely genuine people.

In our humanity – the concoction of who we are. The most crucial ingredient is hope. Together with love, they make the perfect recipe.

My concern, however, is related to the original headline of this piece:

“Denying our first nations folk a voice might bring about consequences of a new militancy that would worsen matters.”

I am concerned that saying no by a large majority or a small minority or one state voting no might open the door to a new militancy that might eclipse the 2004 Redfern riots in its fury.

Those who remember the “Redfern riots” will remember the thousands of people who assembled in Redfern, which was described by the Sapien website as an:

“… impoverished area, with a relatively high concentration of public housing, where the local Aboriginal community has been commonly associated with criminality and violence.”

The Redfern Riots began with the death of a teenage boy being pursued by police. His name was “T.J.” Hickey. He was riding his bike, being pursued by police, when he hit a gutter, was flung into the air and came down on a fence. Another view is that he was being followed. He was impaled on the fence, causing penetrating injuries to his neck and chest. He was a first nations lad of 17. The date was Saturday 14 February 2004.

Would a no-vote be accepted with calm indignation, or would the more militant show their rejection in an avalanche of unwelcomed rioting like Redfern? Only history knows.

Never allow racism to disguise itself in the cloak of nationalism.

No doubt our First Nations people will start with high expectations. Why shouldn’t they? They have a government that wants the yes vote to prevail as much as they do. Most people do, I think.

The thought of what the Leader of the Opposition might do leaves me looking for my Valium.

My thought for the day

When you push people beyond their capacity to understand their victimisation, you can hardly expect them, during demonstrations, to behave with any form of sound judgement.


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  1. Anthony judge

    So much optimism about a Voice whose message none may choose to “hear” — even when they have a constitutional obigation to “listen”. None speak of the need for an Ear. How then to ensure the capacity to “hear” ?

  2. B Sullivan

    Do you want truth and reconciliation, or myth and reconciliation?

    There is evidence of ancient shell middens in Australia that may be 120,000 years old. They may have been made by birds, but they look very much to archaeologists like they could have been made by humans. Conclusive evidence has not yet been established. If they were made by humans then they weren’t made by modern humans, ie homo sapiens, like us. We homo sapiens, the only human race still surviving, had not even left Africa 120,000 years ago.

    The First Australian Nations people may have been homo erectus, now extinct. No evidence of homo erectus bones have been found in Australia, yet. The earliest estimate of our arrival in Australia is only 60,000 years ago. The odds are against us being the first.

    Modern genetic science has established that every human being that still exists on the planet today belongs to exactly the same race. Our race. Racism is an ignorant indulgence, a stupid dangerous fantasy based on the now proven to be false belief that people belong to different superior or inferior races just because they look different because of their inherited superficial physical traits like hair, eye and skin colour. Discrimination is rooted not in race but in privilege; racism is cultivated as an excuse to defend privilege.

    Our common race makes us all members of the “First Nations” no matter how long we or our ancestors have lived in Australia. Unless of course, homo erectus got here before us. Shouldn’t that entitle all of us to a voice to parliament instead of restricting it as a special “racial” privilege to those mythically deemed to be the “rightful custodians of this land”.

  3. Shane MORTIMER

    The British Crown has no evidence of having acquired title to the land from First People. The title of ALL First People internationally is ALLODIAL TITLE. Lilienthal & Ahmad, (2019). The British Crown owned Australian Government has no entitlement to our lands.

  4. New England Cocky

    @ Shane Mortimer: You legal comment provides the reason why reconciliation will require truth telling, as in South Africa after the fall of apartheid, a Treaty and then government expenditure to rectify the too many decades of state sponsored genocide policies and subsequent neglect of basic human services. Then we can discuss the racism within government instrumentalities …..

    Another John Lord gem of commonsense.

  5. Terence Mills

    The referendum Working Group will have to bring their deliberations to a conclusion today (Wednesday 22 March ) to allow the referendum legislation to go through in this session of parliament – if these don’t get through both Houses in the next week the referendum may have to be deferred to a later date.

    There are two pieces of legislation, the first being the relatively straight forward referendum machinery act amendments and the more important being the legislative instrument itself laying out the question to be put to the Australian people and the proposed changes to our constitution.

    Some Independents in the senate are saying that the referendum would best be left until the next federal election – so no later that September 2025 – they are saying that the legislation to implement the Voice logically should be sorted before the referendum for the constitutional change. I have some sympathy for this approach

    It seems that the coalition are coming onboard with the referendum machinery legislation, expect some sort of statement from Spud.

    We shall see later today !

  6. margcal

    The leader of the Opposition is indeed a problem.
    But even in our own midst are those who work very hard at justifying a No vote. They refuse to see or hear. Who or what will replace their hearts of stone?

  7. GL

    The current decaying crop of federal LNP are not in oppostion to attempt to offer anything even vaguely beneficial. They are there just to be wreckers and cause as much destruction as possible vis-à-vis the Voice (which is very much needed) is a great example of the behaviour of the vile little children on the other side of the political divide.

  8. Stephengb

    JL, et al.

    I disagree with “The Voice”.

    I do NOT however disagree with recognising the first in habitants of this land called Australia.

    I disagree because “The Voice” will not recognise the status of Aboriginals as the soverign owners of this land. That fact was supposed to have been established by the MABO decision and that did not change anything.

    “The Voice” confers rights on a specific group of people, to the exclusion of any other group, fundamentally it is therefore imposing an undemocratic status.

    “The Voice” will not stop racism, and some could argue is in fact providing for racism.

    I believe “The Voice” is patronising to the Aboriginals, because it will enable the racists among the Australian population, to once again retort, “see what we Whites do for you Aboriginals, now be greatfull”.

  9. Michael Taylor

    Stephen, your point 4 reminds me of a cartoon (if you can call it a cartoon) in one of my uni text books in Aboriginal Studies.

    A couple of Aborigines saw a group of white people, and one said to the other: “Let’s go and ask them what’s best for the Aborigines.”

    And that summed up our history.

  10. Stephengb

    M T

    Yes indeed

    Every ccupying force throughout history has seen themselves superior to the original inhabitants of the land occupied.

    Ireal/ Palistine

  11. John Lord

    Stephen could it be that a start is beyond your thinking. To be included in the constitution gives your cause credibility.

  12. Stephengb

    A starting is not beyond my thinking, but a genuine, inclusive place in governance is clearly beyond the thinking of those who do not accept the genuine sovereign claim of the Aboriginals.

    You see ‘the voice’, as presented, protects the sovereignty of WHITE Australia, by force, since 1788s – is a Patronising sop.

    I urge you to think outside the square.

  13. LambsFry Simplex.

    I think Stephen’s take is rough, but Iwouldnt walk away without at least thinking seriously about his argument.

    He is much closer than some may think, in his comments. The system has been delinquent, 200 years of stuff that makes ROBOdebt look like the Teddy Bear’s Picnic.

    But then that seems to have been the way of history since the end of the Ice Age and only with the continued compiling of data and analysis do we see the patterns emerge.

  14. Terence Mills

    Fundamentally the voice is just that, a publicly funded lobby group to represent Aboriginal interests to the government and the parliament of Australia : nothing wrong with that there are numerous such lobby groups in Canberra promoting their interests and the interests of their clients.

    The changes to the constitution so far have been quite straightforward :

    There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice

    The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to Parliament and the Executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

    The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

    The attorney general had asked for the following words to be added “and the legal effect of its representations” but there has been resistance to this.

    There is also the suggestion that the following statement be incorporated into the constitutional amendment but this has some legal implications and may be contentious :

    “In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as the First Peoples of Australia”

    The deliberations and recommendations of the constitutional working group should be revealed this morning (Thursday).

  15. Stephengb

    T M

    You are right. There are many lobby groups, but I can not think of one that gives an exclusive voice to our Parliament, our highest Democratic Institution.

    This voice would be for the exclusive use of a specific group of people, to the exclusion of all other groups of peoples, and would be enshrined in our Constitution.

    Now, with my limited understanding of the laws of this land, this institution called “The Voice”, would have a voice that is a bit more than the average lobby group and could lead to the members of that “Voice” forcing, by default, an outcome that would create an imbalance of power, between that specific group and any other group, or collective group.

    That is my primary reservation. I would much rather the position of a Titular Head of State, or every member of the house of review (senate) be reserved for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander’s.

    But every reader of my solution will baulk at even at the idea of a Head of State (reserved for Aboriginals) would be rejected with absolute certainty by Australians because, deep down this “Voice” is actually a patronising sop for the racists, in this country, who will never accept the soverignty of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’s over the whole of Australian and its territory islands.

  16. Anthony Judge

    I commented earlier on the need for an “Ear” for the content of any “Voice” to be “heard” rather than ignored (as is regularly done when apparently “listening”, notably in Parliament).

    I have since remembered the curious use of the phrase “Hear! Hear!” — especially in the UK Parliament. Of this Wikipedia notes: “It represents a listener’s agreement with the point being made by a speaker. It was originally an imperative for directing attention to speakers, and has since been used, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, as “the regular form of cheering in the House of Commons”, with many purposes, depending on the intonation of its user.

    Its use in Parliament is linked to the fact that applause is normally (though not always) forbidden in the chambers of the House of Commons and House of Lords.”

    Elsewhere it is noted as an abbreviation for: “hear, all ye good people, hear what this brilliant and eloquent speaker has to say!” Following use of the “Voice” in Parliament, is it to be expected that some may indeed feel it appropriate to say “Hear! Hear!”? Even impelled to do so? Of some potential relevance are the various web pages contrasting “Here! Here!” with “Hear! Hear!” — readily confused to the point that a NY Times article cited an early statistic: On the Web, “here here” outpolls the correct “hear hear” 153,000 to 42,000.

    That variant could be interpreted as encouraging an existential focus on the “here and now” — possibly in sympathy with a First Nations worldview. It is however strange that there are no references to the “Voice” as widely popularized in the science fiction of Dune — where it is famously practiced by the Bene Gesserit. There it permits an adept to control others merely by selecting tone shadings of the voice. The Voice is not telepathy; it’s a strange kind of science that utilizes sound.

    It is extensively explained in the Dune Wiki entry on the Voice ( There is a case for speculation on the capacity of First Nations speakers in Parliament to use that skill — especially since many younger people are familiar with the mythology of Dune

    Tone-of-voice may merit more exploration, as argued separately (Varieties of Tone of Voice and Engagement with Global Strategy,

  17. Lambchop Simnel

    Will it get resolved?

    Not while msm crawls to Hanson and co, twice the time spent with them than robodebt.

    And what was Thorpe up to today, very strategic miniskirt for the cameras?

    Thorpe has different politics to Hanson, but I wonder at the common sense when the tabloid press and media have already so muddied the waters that any more heat may torpedo the Voice move completely. I sympathise with the Thorpe view, but it won’t happen and not because of us but the oligarchs running things.

  18. Terence Mills

    Thorpe has morphed into a performance artist : like Marcel Marceau but loud and noisy !

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