12+ In May 2023, I joined a local group campaigning for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. We had high hopes. But as the Referendum result proved, in Australia, while some things change, some stay the same. And voters rejected the proposal to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution.
My long and ongoing journey of understanding Australia's troubled history and relationship with Indigenous peoples began when I lived in England in my mid-twenties. Juxtaposed with the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations, the BBC aired news of Aboriginal protests back home and documentaries on the effects of colonisation on Indigenous Australians. It spurred me to read and learn more about the true history of Australia.
When I volunteered for the Voice campaign, I thought I had a reasonable grasp of the facts. But even with my small library of books by Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers, fiction and nonfiction, I soon realised there was still so much to learn about the long fight for First Nations recognition and respect. And unlike the No campaign's catch cry, "If you don't know, vote No", I wanted to be informed and intended to vote Yes!
So, I read more books, attended forums and workshops, and watched webinars.
Recognition and Respect
The Voice to Parliament Handbook by Thomas Mayo and Kerry O'Brien (Hardie Grant, 2023) provided a straightforward overview of the history and processes leading to the Voice Referendum, how it was the response to Australia-wide dialogues culminating in the 2017 Indigenous Constitutional Convention at Uluru, where more than 250 delegates issued a pragmatic request through the Uluru Statement from the Heart:
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.
Everything You Need To Know About The Uluru Statement From The Heart by Megan Davis and George Williams (UNSW Press, 2021) explained that the agreed sequence at Uluru was Voice, Treaty, Truth, prioritising the Voice to Parliament as the first stage. It would be a representative advisory body or committee offering the Federal government and Parliament advice on matters affecting Indigenous Australians.
Enshrining the Voice in the Constitution would afford Indigenous Australians recognition as the first peoples of this country and ensure it avoided the fate of past representative bodies disbanded at the whim of a government.
Listening to the Voice would, after 240 years, show respect for the knowledge of Indigenous peoples about their affairs and communities and hopefully close the gap in life outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Misinformation and Lies
Unfortunately, conservative politicians and commentators immediately characterised the proposed Voice as a "third chamber of Parliament". However, Malcolm Turnbull, the former Prime Minister who led the charge on this claim, later recanted it and supported the Yes vote.
Then, we had the assertion that the Voice would "introduce race" into the Constitution. Unlike most Australians, I read the Constitution during the campaign, and "race" is already mentioned in Sections 25 and 51 (xxvi).
The conservative Opposition Leader, looking to score political points, demanded more details about the proposed Voice committee and how it would work before enshrining it in the Constitution. He ignored the fact that the Australian Constitution is a set of principles, with the power to make laws on how things will work vested in the Parliament, as set out in Part V - Powers of the Parliament. And some sections, for instance, 51 (i) to (xxxix), read like a PowerPoint presentation. There are no details!
Conspiracy theories sprouted that the Voice was a plan by the UN, the World Economic Forum and Communists to undermine Australia's sovereignty. There were wild claims of it being an Indigenous "land grab", harking back to the fear-mongering of the Mabo Native Title case of the 1990s. Some even suggested the Voice would levy "reparation taxes" and charge people to go to beaches.
I heard and read these accusations and more on mainstream and social media, in the streets and at polling booths while handing out leaflets. They were as false as the concept of Terra Nullius. They worked, however, sowing distrust and division in voters' minds.
Some Things Change
While campaigning for the Voice in May and June, I wrote a submission for the Big Issue Fiction Edition, Some Things Change. I drew on my life for the three-part short story, growing up in Perth, living in England, and volunteering for the Voice campaign to explore Australia's relationship with Indigenous Australians through the interactions of a pair of imaginary cousins in 1979, 1992 and 2023.
The Big Issue didn't select the story, but I shared it on Tall And True and later narrated and released Some Things Change as three episodes on my Tall And True Short Reads podcast:
As I explained in the Writer's Insight section of the last episode, recorded after the Referendum, I had high hopes for the Voice to Parliament when I wrote the story, like my volunteer group and my male protagonist. But I should have paid more attention to my female protagonist, who warns her cousin, "While some things have changed in Australia, others have stayed the same."
Some Stay the Same
The Uluru Statement from the Heart closes with a generous invitation: We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
Although my local electorate and pre-polling and polling day booths overwhelmingly voted Yes in the Voice Referendum, the majority of Australian voters chose not to accept the invitation on Saturday, October 14, 2023. The next day, I posted to social media:
I'm ashamed of my country. But I'm proud of my polling booth and others in the Wentworth electorate and of the Yes23 volunteers and Yes voters across Australia. Most of all, I'm proud of the Indigenous Australians who stuck their heads above the parapet and worked for Voice to Parliament. I'm sorry we've left it to the next generation to right the wrongs of the past and walk together for a better, fairer future for all Australians.
In the final weeks leading up to polling day, I worked long days at booths, alternating between feeling confident the Voice would succeed and shedding tears at the thought of failure. After the Referendum loss, I felt flat and sad.
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But I'm glad I joined the campaign for the Voice. I met and worked with some wonderful people and learned so much more about Indigenous Australia.
I just wish No-voters had embarked on a similar journey of understanding to mine all those years ago. Because the result may have been different, and we could have had a better, fairer future for all Australians!
© 2023 Robert Fairhead
Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com. He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads storytelling podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.
Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story. In 2021, Robert published his first twelve short stories for the Furious Fiction writing competition, Twelve Furious Months, and in 2022, his second collection of Furious Fictions, Twelve More Furious Months. And in 2023, he published an anthology of his microfiction, Tall And True Microfiction.
Besides writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, watching Aussie Rules football with his son and walking his dog.
He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.