THE Australian Constitution does not recognise or acknowledge the original peoples of the land in any way, shape, or form. It was written during a time in which the driving concern of political leaders of all persuasions was to establish a ‘white’ Australia.
When it was put together the era of frontier massacres had not yet finished and it was assumed that indigenous people would eventually die out as an identifiable group. That is the stark background to the latest effort to change the constitution.
In 2017, after a long and wide-ranging consultation process, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples produced The Statement from the Heart, often referred to as the ‘Uluru Statement’, in recognition of the location of its signing. It is a brief but powerful claim to recognition by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations.
Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands and possessed it under our own laws and customs. This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial’, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago.
This sovereignty is spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.
The authors of the statement after briefly summarising the structural nature of the issues facing their people made the following request:
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.
This was a carefully calibrated and modest proposal. It was intended as a starting point in Australia making a reckoning with its history, the reality of invasion, the appropriation of the country, and a violent colonial settlement. In the campaign leading up to the 2022 election, the Labor Party promised to hold a referendum on the Voice proposal in its first term of government. It delivered on that promise and a referendum was held on 14 October 2023 to consider ‘A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.’
For a referendum to succeed in Australia it needs to achieve a majority in four out of six states and a majority of votes at the national level. The votes for the two territories are included in the national total. Australians have proved very conservative when it comes to constitutional change. Only eight proposals have succeeded out of 44. The last referendum was passed in 1977.
In this case, the national vote for Yes was only 39.4 per cent. No states recorded a majority Yes vote, ranging from Queensland 31.1 per cent to Victoria at 45.0 per cent. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) recorded a Yes vote of 60.8 per cent. Polling booths in regional and remote areas that were largely indigenous recorded votes in favour of the Voice averaging around 75 per cent.
Following the counting of the votes indigenous communities across Australia are in a state of shock and grief. Their graciously expressed proposal to the Australian community was overwhelmingly turned down. A proposal that would have entrenched an acknowledgement by the settler community to indigenous people that “we see you” and “we are willing to listen to you” through a means that cannot be abolished by government at its own whim, has been dismissed. The message they are dealing with today from those who have settled here, without treaty or acknowledgement of the appropriation of the land, is “we don’t want to recognise you and we don’t want to listen to you.”.
The pain is palpable. The day after the Australian people rejected a proposal to recognise First Nations people in the constitution, elder Geraldine Hogarth wept in her Goldfields home.
It’s a sad day for us. The grief hurts so much, it’s like a knife in your heart,” the Kuwarra Pini Tjalkatarra woman said. Hogarth has lived in Leonora all her life and has spent her life’s work advocating for the education and wellbeing of community children – and was awarded an Order of Australia for her efforts.
Many indigenous leaders are drained from months of campaigning, and from dealing with increased manifestations of racism that surfaced during the campaign. Lorena Allum reflecting as an indigenous journalist summarises what happened:
When bipartisanship, which had long been a feature of the push for Indigenous constitutional recognition, died in November last year even before the question was settled, the debate went downhill fast. It was neither respectful nor informed. It was vitriolic, mean-spirited, full of misinformation, driven by racism, petty grievances and conspiracy theories based on fear and ignorance. The referendum became by proxy a vote on Indigenous peoples’ right to exist in our own land – and our fellow Australians voted to reject us. Imagine – just try – how that feels today.
On the question of the role of racism in the referendum, I think Sean Kelly, as a non-indigenous journalist, gets it about right. There has been a process of wilful self-deception across much of the Australian community. He has been struck by:
the widespread conclusion, based on polling, that Australians were persuaded by the argument that the Voice would divide the country. Voters may well say this was what persuaded them. But it is likely that most were instinctively against the idea; of the reasons they were able to choose between to justify their choice, this one sounded most attractive. Understandably: it enabled people to preserve their good opinion of themselves. They were not voting from racial prejudice, dear me no: it was the opposite! They were voting against Indigenous Australians because they hated racism. We are a country that does not know itself.
My advice to my fellow Australians settlers, advice directed not least to myself, is not to rush into providing advice to indigenous people as to how they should assess the results and where they should go from here. There are some important issues for the functioning of our democracy that require attention arising from the conduct of the No case throughout the referendum. But that should not be the first order of business. That would be to disrespect the people who are most deeply hurt by this result.
What we should do now, as a priority, is to simply stop and listen to First Nations people as they express their anger, grief, and sense of betrayal even if their assessments leave us deeply uncomfortable through our implication in the events that have led to this result. We need to grieve with them. We might even consider reflection on Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes, learning the disciplines of mourning, persistent unyielding firm resilience as we struggle for justice. Christians are certainly called to this path.
Let me say it again. There will be a time for critically assessing what happened and what it means for Australia’s political future. That time is not now. Our stance as colonisers in this moment is to shut up, be present, and listen – above all to listen. That is what we were supposedly voting for in the referendum, a Voice that we would listen to. We can begin practicing listening even if we didn’t get the Voice. There are much harder tasks: truth-telling and treaty lie ahead of us on the long and difficult road to justice.
© Douglas Hynd is Adjunct Research Fellow at the Australian Centre of Christianity and Culture, a longstanding Ekklesia associate, and an active Anabaptist. He is heavily involved in refugee support and advocacy.