A Voice for On Country and one for the city

Aug 21, 2023
Alice Springs, Australia. Road through the township Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia, viewed from Anzac Hill showing the arid outlying areas.

There is barely an Indigenous murmur in The Centre about the Voice from the Heart.

I spoke with 36 people in Alice Springs. Only five were aware of the intricacies of the referendum. All five were white tourists from Canberra or Sydney. The remaining 31 were all Indigenous. None of them had even heard of The Voice.

Statistics say just a fifth of the town’s 25,000 people are Indigenous. Walking the streets tells a very different story.

Aborigines seem to dominate the small regional city nestled within the red cliff faces of the Outback. They congregate in the Coles car park, on the library lawn, under bridges, and around a game of cards in the shade of the eucalyptus trees lining the dry riverbed.

It’s lunchtime at Melbourne University. Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” blares from someone’s speaker, a brief distraction from the finger-numbing cold.

A gang of beanies and coats makes its way to class. The raspy clickety-clack of a skateboard appears and disappears in the distance.

In the centre of it all, is a large noticeboard wrapped head-to-toe in bright yellow posters, urging people to “listen to the good in your heart!” and “vote YES to the voice to parliament!”

It should come as no surprise that political activism is thriving on a university campus, but posters on a noticeboard are far from the extent to which the Indigenous Voice to Parliament has taken over political debate in urban centres.

Two blocks away lies Melbourne’s flagship Readings bookstore on the city’s world-famous strip of Italy: Lygon Street. Thomas Mayo and Kerry O’Brien’s The Voice to Parliament Handbook features prominently in the front window. A full stand of these books greets you at the door, and if you decide you already know enough about The Voice, they patiently await you at the checkout counter, pleading you to reconsider.

Venture down the gentrified alleys of Carlton and you will find walls turned into canvases, proclaiming the message “The Voice is divisive. It is racist” in red spray paint, underneath black spray paint, in different handwriting: “No. U are racist.”

A few of these alleys hide small metal tables and a smattering of suited professionals who have taken the short stroll from the city for their afternoon coffee break.

They gesture wildly over the latest op-ed on The Voice, intermittently sipping their oat milk lattes.

The debate on The Voice in the city is ubiquitous and passionate, as if everyone has finalised their stance, set it in concrete, and is on the way to the ballot box to cast their vote. What is feeding inner-city voices?

A key aspect of the debate is whether it is fair that The Voice will grant Indigenous Australians privileges that other Australians don’t have. For many, this is a matter of principle, a theoretical question of whether a constitution should have certain provisions for one group of Australians that are not applicable to everyone.

Do Dutton’s words resonate, that The Voice “will have an Orwellian effect where all Australians are equal, but some Australians are more equal than others?” or do people side with the Labor government in thinking that affirmative action has a role to play in our current society?

Moving past the theory and beliefs surrounding affirmative action, the debate rapidly descends on practicalities.

Drag a yes voter from their oat milk latte, ask them why they are voting yes, and they will cite Australia’s history of failed government policy for the Indigenous community.

Take, for example, the recent violence in Alice Springs on the back of flawed alcohol policy, poor performance on Closing the Gap targets, and the multitude of ways in which the Indigenous community suffers as the country’s most disadvantaged group. Indigenous people must be given a more direct say in policies that affect them, the Yes voter will argue, as this will lead to a direct improvement in Aboriginal welfare.

No voters, on the other hand, would highlight The Voice as an inefficient bureaucracy, just another Indigenous advisory board that will fail to achieve meaningful change, and won’t accurately represent the plethora of communities it is designed to benefit.

Urbanites, whether they be on the Yes or No side, also readily draw on the latest commentary from Indigenous politicians. But do the clashing opinions of Warren Mundine, Jacinta Price, Linda Burney, and Noel Pearson truly represent those that The Voice would most directly benefit?

The 90 Indigenous leaders of the Central Land Council, an organisation representing 24,000 Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, certainly weren’t thinking Jacinta Price was fairly representing their views when they issued a statement earlier this year saying she “needs to stop pretending we are her people”.

One gets the strong feeling that what is missing from the noisy inner-city debate is a direct, unfiltered, and truly representative voice from Indigenous people.

When it comes to understanding whether The Voice would make a real difference, is it not the voices direct from Australia’s Indigenous communities, that we should be listening to?

After all, it is in these communities where suicide rates and youth incarceration are the highest, educational attainment is the lowest, and general living conditions are the worst nationally. These are the people who stand to benefit from the referendum and surely the people whose views hold the greatest weight.

A middle-aged Indigenous woman steps off a tram in Preston, a Northeastern suburb of Melbourne. She waits outside the doors of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) building, the shiny new headquarters for the welfare organisation that helps Victoria’s Indigenous population with all matters from housing and education to youth justice and family violence.

She rummages around in her tattered Woolies shopping bag, extracts a comb, and swiftly restores order to her dishevelled hair before the receptionist opens the door at exactly 9 am.

“I have an appointment with…” “Take a seat,” the receptionist gestures.

Ten minutes later, every seat in the waiting room is filled with an Indigenous person. Fidgeting nervously, they await their turn, hoping they will leave with a little peace of mind.

At VACCA I meet with Jaden and Violet, two Indigenous employees in their 20s. Does The Voice ever come up in conversation with the people you help?

They exchange glances. Jaden chuckles in disbelief: “Imagine you’re a single mother of two, trying to make sure that your children don’t have to sleep in a tent under a bridge tonight. The Voice would be the last thing on your mind.”

I ask about the Indigenous population in the remote areas of Australia, and how they might be different from Indigenous people in the cities.

“The Aboriginals up North, they’re more strongly connected to land, to culture,” Violet replied. “You should ask them about The Voice, they’d have something to say.”

As I approach people sitting outside Alice Plaza, and ask them for their views on the referendum, one thing becomes surprisingly clear: It is near impossible to find an Indigenous Australian on the streets of Alice Springs who can contribute to the conversation.

Alice was just scratching the surface. My main goal for the trip was to venture into more remote towns hidden away in the vast expanse of the Outback.

Violet from VACCA had lifted my hopes for a more robust dialogue in these communities. It is here, after all, where graphs and statistics on deteriorating Aboriginal welfare come to life.

Floyd, a single father in the community of Engawala, 180 km northeast of Alice, receives $400 every fortnight from the government.

The lack of employment opportunities in his hometown of 160 people has left him jobless for years.

“Heard of The Voice, Floyd? The referendum?”

“Nup. Never,” he replied.

This very same interaction occurred several more times with several different Engawala residents. Could it be that the residents of Engawala were simply reluctant to communicate about anything?

Not if their ebullient views on the footy were an indicator, or the complaints about the several hours it takes for police to respond to incidents and the difficulties in accessing quality medical care.

The drive to Hermannsburg, a historic town 130 km west of Alice, requires minimal dexterity with the steering wheel. The drive along a dead straight road leads to a tranquil outpost of 600 people, easy to spot against the boundless stretch of rusty-red desert.

Of the 11 people I spoke to in Hermannsburg, only 2 had heard of The Voice: The MacDonnell Regional Council president, Roxanne Kenny, and her brother, Casey.

Roxanne has 17 people living in her 3-bedroom house. When in need of groceries, she drives to Alice where a carton of milk is a quarter the price.

During heavy rains, the roads flood, leaving Roxanne and the rest of Hermannsburg marooned, unreachable by emergency services.

Roxanne’s desk features a picture of her and the Prime Minister. As president of a local government body governing 13 remote Indigenous communities, Roxanne flies throughout the Northern Territory and sometimes to Canberra for meetings on Indigenous welfare.

She may be very involved with politics, but educating people on The Voice to Parliament is not yet on the agenda; there are more pressing issues at hand.

For The Voice to become enshrined in the constitution, a national majority and majority of states must be in favour. The Indigenous population residing in remote areas makes up just 0.6% of Australia. Will their vote even make a difference?

“Absolutely,” says Georgia Stewart, coordinator of the Central Land Council’s Voice information campaign.

“This 0.6% may not be the difference between a yes or a no, but a large chunk of Australia will vote depending on what the Indigenous community thinks.”

The Central Land Council has embarked on an extensive outreach, journeying to remote communities to educate about the parliamentary process and what The Voice is, while also countering the long tentacles of disinformation creeping into the outback.

Although commendable, there is a degree of scepticism about how much can be achieved given the looming referendum date.

“I don’t see how the Council is going to be able to drive to all these communities and properly educate them in time for the referendum,” says Graeme Smith, CEO of Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation, a representative body for native title holders in Alice Springs: “What these communities need is better internet connectivity, they need direct access to information on the referendum. Right now, they don’t have that.

“This is a problem that the Commonwealth created, and a problem that the Commonwealth has to solve.”

It might be better internet connectivity, or it might be physical outreach. Maybe it’s both. It’s clear remote Indigenous communities first need to be educated about the Voice and be given the opportunity to form a view.

Then maybe, just maybe, inner-city café conversations, where the bulk of the referendum vote resides, will be informed by a much louder, more relevant voice, the voice from the heart of Australia.


First published in the Alice Springs News August 16, 2023

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