Cruel and mendacious: It’s not the Voice that “failed”

Nov 16, 2023
The Australian Aboriginal flag on a flagpole at Bondi Beach, Sydney.

No one who cares about basic human rights, or a sense of honour and of honouring, should be remotely intimidated by the sickening “success” of Dutton’s typically self-serving, cruel and mendacious campaign. The Voice did not fail. Australians failed the Voice.

It’s exactly a month since the much-anticipated referendum was held to recognise First Nations in the Australian Constitution, and to provide an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative Voice to the Federal Parliament. Meantime, we have had an outbreak of gross insanity in Israel/Palestine. The media sensation-seekers have moved on. But should we?

I’d say not. As horrifying as the Hamas attacks and Gaza obliteration are, we must simultaneously face the disturbing fact that largely white (or non-Indigenous) Australians have failed this nation’s First Peoples. The Voice did not fail. Too many Australians failed the Voice.

Post October 14, First Nations’ exhausted, heroic leaders (and so many unsung community and grassroots heroes) asked for a week of silence – defying the babble of commentary as to what had gone “wrong”. To my knowledge, however, they did not ask for their efforts to be further undermined by indefinite resignation or indifference. Or wilful forgetting.

Dutton and his media and political cohorts believe they have scored a victory. As so many others have noted, they delude themselves, proving only that yet again naked racism, plus an entrenched and arrogant sense of entitlement, will continue to dictate who should be heard and who should not. This speaks volumes about them, not about the Uluru Statement from the Heart, or its urgency and legitimacy. It also speaks volumes about a widespread ignorance of the uniqueness of what Indigeneity actually means, with its inviolable claims to culture, spirituality and belonging that go way beyond ethnicity or race.

Cobble Cobble woman, constitutional and public law expert and Pro Vice-Chancellor at UNSW, Professor Megan Davis, has written:

A cursory examination of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian reflections and criticisms of juridical and political developments since significant constitutional events in Australia (such as the 1967 Referendum or even Mabo) illustrate the incapacity of Australian public institutions to adequately respond to Indigenous culture, and thus Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander notions of religion and spirituality. Aboriginal customary law, land rights, native title, intellectual property and heritage protection, Indigenous peoples have been disappointed with the paucity of recognition and legal protection given to tangible and intangible aspects of Indigenous culture and religion.

With the “No” case reduced to fatuous lies about the Voice “dividing on the basis of race”, or, horribly, the utterly false claims that somehow colonisation gave more than it stole so violently, the “paucity of recognition and legal protection given to tangible and intangible aspects of Indigenous culture and religion” referred to by Professor Davis slips into total poverty territory.

Too many in every state and territory bar the ACT failed to hear, understand and reckon with all that the Voice promised. The moment arrived to bring this nation forward from its inarguably wounding past. In refusing the potency of that moment, Voice supporters are forced to recognise that for many the past is the present. Nowhere is this more evident than with those in the media who believe that only their own voices should be raised and heard – frequently as proxies for intimidating corporate interests, disconnected in every way from what is best for this nation and region, never mind First Peoples.

“Why are you surprised?” I was asked, not once but several times by Aboriginal friends and family on the sad, awful days that followed the referendum news. But I was, I was. Because I do not suffer from daily racism as they do, I let myself believe that the ugliness and deceit of the “No” campaign was so blatant that surely fewer than 50 per cent of Australians would fall for it. Yet, in horrifying numbers, they did fall for it. And set the stage for more of the same to come.

As a non-Indigenous person, it is not my voice that needs hearing on these critical matters of Voice, Treaty, Truth. However, with the huge slap so many Australians gave to the gracious invitation of the Uluru Statement from the HEART, it becomes evident that, with crucial First Nations leadership, our social justice solidarity must become more radical and more effective. Three per cent of our population – however legitimately unique – cannot carry the burden of progress without a great many more than 50 per cent of the non-Indigenous population following their lead, accepting their guidance, amplifying their voices, however and wherever we can. Yet we must also know our place as listeners, amplifiers, not originators.

This is not easy. With the finest of intentions, there will be clumsiness. Hurt. Mistakes. Just as it is frequently the man in the room who is unconsciously or quite consciously listened to more closely than any women present, we have been socially conditioned to accept and expect excessively limited ideas of leadership. The sustained viciousness (and hypocrisy) of the attacks on Professors Megan Davis, Marcia Langton, Tom Calma, on Pat Anderson, Senator Pat Dodson, Thomas Mayo, Stan Grant, Ken Wyatt and Noel Pearson, and so many others including appallingly cruel, puerile attacks on Minister Burney in the Federal Parliament, demonstrate unequivocally how little room there is at the tables of influence for the very people most needed.

The loss is immense. Let us feel it. Then let us learn to listen better and more closely. Even more: refusing silence; joining collaborations wherever a space is there; using social media for good not harm; noticing who is taking us forward; actively following/supporting them in the many ways social media allows. (“X” is an excellent platform for positive activists. Easy to block trolls. Easier still to form meaningful connections with those who share your values and goals. Or who will inspire and enlarge them.)

The over-excited media were more eager to ask, “What went wrong?” than to interrogate their own part in returning repeatedly to lies and serious disinformation without holding to account those pushing it. This is a grave problem with the mainstream media in general. Without strong, enforceable Truth in Media (and political advertising) legislation, such travesties will continue.

Meanwhile, no one who cares about basic human rights, or a sense of honour and of honouring of First Peoples, should be remotely intimidated by the sickening “success” of Dutton’s typically self-serving, cruel and mendacious campaign. With crucial First Nations leadership, social justice solidarity can raise a wider community consciousness. It may even allow a re-think of conscience.


For more on the topic P&I recommends:

There is no looking away: The brutal rejection of the Voice

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