The referendum: So little asked, so graciously, but seemingly too much

Sep 30, 2023
Uluru Statement from the Heart, May 2017, Aboriginal Convention, Central Australia

Why do so many of my fellow non-Indigenous Australians seemingly have such a deep aversion towards the Aboriginal peoples of this land? Sadly, I am compelled to ask that question as we approach a referendum asking for constitutional recognition of Australia’s First Nations and an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice to parliament.

So little, and asked so graciously, through the Uluru Statement, yet it appears the ask will fail.

Why? What has happened to this land in which I have spent my 69 years? How have we become so mean hearted, bereft of grace and human spirit? Do we still have blood in our veins, life beating even, or have we been turned into stone, non-living, inert, observers of some contemporary Medusa?

Does our clear prevalent deep set distaste (fear?) of Aboriginal people arise almost unconsciously out of our need for repression? Give them no identity, no presence, and we won’t have to face up to historical land grabbing, dispossession, and massacres, the last of which took place, not that long before I was born. No acknowledgement, no guilt.

Then there are all the humiliations: Black diggers paid at lesser rates than others, the ‘Whites (no Blacks) only’ licensed clubs and pubs, the ‘no, we have nothing available’ at the local real estate agent, the suspicious looks in shops (actually it wasn’t them, but us, that were sent here for a seven year stint for petty thieving).

By denying aboriginal people a place we can comfortably ignore the ongoing terrible rates of morbidity, incarceration, poverty, and education. All these can be conveniently hidden away, glossed over, ignored. Whitewashed?

Then we are magically free to get on with living comfortably in ‘our’ Australia, celebrate our heritage with Gallipoli, Bradman, Henry Lawson, and Phar Lap providing meaning, our myths in which we find our self-understanding. Yes, January 26, the founding of a nation, never mind the many nations here a long time prior, 60,000 years prior. The pyramids of Old Kingdom Egypt are recent in terms of that timeframe!

I wonder how we would feel if the Japanese had conquered Australia in 1941 and forced us to celebrate the commemoration of their success. Perhaps a few of us ‘whiteys’ may be just a little ‘pissed off.’ Perhaps some of us would become that most despised category, radicals. Of course such paralleling is to make an appeal to empathy, but do we still possess such in our marrow?

So easy for politicians of dubious ethics, and media proprietors hunting profits, to feed off all that, an open tasty banquet to be turned to success. Playing to deep fears and innate hatreds is an easy game for these skilled political and media operators, ‘Politics 101’. Sure mileage, for those not on the government benches, easily made by having ‘the government’s referendum’ voted down, so never mind ethics, opposition it must be. Full speed ahead and bugger the consequences.

Oh, the consequences.

Won’t it be wonderful on your first overseas trip after this referendum fails, to be asked the question, ‘where are you from?’ And on responding, ‘Australia’ getting ‘that look.’ ‘Oh…(insert awkward silence) OK.’

The old apartheid South Africa jokes buried for 30 years, resurrected, directed at us! ‘Where are the black keys on an Australian piano?’ ‘Well hidden.’

It will be such great fun being an international pariah.

And won’t voting ‘no’ go down so well in our geographical neighbourhood, Asia, something I need to state because for many of us, where Australia is located seems too often slip from people’s minds, as they hearken back to ‘the good old days’ of the world map coloured empire red, run by those of white complexion.

How muted will Australian voices need be on human rights issues? ‘Before you take the splinter out of another’s eye, take the plank out of your own.’ Like giving a free kick to those we vociferously criticise about their human rights 20 metres out straight in front. They won’t miss!

I wonder if those leading the ‘no’ chorus have thought about this? Probably not, or more likely they have chosen to ignore these things. Too much easy mileage to be made by ‘yes’ failing.

‘If you don’t know, vote no.’ How about reading a bloody single page of writing? But, as has been said, ‘who wants facts, when your mind is already made up? Just confuses things.

Here then is the most brutal of the facts. 414 massacres between 1788-1930. Here in Newcastle a study led by Lyndall Ryan has mapped them. Henry, already, ‘blood has stained the wattle.’

Of these things, first, acknowledge. Second, feel. And third, act – to make at least somewhat right.

A tiny beginning to that last act would be to write a simple, ‘yes.’

So little to ask, but seemingly too much.

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