Crushing indigenous hopes, Australia rejects ‘voice’ referendum
By Yan Zhuang
Sitting on the banks of the Fitzroy River in remote Western Australia, watching a plume of smoke swirling into the air from a distant wildfire, the Aboriginal elder lamented how his parents’ generation worked for sugar, flour and tea, not wages, and how his community now relies heavily on welfare after employment programs were withdrawn by the government.
But “we’ve got something coming,” Hector Angus Hobbs, 67, a member of the Walmajarri tribe, said earlier this past week. “We’re going to win.”
His optimism proved misplaced Saturday, when the nation voted “no” on a referendum that would have given Indigenous Australians a voice in Parliament in the form of an advisory body.
The proposal, polls showed, was broadly supported by the country’s Indigenous people, who make up less than 4% of the nation’s population. Many of them saw it as a sign of Australia taking a step to do right by them after centuries of abuse and neglect. Hobbs and many of his neighbors in the town of Fitzroy Crossing believed it would help with everything from solving everyday issues, like repairs for houses, to moving the needle on weighty aspirations, like reparations.
In reality, the proposal, known as the Voice, was much more modest, making some of these expectations rather lofty.
At the same time, it had given rise to unrealistic fears — like of homeowners being forced to return their land to Indigenous people — that galvanized opposition to the Voice.
And with the conservative Liberal Party opposing it on the grounds that it was divisive, it was widely expected to fail. Official results released early Sunday showed that 60% of voters had rejected the Voice, which failed to win the majority in a single state.
On Saturday afternoon, in the Sydney suburb of Gymea Bay, near where Capt. James Cook first landed on the continent in 1770, voters laid out the reasons for their opposition. Katherine Frenda, 55, said the Voice would not represent the diversity of views in Aboriginal communities, and Jade Bell, 18, said she was voting no because “that seems like what everyone else is doing.”
Others, like Faye Jones, 71 said they did not think the creators of the Voice articulated what effect it would have.
“I’m not normally a suspicious person, but there’s a secret agenda we were never going to be told about,” she said. “There’s rumors around ‘they’ll come and take your land in 20 years’ time,’” she said, adding that while she knew the claim was “silly,” the fact that it had become widespread showed how much was unknown about the proposal.
For Joe Ross, an Aboriginal leader in Fitzroy Crossing from the Bunuba tribe, the debate and the ensuing result had “shown the real underbelly of this country.” He added: “We now know where we sit.”
The Voice was conceived by Indigenous leaders to address entrenched and growing disadvantage in their communities. Life expectancy for Aboriginal people is eight years below the general population, while rates of suicide and incarceration are far higher than the national average. The issues are most severe in remote communities, where some Aboriginal people live in order to maintain their connection to their traditional lands.
Experts and Indigenous leaders say that by and large, Australians are aware of this disadvantage but generally do not understand it. Many in the country, they said, see these problems as failures of Indigenous people and communities rather than of the systems that govern them.
It is something that Australians feel a sense of collective but unexamined shame over, said Julianne Schultz, the author of “The Idea of Australia” and a professor at Griffith University.
“The genesis for the shame is when people look at it and think, ‘We’ve got some responsibility for why this has happened — but we can’t quite figure it out,’” she said. “And how do you hide that? Well, you blame the victim.”
The Voice, which would have include constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, also had been criticized as toothless because it would have had no power to create or veto government decisions or policies. But this was by design, say Indigenous leaders involved in the creation of the measure, who had hoped that it would be a benign enough to be acceptable to the Australian public.
One of those leaders, Marcia Langton, described it as a way to heal the wounds of colonization and “end the postcolonial politics of blame and guilt.” But after the Voice was expected to fail, she wrote, “The nation has been poisoned. There is no fix for this terrible outcome.”
Part of why people in Fitzroy Crossing had such high hopes for the Voice was because many remember how much better things were under a previous policy. From 1990 to 2005, an elected body, the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Commission, gave advice to the government and ran programs and services for Indigenous communities.
“Aboriginal people had their own governments,” recalled Emily Carter, the CEO of the local women’s resource center, who is from the Gooniyandi tribe. “They were able to look after their own finances. They made rules about what work people did in their communities.”
That body was abolished by a prime minister who said that the future of Indigenous people “lies in being part of the mainstream of this country,” setting the tone for the next two decades of policy.
Since then, residents say, that autonomy has been taken away, community-controlled employment programs have been replaced with what is effectively a welfare alternative, and services have been withdrawn.
Indigenous leaders argue that the constant shifting of policies, because of what they see as whims of governments, continues the disempowerment and trauma that Indigenous communities have experienced since colonization. That sense of powerlessness shows up in the form of social harms like suicide, domestic violence and addiction to drugs and alcohol, they say.
“What has led to our disadvantage has been our exclusion in the development of the nation-state,” said June Oscar, who is the Australian Human Rights Commission’s head for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice program, and who lives near Fitzroy Crossing.
In Fitzroy Crossing, a town surrounded by more than 30 small Aboriginal settlements, the historical impact of colonization feels immediate. Aboriginal people in the region were hunted and killed by settlers well into the 1900s. For protection, many fled to stations, or ranches, where they were protected by the government but also stripped of their culture.
There, they worked, usually for little or no pay, and were often forbidden to speak their native languages.
“Our people built stations, worked hard — only for flour, tea, sugar,” said Hobbs, the Walmajarri elder.
In the 1960s, amid a push for Aboriginal workers to be paid the same as white ones, many were kicked off the stations by owners who didn’t want the extra cost. They settled in and around Fitzroy Crossing, creating the beginnings of the town that exists today.
On a recent weekday, as the temperature rose to over 100 degrees, Eva Nargoodah, 65, sitting outside her home in the small community of Jimbalakudunj, about 60 miles from Fitzroy Crossing, explained how sometimes, the high level of chlorine in the water supply caused the residents to experience rashes, watery eyes and sore throats. Other times, it was filled with so much salt, it formed a thick layer on top.
She said she had been waiting for years for repairs to her home, including filling in holes through which snakes can crawl in. Such maintenance used to be handled by the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Commission, but now the process is much slower. And she spoke of her father, who had been part of the Stolen Generation: Indigenous people forcibly removed from their families and culture in an effort to assimilate them into Western society.
“They need to give us something back,” she said. If the Voice referendum passed, she was optimistic that “we’ve got the power.”
But as the results rolled in Saturday night, hope turned into resignation.
Given the challenges facing Aboriginal people, many remote communities hold a funeral a week — sometimes two in one week, said Natalie Davey, 43, a member of the Bunuba tribe who said that she was not surprised about the result.
Being told no “is our normal, unfortunately,” she said. “We’ll somehow keep stepping one foot in front of the other. It’s just a matter of: How many funerals do we keep attending?”