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The day after the Referendum, struggle will continue

Written by: Louisa L. on 21 August 2023


This is the first of five statements that the Party will release on the Referendum to change the Constitution. They will be printed on successive Mondays as from today - eds.

Once again decisions about First Peoples’ lives will be made by others. 

Despite some First Peoples’ input in the lead up, the 97 percent of non-Indigenous Australians will decide the Referendum. 

As Murrawarri man Fred Hooper says, the Australian Electoral Commission could have organised a plebiscite or referendum of First Peoples to decide what they want. 

For those willing to listen, this year has been full like never before of the lives, experiences and views of First Peoples, no matter where they stand on the Referendum. 

Throughout the whole constitutional recognition process, well before the current Referendum proposal, we have helped promote the views of those demanding treaties and fundamental change. That remains our preferred position, but we have no right to impose it on First Peoples. 

Palawa leader Michael Mansell said the Voice would marginalise not empower Aboriginal Peoples, that as an advisory body it would be ineffective, that its underlying ideology is assimilationist and that it was used by the prime minister to block Treaty.

He said its powerful proponents – the PM, media and big business – portrayed those questioning the Voice as racist or unthinking, instead of answering questions raised. Speaking in March, before increasing public action by First Peoples’ opponents increasingly broke through, he criticised one-sided media coverage.

He voted for the Statement of the Heart, but at the meeting delegates had no right to separate the four key elements, sovereignty, truth telling, treaty and voice. They had to vote for all or none. 

The government allocated $66 million for the Voice, but just $5 million for Treaty. 

His full speech is essential listening, available here.
State Voice and other voices

South Australia created a Voice to the state parliament by legislation. It was the first State to do so. It placed First Nations in the State into six geographical groups, each to have two elected representatives serving on the State Voice.

It was widely welcomed as a great step forward by many – but not all – First Peoples in SA. 

Goreng Bibullman (Nyoongar) man Keith Thomas, editor of the SA Native Title Services paper Aboriginal Way, writes that SA will now have “two voices: A Voice that is funded by the government, and provides advice to the government, and a Voice by the people, for the people, to maintain lore and custom for Aboriginal people at the grassroots level.”

“SA Native Title Services (SANTS),” he said, “has been vocal about the concerns of the native title holders we represent across the state. While we do support the principle of a Voice to SA Parliament, our major concern is that the State Voice will become a separate entity with the potential to erode and undermine existing First Nations leadership and cultural authority…Only Traditional Owners have the responsibility and right to speak for issues impacting them, their Country, their community and their culture…no-one else should be given the authority (especially by the Crown) to perform functions or make decisions about issues over that Country.”

These concerns have also been raised by long-time activist for Blak rights, Gumbaynggirr man Gary Foley at this year’s Invasion Day rallies. He spoke of land rights, culture and true self-determination. 

Lidia Thorpe speaks of the invaders’ “assimilation project”. When she speaks of Treaty, she means long-term mass struggle strong enough to provide a just peace from the ceaseless 235-year war crushing First Peoples.  

Others like Gumbaynggirr woman Elizabeth Jarrett who supports a left No vote are sceptical about type of treaties capitalism will offer. Some like Fighting in Solidarity Towards Treaties-activist Wiradjuri, Badu Island leader Linda June Coe and Michael Mansell want parliamentary representatives directly elected by First Peoples to arise from treaty processes. 

High profile grassroots activists campaigning for a Yes vote include Bunuba elder and Human Rights Commissioner June Oscar who helped lead the successful battle in Fitzroy Crossing for Bunuba to control alcohol distribution and consumption; Barbara Shaw who stood firm against the NT Intervention across the country and led practical responses to protect First Peoples from its devastation on the ground in Mparntwe; native title barrister Tony McAvoy, who has always stood for treaties and whose people are the Wangan and Jagalingou opposing Adani. There are many more.

Tony McAvoy says that just as the 1967 Referendum did not cede or extinguish First Peoples' sovereignty, neither will the upcoming Referendum or the Voice. 

Michael Mansell pointed out the Northern Territory Treaty Framework designed by Tony McAvoy, provides for land without the native title process, including for those in cities, autonomous law-making providing hunting and fishing rights, health, education, land use and adequate cash. 

“It delivers a bundle of rights, binding states, police, courts, business and the public,” Mansell stated.

First Peoples’ lives are not a Yes-No proposition

It is important to distinguish between racist opposition to the Voice and the legitimate criticisms of the Yes vote coming from First Peoples.

There is undeniably a danger that the Voice to Parliament will control and defuse the voices of grassroots First Peoples, and channel their concerns into parliament making them ineffective. 

But all people learn primarily from their own experiences. Whatever the Referendum result, there will be both positive and negative effects to be built on or countered.

First Peoples want and demand more than survival. Australia is built on their lands. 

For 200 years they have fought for unity, for land rights, for culture including language, for Aboriginal control of Aboriginal lives. We continue to support those struggles.

The day after, whatever the Referendum result, First Peoples’ struggle for fundamental change will continue. Their lives are not a Yes-No proposition.


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