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We are always stronger when we stand together

Written by: Louisa L. on 18 September 2023


Palawa lawyer and activist Michael Mansell recently called for the referendum to be abandoned, labelling it divisive. 

Michael Mansell has a long and militant history. As a young man his existence as a Tasmanian Aboriginal person was denied and he was demonised above all other First Peoples’ leaders. His lived experience makes his words today particularly potent. 

He was present and voted for the Statement from the Heart. But his repeated and powerfully argued preference is for Treaty over Voice if – as Anthony Albanese made clear – only one is on offer in this parliamentary term. Michael Mansell says to non-Indigenous people, “You have every right” to vote Yes or No without fear of being attacked.

A cry for justice

Younger activists are rightly impatient for justice because lives are at stake. 

Before January 26, Tom Tanuki a white YouTube activist and satirist publicised the voices of strong Blak opponents of the Yes campaign like Amy McQuire and Linda-June Coe, and encouraged people to attend Invasion Day rallies. But, instead of attacking the ruling class, he repeatedly ridiculed those allies who actively support the Yes vote as “Age-reading, white Australian, leftie brothers and sisters.” 

Many of them are older women, unionists and workers with long history in struggle. While some think a No vote will be a victory for racism, most now understand the view of First Peoples who oppose the Voice because it is not enough. Overwhelmingly, like many First Peoples, they see no alternative to the current system, including parliament. Hardly surprising given the sea of sophisticated and all-encompassing propaganda against alternatives, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union and 1989 events and rise of capitalist corporations in China.

Those whom Tanuki targets are not stupid. They have generations of experience. 

Underlying Tanuki’s concern, but not mentioned, is the huge job done by the Business Council of Australia to hide First Peoples’ suffering from non-Indigenous people, to mesmerise them with vibrant culture and successful individuals, voting Yes to convince themselves that real change is afoot. There may be some who fit this description. But while 9 network’s ‘Age’ may be one-sidedly pro-Yes, many articulate No activists have now appeared on NITV and the ABC this year, because they are so numerous and active their voices can no longer be effectively suppressed. 

Tanuki’s negative mantra mimics “the latte-sipping inner-city lefties” so mocked by the right before they discovered “woke”. It’s not helpful. But his anger as he sees the carnage wrought on First Peoples is a cry for justice.

While growing numbers of non-Indigenous No voters are influenced by First Peoples’ concerns, those influenced by Sky, Advance Australia and official Government Referendum No propaganda know far less about First Peoples lives than Yes voters. 

Far right No propagandists ridicule and belittle Yes advocates, including First Peoples, as they ridiculed and demonised Lidia Thorpe when she used parliament to consistently expose tax avoiding multinational corporations. Even worse when she showed just who parliamentarians swear allegiance to, “the colonising queen” of England. 

We have not lived the lives of First Peoples. We cannot speak for them. We cannot act for them.

First Peoples often remind us they are only 3 percent of the population. They need allies to stand alongside them if they are to win this centuries’ long war.

Our comrades have consistently amplified First Peoples’ voices silenced by capitalist media as the twin constitutional recognition and reconciliation juggernauts rolled forward. 

We were far from the only ones, and others did far more. Many, many non-Indigenous groups and individuals dedicate their lives to First Peoples and make sure quieter voices were heard and supported.

But we have not lived the lives of First Peoples. We cannot speak for them. We cannot act for them. 

Like others we shared the stories of Grandmothers Against Forced Removals who said, “Sorry means you won’t do it again”, as state-sanctioned theft of First Peoples children skyrocketed. 

Together we reported from coroner’s courts and protests years before Black Lives Matters erupted.

Together we spread the words of women and men, young and old, from all over the lands, speaking for Treaty and unifying inter-clan treaties. 

Whether our joint enemies were mining, fracking, damming or poisoning lands and waters, denying the frontier wars, crushing culture, raiding communities, torturing children in prison, within and beyond the even greater myriad of First Peoples struggles over decades, we all tried to listen, learn, share and act. 

The non-Indigenous people the far right targets to vote No are undermined by ignorance and motivated by fear. They didn’t create the lies, but they believe them. As we build our own forces, Non-Indigenous people who support First Peoples need to gradually drive wedges into the far right’s support, just as it does to us.

People learn from their own experiences

One key leader of the Yes campaign, a former firebrand, later saw the terrible carnage all governments ignored as she worked in depths of the Deaths in Custody royal commission. Soon after, she became a vocal advocate of the “opportunities” provided by mining corporations. She now bitterly condemns the industry. 

Her own experience showed the truth, even before Rio Tinto destroyed the cave at Juukan Gorge. Her anger is also a cry for justice.

Awabakal man Terry Mason says the Voice will undoubtedly disappoint most who have faith in it, if against the current odds, it is implemented. But we believe they’ll learn from its failure in practice.

Sixty years ago, our party said the ALP was a capitalist party and said parliament is part of the deceptive apparatus of the ruling capitalist class. That didn’t mean parliament, the ALP or even Liberals like Malcolm Fraser did nothing of benefit to the people, especially when waves of struggle forced their hands.

Other left parties condemned us as sectarian. Experience has accumulated since then. Now every left party looks askance at Labor. Out of office it makes all sorts of claims. In office it never delivers on fundamentals. Capitalism still runs the show, even when Labor prosecutes things like Robodebt that widely expose capitalist cruelty, but don’t threaten profits.

How is it that so many people now see through the Labor Party? Is it because we condemned it? Or is it because their own experience convinced them the Labor Party would never bring about the change that is necessary in this country? Could the same be true of the Yes vote? We know it could deliver nothing fundamental. We know it could overpower the voices of others. 

Yet, the struggles surrounding the referendum process have seen the voices of those demanding fundamental change grow louder. 

Collectively and individually, especially in struggle, people learn from their own experiences.

The masses make history. First Peoples and non-Indigenous people have different lives, different priorities, different battles. But we have the same enemies.

We are always stronger when we stand together.



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