How Australia Failed Its Indigenous Communities, Again

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How Australia Failed Its Indigenous Communities, Again

The opposition Coalition and conservative media argued that the Voice would bring about a racial divide in the country. But it is already here, in clear view. 

How Australia Failed Its Indigenous Communities, Again

Two statues in front of the “sovereignty” sign at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra Parliamentary Zone, Australia Capital Territory, Feb. 22, 2019.

Credit: Depositphotos

On Sunday, both metaphorically and literally, it all went silent. 

After – in the words of Indigenous woman Professor Marcia Langton – reconciliation was pronounced “dead,” Indigenous campaigners for the Voice to Parliament, who had seen their referendum defeated, announced a week of mourning.

Yes23, the campaign supporting the Voice, called the 61-39 referendum result “bitter irony.”

“That people who have only been on this continent for 235 years would refuse to recognize those whose home this land has been for 60,000 and more years is beyond reason. It was never in the gift of these newcomers to refuse recognition to the true owners of Australia,” the statement said.

Other First Nations people expressed their disgust, noting that “White Australia” had made a decision for them – again. 

CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, Yorta Yorta and Narrandjeri woman Nerita Waight, said the result could be put down to racism. 

“Australia voted today and now I clearly know what lies at this country’s heart – racism. In my view, there is no way this doesn’t impact detrimentally on the path to reconciliation and healing.”

I have been fortunate to speak to the mild mannered and erudite lawyer on more than one occasion. From her, this was a stinging statement. 

Other First Nations people I talked to told me of their sadness and frustration at a result that had started to seem inevitable before Saturday’s vote had started. 

At a press conference on Sunday morning – as the realization of the result sunk in – Bangerang, Taungurung, and Wiradjuri woman Aunty Esme Bamblett told the throng of journalists that the conservative media had been responsible for much for the disinformation on display in the campaign. So much so that the New York Times quickly labelled the lies during the debate as “Trumpian.”

“The media needs to be more truthful,” she said. “Give us as much time and effort in the papers as other people get, as the misinformation mob get, find out the truth and print the truth or interview people who are going to speak the truth.”

It is hard not to agree with her. When Langton said the ultimate myths of the “no” campaign boiled down to racism, she was pilloried. News Corp papers attacked her vociferously, saying it was the “yes” campaign’s “deplorables” moment. 

The campaign, which if you looked at any comments section, was filled with the most horrific vitriol, was allowed to fester unmolested whilst it seemed calling out racism was worse than actual racism in the eyes of the media. 

Those same media outlets gloated after the referendum was decided. Sky News devoted a whole section of their programming to mocking left-wing people expressing their sadness at the result. The Australian said the result was “Elites against battlers the great divide” when it came to voting patterns. 

True enough; the capital cities all voted “yes,” nearly all the regional areas did not. However, the exception was Indigenous regions, which data showed overwhelmingly supported the Voice.

Lingiari – a vast outback electorate named after the great Aboriginal land rights leader, and with over 40 percent of the population identifying as First Nations – saw overwhelmingly “yes” results in remote areas where the majority of the population are Indigenous. 

In the Kimberley region of northern West Australia, an area that grapples with the harsh realities of First Nations people having a lower life expectancy, greater health problems, and a horrific actuality where it is more likely an Indigenous person will go to prison than go to university, many polling places voted “yes.” 

Professor Patricia O’Brien highlighted in her piece for The Diplomat the role in the campaign of Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. Price’s claim that Aboriginal people no longer suffered the consequences of colonization was roundly attacked by Indigenous groups – including by the Land Council that represents the area in the Northern Territory she originates from. 

Price was the lightning rod of the campaign, able to say things as an Indigenous person that – as former deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce opted to tell reporters – “we couldn’t say because we would straight away be called racist.”

She attracted a conservative crowd that followed her every word. At an event in Perth, she was treated like a rock star; if the New York Times were there they would have struggled to not label it a Trump-style rally. 

How impactful her style will be in the future remains to be seen. Shadow Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said that, if the Liberal party got voted in, for the first time there could be an Indigenous minister with lived real-life experience. (This statement is bizarre because when Cash was in government, alongside her in the Cabinet was Ken Wyatt – an Indigenous minister who was born on a mission and whose mother was a member of the stolen generation.) 

In many ways, Price’s rhetoric and bombastic speeches mirrored the way the Liberal/National Coalition went about the referendum: stoking division at any cost and making a political game out of some of the most disadvantaged people in the country. 

My colleague Grant Wyeth perhaps summed up their affront to meaningful reconciliation better than anyone. 

“Presented with the opportunity to demonstrate leadership and be problem solvers, these parties instead saw the lives of Indigenous Australians as a way to cynically sow fear and score some short-term political points against the sitting government,” he argued. 

For them to say afterward that it was Labor who were “divisive” is chutzpah at the highest level. Opposition leader Peter Dutton promised during the campaign he would hold a second referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition if the current one failed, but couldn’t even keep his promise until Monday lunchtime. 

The sad thing is, of course, no politicians will feel the impact of the referendum at anything other than a surface level. They will get headlines and some commentary on how they handled things. But at the coalface, they will not have their hands darkened. 

In Western Australia, I talked to a suicide prevention campaigner who labelled suicide as an epidemic in First Nations communities. Last year, 239 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people died by suicide – the highest number ever reported. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Indigenous males, compared to 11th for non-Indigenous males, and it is the 10th leading cause of death for Indigenous females versus 26th for non-Indigenous females.

Aboriginal people die almost nine years earlier than non-Indigenous people on average. 

Coalition MPs and conservative media argued that the Voice would bring about a racial divide in the country. But it is already here, in clear view. There is barely a metric in the country where First Nations people are not lagging far behind non-Aboriginal people, clear evidence of the structural disadvantages they continue to face. 

The Voice – as widely accepted – was imperfect. But it would have put some control of First Nations peoples’ lives in the hands of those that have first-hand experiences with the complexities associated with isolated communities ravaged by trauma. 

Instead, the status quo remains. 

It is true that no Australian currently alive is responsible for the horrors of colonization. But they did have a responsibility and a rare opportunity to make a difference – even if it was largely symbolic. 

They failed.