Last week, at a national referendum, Australians rejected the idea of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament enshrined in our Constitution. Alongside the majority of mob, I was a passionate “Yes” supporter, and like them, I was devastated at the result. Despite this, I hope that my time spent supporting the campaign contributed in some way to my own community of Lennox Head returning the highest Yes vote in the Ballina Shire (64%).
I am deeply sorry to our Indigenous community for both the process and outcome of the referendum. Your modest and gracious offer of a non-binding advisory committee should have been accepted with open arms, instead it was met with petty fear, ignorance, disinformation and racism.
Many who voted “No” said the Voice would divide us. The referendum didn’t divide us, it simply exposed the deep divisions and inequality that already exist in our society. While I agree that we need to reunite, we also need to accept that there will be moments of division along the way. While this might feel uncomfortable or unfair, it is in these moments that we can learn and grow.
Like many others, I have taken a week off to grieve this profound opportunity that is forever lost. While the outcome of the referendum has set us back decades in our journey towards reconciliation, the long walk back must begin somewhere. So here are my thoughts on actions we can take at a local, state and federal level to move forward from here.
At a local level
I have always strongly believed that the burden of reconciliation should not fall on the shoulders of First Nations folk and organisations. For this reason I would like Council to start by immediately commencing work on the development of a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). Since 2006, RAPs have enabled over 2700 organisations (including many local Councils) Australia-wide to take sustainable and meaningful action to advance reconciliation.
It's worth mentioning that Council has been trying to establish a partnership with the local Land Council for several years, but the 2022 Floods have slowed progress as they are preoccupied with the challenging task of charting a future for Cabbage Tree Island. While we should continue to negotiate this agreement, there are steps we can start taking now to reunify.
We need to go back to basics and reflect on Council’s own cultural capacity, including actioning an amendment I moved earlier this year to make cultural awareness training a core part of the Councillor Induction program. Council is currently advertising for a dedicated Aboriginal Cultural Heritage and Partnerships Officer. This is a great step forward but we need to make sure this position doesn’t wear burden of “cultural load”.
One powerful way that Council can promote reconciliation is to provide opportunities for our community to learn more about the Indigenous peoples whose land we occupy, the Nyangbul people along the coast and the Widjabul Wiabul people on the plateau. We have already made some great progress towards this, such as the new Cultural Ways signage along the coastal path, and the recent draft Lennox Head Strategic Plan that highlights our town’s pre-colonial history.
Other things we can do include increasing our support to annual NAIDOC Week celebrations with a focus on getting a broader range of people involved, and honouring the Widjabul Wiabul peoples’ recent request to make 12th December a Local Event Day to celebrate their historic Native Title claim. And finally, if we really want to unite we need to honor the Land Council's request to find a better day to celebrate our Citizen of the Year Awards.
At a state level
While the opportunity for a National Voice to Parliament has been defeated, the fight for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament is not over. The most likely way forward is to establish a legislated Voice to Parliament at the State Level. South Australia has recently achieved this, with elections set to take place on 16 March 2024.
We also need to continue to move forward on the complex process of treaty-making. Since 2016, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory have all committed to establishing treaties with First Nations peoples. Treaties are accepted around the world as a way to resolve differences between sovereign landowners and have been struck between Indigenous people and settler governments in North America and New Zealand and are currently being negotiated in Canada.
At a national level
Some politicians have mentioned the prospect of a future referendum on the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution without a Voice to Parliament. I do not support this because this was the option proposed through the Recognise Campaign and one which Indigenous people resoundingly rejected as tokenistic.
Here are some actions that the current government can take to progress reconciliation and healing:
- Establish a National Truth and Justice Commission to oversee an Indigenous truth-telling process (there is $250 million already committed in the current budget towards this).
- Commit to the full implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
- Fully implement the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory.
- Commit to the full implementation of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap at national, state, territory and local levels.
The defeat of the Voice to Parliament referendum was an enormous setback for reconciliation in Australia. But, as our Prime Minister said, reconciliation is not dead. It is incumbent on leaders at every level of government to have a clear vision and commitment to move our communities forward to a better and fairer future.
No referendum will change the fact that this always was and always will be Aboriginal land.
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