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HomeVolume 28One Voice for On Country and one for the city

One Voice for On Country and one for the city

By HARRY CLARK

There is barely an Indigenous murmur in The Centre about the Voice from the Heart.

I spoke with 36 people in Alice Springs. Only five were aware of the intricacies of the referendum. All five were white tourists from Canberra or Sydney. The remaining 31 were all Indigenous. None of them had even heard of The Voice.

“You mean the TV show?” an Aboriginal man remarks.

Statistics say just a fifth of the town’s 25,000 people are Indigenous. Walking the streets tells a very different story.

Aboriginals seem to dominate the small regional city nestled within the red cliff faces of the Outback. They congregate in the Coles car park, on the library lawn, under bridges, and around a game of cards in the shade of the eucalyptus trees lining the dry riverbed.

It’s lunchtime at Melbourne University. Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” blares from someone’s speaker, a brief distraction from the finger-numbing cold.

A gang of beanies and coats makes its way to class. The raspy clickety-clack of a skateboard appears and disappears in the distance.

In the centre of it all, is a large noticeboard wrapped head-to-toe in bright yellow posters, urging people to “listen to the good in your heart!” and “vote YES to the voice to parliament!”

It should come as no surprise that political activism is thriving on a university campus, but posters on a noticeboard are far from the extent to which the Indigenous Voice to Parliament has taken over political debate in urban centres.

Two blocks away lies Melbourne’s flagship Readings bookstore on the city’s world-famous strip of Italy: Lygon Street. Thomas Mayo and Kerry O’Brien’s The Voice to Parliament Handbook features prominently in the front window. A full stand of these books greets you at the door, and if you decide you already know enough about The Voice, they patiently await you at the checkout counter, pleading you to reconsider.

Venture down the gentrified alleys of Carlton and you will find walls turned into canvases, proclaiming the message “The Voice is divisive. It is racist” in red spray paint, underneath black spray paint, in different handwriting: “No. U are racist.”

A few of these alleys hide small metal tables and a smattering of suited professionals who have taken the short stroll from the city for their afternoon coffee break.

They gesture wildly over the latest op-ed on The Voice, intermittently sipping their oat milk lattes.

The debate on The Voice in the city is ubiquitous and passionate, as if everyone has finalised their stance, set it in concrete, and is on the way to the ballot box to cast their vote. What is feeding inner-city voices?

A key aspect of the debate is whether it is fair that The Voice will grant Indigenous Australians privileges that other Australians don’t have. For many, this is a matter of principle, a theoretical question of whether a constitution should have certain provisions for one group of Australians that are not applicable to everyone.

Do Dutton’s words resonate, that The Voice “will have an Orwellian effect where all Australians are equal, but some Australians are more equal than others?” or do people side with the Labor government in thinking that affirmative action has a role to play in our current society?

Moving past the theory and beliefs surrounding affirmative action, the debate rapidly descends on practicalities.

Drag a yes voter from their oat milk latte, ask them why they are voting yes, and they will cite Australia’s history of failed government policy for the Indigenous community.

Take, for example, the recent violence in Alice Springs on the back of flawed alcohol policy, poor performance on Closing the Gap targets, and the multitude of ways in which the Indigenous community suffers as the country’s most disadvantaged group. Indigenous people must be given a more direct say in policies that affect them, the Yes voter will argue, as this will lead to a direct improvement in Aboriginal welfare.

No voters, on the other hand, would highlight The Voice as an inefficient bureaucracy, just another Indigenous advisory board that will fail to achieve meaningful change, and won’t accurately represent the plethora of communities it is designed to benefit.

Urbanites, whether they be on the Yes or No side, also readily draw on the latest commentary from Indigenous politicians. But do the clashing opinions of Warren Mundine, Jacinta Price, Linda Burney, and Noel Pearson truly represent those that The Voice would most directly benefit?

The 90 Indigenous leaders of the Central Land Council, an organisation representing 24,000 Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, certainly weren’t thinking Jacinta Price was fairly representing their views when they issued a statement earlier this year saying she “needs to stop pretending we are her people”.

One gets the strong feeling that what is missing from the noisy inner-city debate is a direct, unfiltered, and truly representative voice from Indigenous people.

When it comes to understanding whether The Voice would make a real difference, is it not the voices direct from Australia’s Indigenous communities, that we should be listening to?

After all, it is in these communities where suicide rates and youth incarceration are the highest, educational attainment is the lowest, and general living conditions are the worst nationally. These are the people who stand to benefit from the referendum and surely the people whose views hold the greatest weight.

A middle-aged Indigenous woman steps off a tram in Preston, a Northeastern suburb of Melbourne. She waits outside the doors of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) building, the shiny new headquarters for the welfare organisation that helps Victoria’s Indigenous population with all matters from housing and education to youth justice and family violence.

She rummages around in her tattered Woolies shopping bag, extracts a comb, and swiftly restores order to her dishevelled hair before the receptionist opens the door at exactly 9 am.

“I have an appointment with…” “Take a seat,” the receptionist gestures.

Ten minutes later, every seat in the waiting room is filled with an Indigenous person. Fidgeting nervously, they await their turn, hoping they will leave with a little peace of mind.

At VACCA I meet with Jaden and Violet, two Indigenous employees in their 20s. Does The Voice ever come up in conversation with the people you help?

They exchange glances. Jaden chuckles in disbelief: “Imagine you’re a single mother of two, trying to make sure that your children don’t have to sleep in a tent under a bridge tonight. The Voice would be the last thing on your mind.”

I ask about the Indigenous population in the remote areas of Australia, and how they might be different from Indigenous people in the cities.

“The Aboriginals up North, they’re more strongly connected to land, to culture,” Violet replied. “You should ask them about The Voice, they’d have something to say.”

As I approach people sitting outside Alice Plaza, and ask them for their views on the referendum, one thing becomes surprisingly clear: It is near impossible to find an Indigenous Australian on the streets of Alice Springs who can contribute to the conversation.

Alice was just scratching the surface. My main goal for the trip was to venture into more remote towns hidden away in the vast expanse of the Outback.

Violet from VACCA had lifted my hopes for a more robust dialogue in these communities. It is here, after all, where graphs and statistics on deteriorating Aboriginal welfare come to life.

Floyd, a single father in the community of Engawala, 180 km northeast of Alice, receives $400 every fortnight from the government.

The lack of employment opportunities in his hometown of 160 people has left him jobless for years.

“Heard of The Voice, Floyd? The referendum?”

“Nup. Never,” he replied.

This very same interaction occurred several more times with several different Engawala residents. Could it be that the residents of Engawala were simply reluctant to communicate about anything?

Not if their ebullient views on the footy were an indicator, or the complaints about the several hours it takes for police to respond to incidents and the difficulties in accessing quality medical care.

The drive to Hermannsburg, a historic town 130 km west of Alice, requires minimal dexterity with the steering wheel. The drive along a dead straight road leads to a tranquil outpost of 600 people, easy to spot against the boundless stretch of rusty-red desert.

Of the 11 people I spoke to in Hermannsburg, only 2 had heard of The Voice: The MacDonnell Regional Council president, Roxanne Kenny, and her brother, Casey.

Roxanne has 17 people living in her 3-bedroom house. When in need of groceries, she drives to Alice where a carton of milk is a quarter the price.

During heavy rains, the roads flood, leaving Roxanne and the rest of Hermannsburg marooned, unreachable by emergency services.

Roxanne’s desk features a picture of her and the Prime Minister. As president of a local government body governing 13 remote Indigenous communities, Roxanne flies throughout the Northern Territory and sometimes to Canberra for meetings on Indigenous welfare.

She may be very involved with politics, but educating people on The Voice to Parliament is not yet on the agenda; there are more pressing issues at hand.

For The Voice to become enshrined in the constitution, a national majority and majority of states must be in favour. The Indigenous population residing in remote areas makes up just 0.6% of Australia. Will their vote even make a difference?

“Absolutely,” says Georgia Stewart, coordinator of the Central Land Council’s Voice information campaign.

“This 0.6% may not be the difference between a yes or a no, but a large chunk of Australia will vote depending on what the Indigenous community thinks.”

The Central Land Council has embarked on an extensive outreach, journeying to remote communities to educate about the parliamentary process and what The Voice is, while also countering the long tentacles of disinformation creeping into the outback.

Although commendable, there is a degree of scepticism about how much can be achieved given the looming referendum date.

“I don’t see how the Council is going to be able to drive to all these communities and properly educate them in time for the referendum,” says Graeme Smith, CEO of Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation, a representative body for native title holders in Alice Springs: “What these communities need is better internet connectivity, they need direct access to information on the referendum. Right now, they don’t have that.

“This is a problem that the Commonwealth created, and a problem that the Commonwealth has to solve.”

It might be better internet connectivity, or it might be physical outreach. Maybe it’s both. It’s clear remote Indigenous communities first need to be educated about the Voice and be given the opportunity to form a view.

Then maybe, just maybe, inner-city café conversations, where the bulk of the referendum vote resides, will be informed by a much louder, more relevant voice, the voice from the heart of Australia.

22 COMMENTS

  1. The Voice proposal was put together by probably the largest gathering of First Nation’s leaders ever. It’s what they have asked for. It may work or not work, but it will be in those leaders’ hands for a change to influence and act for their people and not in our hands. We could be generous and give it a go, or we could continue as things are for the majority of original owners of this land – shockingly awful and getting worse.
    Yes, you can walk around Alice Springs and find many Arrernte in states of sickness and hopelessness who know nothing about the Constitution or changes that might be made to it. You could also ask many white people as to what the Constitution actually says and be met with blank looks – despite the fact it was written for them by their leaders.
    Turnbull wouldn’t give it the time of day, Dutton is hell bent on doing a Queensland cop number on it. Albo is risking his political neck by supporting it. As to Dutton quoting Orwell – he should know about the surveillance society – having been one of the instigators of the robot debt scandal.
    That’s before we get onto all the hundreds of unelected “lobbyists” hanging around Canberra pushing and pressing the elected members into voting for more mining, submarines that will never get in the water, banks, power corporations, big business of one kind or another, etc.
    A voice to Parliament is just asking for Aboriginal leaders to have a say like all the lobbyists. It won’t do us any harm, maybe some good will come of it.

  2. Here is a timely public notice: “The National Aboriginal Consultative Committee will be the first National Aboriginal Body to have real power to advise the Government on policy matters dealing with problems facing Aboriginals and those of Aboriginal descent.
    “The Committee will consist of 39 elected representatives from all Australian states. The Northern Territory will have 8 representatives from specific Electoral Areas. Their function will be to report the needs, problems and aims of the people in their electorates directly to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.
    “All Aboriginals, and people of Aboriginal descent, who are eighteen years old and over are eligible to vote once they are registered on the NACC Electoral Roll. Voting is not compulsory, but all Aboriginal people are strongly advised to do so for their own ultimate benefit.
    “This is an opportunity to vote for a representative into a position of influence, who will be able to bring the people’s requests to the Government’s attention.
    “Anyone may stand for election as a representative, but he/she must be nominated by 6 people from the electorate he intends to represent.
    “Timetable concerning Elections.
    “Electoral rolls close: Midnight, 22nd September.
    “Nominations close: Noon, 20th October.
    “Election Day: Saturday, 10th November.
    “These elections are authorised by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs”.
    Published in the Centralian Advocate, Thursday, 20 September 1973 – half a century ago.
    Que sera, sera?

  3. Look at the plethora of organisations in The Alice currently who get paid obscenely to assist Indigenous Australians.
    Not much happening inside those cloistered walls … far too busy sitting at cafes or gazing into computer screens … endless meetings and lunch opportunities … extremely expensive vehicles.
    I can’t understand how more of the same is going to improve outcomes. We need less pierced university millennials who are clueless and more fair dinkum people who actually understand the core issues.

  4. @ Curious: The NACC was reformed by the Fraser Government in 1976, becoming the “National Aboriginal Conference” but remaining as a purely advisory body.
    The Hawke Government abolished the NAC in 1985.

  5. ATSIC which had been formed in 1990 by the Hawke Government came the closest to being an Aboriginal representative Voice to Parliament. A campaign led by Prime Minister John Howard and not opposed by Labor opposition’s Mark Latham dismantled ATSIC in 2004.
    Howard’s campaign’s included nasty ad-hominem attacks on ATSIC chair Geoff Clark and deputy chair Ray Robinson.
    This is the elephant in the room when it comes to empowering Australia’s First Peoples in the constitution. ATSIC could not so cavalierly have been dismantled if there had been a Constitutional hurdle to doing so.
    All that being said, had the same criteria used to dismantle ATSIC been applied to the Australian Parliament, they would have had to dismantle both houses as well, but then the Parliament enjoys Constitutional immunity.

  6. Agreed. The Voice is meant to provide Indigenous people with a voice on matters that affect them, yet, as stated in this article, their voices on The Voice go largely unheard. Ironic.

  7. @ Melinda: Just because the policy will be affecting Indigenous people doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the best people to consult with about whether or not it will work.
    Many Aboriginals are not familiar with the parliamentary process and probably won’t know how to use the Voice if it passes because the procedures surrounding its functionality are so convoluted.

  8. @ Frank Baarda: ATSIC was not dismantled for no reason. It wasn’t working, as proven by the very large gap between Aboriginals and the rest of Australians that ATSIC was not successful in closing.
    I don’t see how the Voice would be any different, just the same thing over and over again, failed Indigenous advisory body after failed Indigenous advisory body.

  9. @ Ethan. We who live on remote communities are continually told that ATSIC and self-determination weren’t working. We saw their potential but also saw how they were set up to fail by political and bureaucratic sabotage.
    I consider these to be classic cases of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  10. Ethan Carmen: The choices of Indigenous people will not always close the gap.
    Take remote housing. Indigenous residents will tell you that they want exactly the same housing that other Australians enjoy.
    The positive changes that have been made to remote housing such as stainless steel toilets and many other innovations have not been made because the residents demanded them.
    Quite the opposite, the changes were made despite opposition to them because of the huge expense bill in repairing damaged houses.
    Indigenous people know what they want but their choices can widen rather than close the gap.

  11. @ Frank Baarda I am curious, as a resident of a remote community, is this story correct in saying the Voice is not as large of a concern in remote NT as it is in urban areas?
    I live in Sydney and can confirm that this story is pretty accurate when it comes to describing the hectic debates in the cities, but would imagine the debate to be a huge deal in remote areas, as it is there after all where the Voice would have the largest effect.

  12. The article which led to this debate are the words and opinions of Harry Clark solely.
    Indigenous people in the town camps or remote communities of Central Australia have not always heard about the very long process which culminated into the Uluru Statement but they surely know there was a big meeting at Uluru in 2016-17.
    Mr Clark may have asked the wrong question to the wrong people.
    He seems to forget that in a referendum it is The People of Australia, all of them having reached the mature age of 18 and being on the electoral roll, who are asked to vote YES or NO to the wording before them: the recognition of the First Nations people who occupied this blessed land since “always”, through the establishment of a Voice to Parliament.
    This is the basic request of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, after many years (some 30 years) of consultations among all Indigenous groups.
    The Indigenous people of Alice Springs are but a small proportion of the 3% of all indigenous persons of this country.
    Some may know about the Voice, other may not, but the major organisations that represent them (CAAC, Tangentyere, CLC, and the many religious bodies in town) do know that a Voice may yield results.
    It is more than a gamble, it is a hope and an aspiration to be able to express their views on Bills of law affecting them before they become Acts of Parliament.
    How? Through a Voice? Simple as that.
    A simple demand has become a monster of contradictions, a political issue, a battle field between Albo and Dutton, a sabotage of the Statement from the Heart.
    If it fails we, the Australian People, all of us, of whatever origin or political opinion, are to be “shamed” for not listening and answering a simple demand that may lead to big changes and unity.
    A No result would be another “missed opportunity”. The maturity of the nation is at stake. Shall we ever grow up?
    [ED: The Alice Springs News stands by Harry Clark’s report. The words and opinions he is quoting are those of his sources.]

  13. I agree with Maya: The Northern Territory has the highest proportion of Indigenous residents among its population – an estimated 32% (79,000 people) in 2022, but it does not mean we have more Indigenous Australians than other States
    In the 2021 Census there were 812,728 people who identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin
    In 2022, the highest proportion of Indigenous Australians lived in New South Wales (33.2%), followed by Queensland (28.2%) and Western Australia (12.5%). The Australian Capital Territory has the smallest proportion of Australia’s Indigenous population (1.0%).
    (Statistics from webs.)

  14. Dear Maya, I doubt Harry Clark asked the “wrong” questions to the “wrong” people.
    It seems he was just hoping for a genuine conversation with the very people who stand to benefit the most from a referendum that is clearly struggling to win popular support.
    I suspect that he has also not forgotten the basic requirements of a referendum. In fact his main point seems to be based on exactly this — that the referendum requires a vote from everyone … and unless everyone hears a strong, clear voice from Indigenous Australians, the referendum will likely continue to struggle.

  15. @ Abi Campbell. A bit of context: my family and I arrived in Yuendumu in 1973. I am not Aboriginal but have Aboriginal family.
    In the half a century we have lived here, I have attended countless meetings at which locals have spoken up in erudite English (despite Warlpiri being their mother tongue) offering suggestions on how to make Yuendumu a better place.
    Officials used to consult with the community, now they only engage. Consulting means exchanging questions and answers. Engagement means those in power presenting their answers (take it or leave it).
    The gradual disempowerment and marginalisation of local leadership went on steroids with the Intervention which was supported by the two major parties. The pandemic enabled the authorities to further tighten their grip.
    Fewer and fewer locals go to public meetings. What is the point if no one listens anyway?
    I’m not at all surprised that out here the Voice debate isn’t on top of the agenda.
    In the end I expect most Yuendumu residents will vote Yes, but not because they expect things to change for the better. They’ve been disappointed too often.
    Myself I will be voting Yes. I sympathise with the “Treaty First” No voters, but can’t possibly vote with the deceitful, mean spirited leaders of the No campaign.
    I’ve even heard a spokesperson for the No campaign invoke the communist bogey. I thought Australia had moved on from the 1950s reds under the beds mentality.
    I’ll be glad if the Yes campaign gets up, but won’t be holding my breath awaiting positive change.
    Local Warlpiri people are well aware that a Voice is useless without ears.

  16. Even if Australian citizens aged 18 years or older are registered to vote, it doesn’t mean they will cast a vote in favour or against the referendum question. Eligible people are respectfully encouraged to be registered and vote their preference one way or another.
    Looks like the date will be 14th October (to be confirmed in Adelaide next week). There are still some weeks until then so have your conversations, ask your questions and make your voice count!

  17. This is such a timely, relevant, well-written, and well-researched article. Thanks for contributing to the dialogue on this issue and illuminating different sides of the argument. Kudos to the author!

  18. It is a commendable endeavour, effectively articulating the concerns and perspectives of Australia’s Indigenous populace.

  19. Support for the no case is now stronger than ever – it is leading in every state, and not by an insignificant margin.
    If it is true that the debate about the Voice within remote Aboriginal communities isn’t strong, Albo needs to find a way to educate them about what it is, so the rest of Aus has the opportunity to hear what they think about the matter.
    At the end of the day, it is we, the people, who are voting.
    Not the politicians sat in parliament. It should be the people the Voice is affecting, teaching the rest of Aus about the affect it will have on them, not Albo and Dutton speaking on their behalf.

  20. @ Phil Walcott: I believe if you are a citizen aged 18 or older, you must vote. A referendum requires (in contrast to “respectfully encourages”) everyone who is eligible to cast a vote.
    So yes, we should have our conversations and make our voices count because we each only really get one shot at this.
    We don’t want an uneducated Aus randomly casting a vote for Yes or No based on misinformation or what your neighbour said the other day.
    This all really links back to getting the true Aboriginal perspective out there, because that is what is needed right now to foster a more balanced debate.

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