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HomeVolume 28Understanding this No, voting Yes

Understanding this No, voting Yes

By KIERAN FINNANE

Two prominent Aboriginal men from the Centre, one speaking to a deeply felt No on the Voice, based on his utter distrust of government, the other speaking to a passionate Yes, based on his faith in the possibility of shaping, with other Australians, “a better nation”.

Together, and with responses from other Aboriginal people in the room, they teased out a central Australian perspective on the question: “Do all First Nations people support the Voice?”

This is one of the four questions preoccupying most people in the “town hall” gatherings that the Yes 23 campaign has been organising around the country. It dominated the exchange of views from the floor in the Alice Springs Town Hall, held at the Convention Centre last week.

Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves made a searing case for No, speaking from the front of the room, alongside the Yes 23 panel members.

Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves (file photo)

Rachel Perkins, co-chair of the campaign, knowing his stand, had invited him to take his place there. She set the tone for accepting a diversity of views at the outset: “It is reasonable that people don’t know what this is about, people have got other things to worry about in their lives … Everyone’s views should be respected in this conversation, we’re happy to have conversations about No, Yes or undecided, whatever, we are all here to have a respectful discussion.”

Jampijinpa’s distrust is not just of the government of the day, but of the whole system and the record of its relationship with First Nations.

His face and voice and articulate rage became known to Australians around the country during the trial and acquittal of Constable Zachary Rolfe for the killing 19-year-old Kumunjayi Walker.

The shooting happened in Jampijinpa’s home community of Yuendumu, where, as he said after the acquittal, “the police and government rule over us and treat us as enemies on our own land.”

Justice was not served by the trial and its outcome, he argued: “Justice means getting back yapa control of our community” – yapa meaning Aboriginal person in Warlpiri.

Yet for him the Voice could not deliver that.

For one: “The government will dismiss it. It’s the same thing as ATSIC,” he told the audience of mostly ardent Yes supporters.

He was referring to the Howard Government’s 2005 controversial disbanding of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, one of successive Indigenous ‘voice’ bodies, the most powerful and longest-lasting, to be dissolved by governments over the years.

No, no, interjected facilitator Jon Faine. Unlike ATSIC, this Voice will be in the Constitution, “so it’s there forever, that’s the whole idea.”

This was echoed by Ken Lechleitner, a senior man of Western Aranda and Anmatyerre descent, fluent in those languages as well as Warlpiri and English. He had risen to his feet earlier, speaking in Warlpiri, to counter Jampijinpa’s deep suspicions, saying: “I’m here as well and I represent my people too.”

Ken Lechleitner (file photo)

He had urged Jampijinpa to accept the good faith of supporters of Yes, the majority of whom, of necessity, are non-Indigenous: “They want to support our culture, this is why they are here, this is why they are saying Yes, we want to recognise yapa as the longtime people living in this country.

“They want to work with us, they don’t want to rubbish us, they want to look after us, they want us to also lead the charge. So, this is our journey, this is our once in a lifetime opportunity to get it right, to set a whole new direction with us driving the bus, not being prescribed what to do, we’re being part of the future.”

Jampijinpa was unpersuaded: “We don’t need to go into the Constitution, because we have our own … you know that.”

He was referring to his Jukurrpa – Warlpiri law and custom.

“We don’t want to lose that,” he said. This risk was making him really “really really uncomfortable” about supporting the Voice.

His fear is not unfounded: It reflects not only Aboriginal experience in the long history of colonisation but in the NT Intervention, initiated in 2007 and in many ways ongoing. Among its many impositions of mainstream supremacy, it forced the NT judiciary to turn its back on accommodations with Aboriginal customary law even for the purposes of sentencing and bail applications. This remains the case.

Mr Lechleitner understood exactly where Jampijinpa was coming from: “In 2007, our culture was being wiped out, with the package of laws that were introduced.”

But he sees the present moment differently: “This is an opportunity to have representation in the Constitution, so we can say, hey look, let’s make the two laws work. There’s no chance of having it any other way.”

Jampijinpa just doesn’t believe it: “It’s not going to change because it’s still going be the same, we are talking about the people that are going to be on the Voice. I don’t want that person, I don’t want this person here (pointing to a member of the audience) to tell me my Jukurrpa … because he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know! Right?

“I feel real, real worried about that, really confused, because it’s not the way.”

John Faine at the lectern, Jampijinpa on the microphone, Pat Ansell Dodds, Rachel Perkins.

As the discussion moved on from the exchange between Jampijinpa and Mr Lechleitner, each of them speaking in Warlpiri to one another and shifting almost seamlessly to English for the benefit of most of the audience, Ms Perkins underlined the importance of what had just occurred.

“That’s why Ned’s up here too, because he’s got a different view … So I wanted to make sure that he felt respected to be up here as well and that you can hear the discussion, because these are discussions that are happening in the Aboriginal community, you know. And they’re good respectful discussions as you saw then from two significant men talking about this issue. That’s what it’s all about.”

Without wanting to discount what Jampijinpa had said, she went on to put the case contra, referring to the unanimous support for Yes from the Northern Territory’s land councils, which represent communities across the NT, as well as the support from numerous other land councils interstate.

She also referred to the surveys done by Reconciliation Australia, in their Australian Reconciliation Barometer reports, showing “an overwhelming consensus of support” for a Voice amongst First Nations people. (See the 2022 Barometer here; support for the Voice covered on p 26.)

But “there will always be divergent views,” she said.

Facilitator Faine asked Pat Ansell Dodds for her thoughts. A senior woman of Central Arrernte and Anmatyerre descent, she has been a strong local Yes campaigner.

“I can understand what Ned’s saying,” she said. “We all have different areas and different cultures and to us that’s most important that we never lose that … And when you look around the Country, it’s a voice to us, of our Old People, to tell us that’s our Country, hey Ned?”

He murmured his assent.

“They talk to us, you [non-Indigenous people] don’t understand that, but we feel it, that’s our culture, that’s our Country and it’s never going to change. We learn this from our Old People and we’re not stopping …

Pat Ansell Dodds (file photo)

“Because I can remember living in the bush, out Undoolya where I come from as well. I lived part time there and part time in town with my father, my mother, because I had to go to school. This is back in the ‘50s, but in my head even today I am still out there.

“I went ‘round the world on different conferences but in my head it’s still red dirt, that’s who I am and I know what this man is saying.”

Mr Faine suggested the meeting move on, but Ms Perkins wanted to stay with this exchange a little longer. She asked Owen Cole if he wanted to say anything. He’s a prominent local businessman of Warramungu and Luritja descent.

“Look,” he said, “I appreciate and respect Ned and Pat and Kenny, what you are saying is absolutely correct. Law, culture has got to be protected. But the view I’ll put is that I’ll place my faith in the Voice giving advice to the government to ensure that law and culture is protected rather than in the hands of the bureaucrats and the politicians like it currently is.

“They will need to listen because it’s enshrined in the Constitution. I agree wholeheartedly but will back the Voice, the Aboriginal Voice, above all the other structures that are in place that are delivering the really poor outcomes that we currently face with Indigenous Australia.”

After some commentary by Kerry O’Brien, the veteran broadcaster, about the way divergent views are part and parcel of our democratic system, and asking why we would expect Indigenous people to not also have differing views, a woman standing at the back of the room, raised her hand.

Mr Faine asked her to introduce herself: “I understand you’re a TO.”

“I’m not a TO,” Elaine Peckham said firmly. “I’m a custodian of Mparntwe Alice Springs, there’s a difference in that.”

She went on: “Mr Lechleitner … he was right in what he had to say. Owen, I support Owen wholly on what he said, and Jampijinpa, yes, I’m with you all the way because of the struggle we have been through, with the Intervention …

“ATSIC was taken away and John Howard brought the Intervention in 2007 and that’s where we are today. That’s why a lot of people are confused of whether to vote Yes or No in this referendum.

“We’ve still got our voices out there with the Intervention, we’ve actually put out a book of 16 years of the Intervention, it has not stopped our voices being out there, and I’m one of them.

Elaine Peckham with her sister Doris Stuart, Mparntwe custodians (file photo)

“I’ve lived in Alice, born in Alice, I lived in the days when we were assimilated and still survived and to go back on my mother’s Country and live out there when the land rights came into power.

“Yes, we thought we had a good life going back on our land, and then the Intervention stepped in, so here I am back in Alice, still speaking up on basic human rights, and that’s what I’d like to say.”

So, a powerfully expressed No had been countered by four eloquent Yes’s. On October 14, referendum day, a tally will be what it’s all about, but in that room that night it wasn’t the numbers that mattered. The Aboriginal No and Yes were on the common ground of the Aboriginal relationship with non-Aboriginal Australia, its often bitter history and the need to set that right.

The Voice proposes one way of working towards that. If the referendum fails, that work will remain.

Photo at top: Rachel Perkins addressing the ‘town hall’ gathering, Pat Ansell Dodds to her right, Lawson Broad, Kerry O’Brien to her left • Below: Audience as Ken Lechleitner stands to speak.

14 COMMENTS

  1. The NT turned its back on Customary Law well before the Intervention. Writing in 2004 Attorney General Peter Toyne stated: “The Government only recognises customary law to the extent that it does not contravene the NT Criminal Code. The Criminal Code expressly denies an individual the right to consent to grievous harm, and the Bail Act does not permit the release of a person to undergo traditional punishment that is likely to be unlawful, that is, likely to involve the infliction of grievous harm.”
    The Intervention saw police stations proliferate in remote communities. At that point the capacity to crush traditional punishment was established and it has been in sharp decline ever since.
    But non traditional punishment with the knife rather than the spear is commonplace now and has none of the regulation by family members that prevented deaths.

  2. Thank you Rachel and Kieran for recording the words of all those who spoke so clearly.
    I will be sending this account on to many in the cities.

  3. Picking up on the snapshot of history by Ralph Folds: During the period 1992 to 1996 across our local region there was a strongly held pragmatic process of working together on law, justice, intercultural relations, alcohol treatment and management of young people.
    “Two way” collaborations were well set in right across Central Australia – much of it initiated by senior men and women whose names will be well known to Ned, Ken Lechleitner, Pat Ansell Dodds, Doris and Elaine Stuart and Rachel – given that members of their families were directly involved, as were people of Warlpiri gravity such as Darby Jampijimpa Ross, Jangala Rice, Japananka Williams, Hooker Creek, Nakamara Spencer, Peggy Nampijimpa Brown, the Granites sisters and many more.
    In Yuendumu for instance during that period I witnessed on the ground collaborations between Magistrate Deland (as I recall), local police, lawyers, Warlpiri council members discussing the context and background of young offenders and making careful recommendations to the magistrate.
    There are many examples across the country of hard bitten salty collaboration.
    Aboriginal Community Police and corrections officers have had a major (background) role in bringing people together.
    In Yuendumu also – through the Mt Theo youth program (WYDAC) – as Ned Hargraves and Ken Lechleitner know – a well held collaboration continued from 1992 for more than 20 years, especially during the period of Susie Low’s management.
    People can listen to each other, do work together, have done – still do – as this forum shows and as Rachel Perkins’s father Charles demonstrated.
    My question to Ralph is (in acknowledgment of his experience and his book Crossed Purposes): What does it take in this decade to make it work?

  4. Thanks Kieran, it is so good to hear about people speaking respectfully to each other across difference. This feels rare at this time.

  5. Thank you for sharing this important moment on the journey we are all on.
    I’m living in Bondi, however grew up in Taree.
    Reading this makes it clear how there is such massive diversity in culture, experiences and views in communities across Australia.
    And yet, these same communities all share the same gap.

  6. This is my humble advice: Debates, publicities etc. should stop for at least one week to leave time for the voters to digest the information.
    Information overload can manifest itself as brain fog and difficulty making decisions.

  7. Calling for a ceasefire might be a good idea. Still can set a date for a debate. Should write to both camps.

  8. You would have to be brave to debate Jacinta Price after her decisive performance at the National Press Club this week.

  9. Great to read this article thanks Kieran.
    As for being brave to debate Jacinta Price, I think there are many people able to do that, especially after her remarks about colonialism being good for Aboriginal people, and no worse than what was done to Irish convicts.
    Jacinta has exposed the cracks in the NO case, she and Warren Mundine are saying very different things.
    Jacinta has been captured by the IPA and their supporters at News Corp, she now openly peddles their line.
    Much to the delight of the big C conservatives in the Opposition.

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