The referendum and its issues

A speech given by Jan Aitken to Probus and U3A groups. This makes important reading in the light of the results of the referendum

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the country we are meeting on the Wurundjeri Woiwurrung of the Kulin Nation.  For Aboriginal people, country includes far more than what we think of as country. For them it is the sky country, the water country, the rock country. Country is populated with Ancestors who created all these elements and are still present in them today. Country is family. It is certainly different from our own love of our country which can be intense and responsible. But not the same. We pay our respects to their traditional owners, to Elders and Ancestors.  We acknowledge the uniqueness of their culture and history.

And it is history that I begin with today. I would like you to get into an imagining frame of mind that will allow you to put yourselves into the lives of the people I describe in this very brief encounter with our history.

Lets begin:  The Eora people have been living around the Eastern coast of the continent for, say, perhaps 40,000 years. It’s so long it’s as if from time immemorial. The understanding they have about their country, their water, their skies, is populated with creation ancestors and the lore which they brought and which is followed strictly so that the community of the nation is preserved peacefully, genetically, healthily.

1788: Tall ships arrive and unload marines in red coats with muskets and hats and weary, ill, starving and bedraggled convicts.  Then a pole Is brought out and the British flag raised as Captain Phillip declares that this is the founding of British settlement. As far as he could see there were no signs of other settlement. No fences, no farms, no land cleared, no buildings. Nothing that indicated occupancy in terms of British law. Terra nullius.

Phillip was under instruction to be kind to any natives who appeared. To accommodate them and share the land with them. This he did even befriending one in particular, Benelong, who was taught British manners and customs and given British clothes and was taken to England and shown off to British aristocracy.

As the colony expanded land was taken over for growing food and farming sheep and cattle. The Aboriginal people were displaced. They also contracted smallpox which reduced their numbers enormously. Other diseases such as measles and influenza also took their toll. Life for them was perilous and confusing.

By 1792 the colony had expanded to Parramatta. There was increasing agitation amongst the Aboriginal people at the invasion of their land  and the loss of traditional life. Pemulwuy was a warrior and took on the protection of his people and the extermination of the invaders. He was responsible for spearing and killing Phillip’s gamekeeper, a much hated man who killed any Aboriginal people who stood in his way. Phillip was enraged and gave the marines the freedom to shoot on sight any Aborigines who were seen on settled land. This freedom to kill was taken up by roving parties of escaped convicts and free settlers as well as the marine corps. Massacres followed with further Aboriginal attacks on settlers and properties. An undeclared war.

Some settlers developed supportive relationships with the blacks and shared their produce in return for labour on the farm.  But the reality of displacement from their lands and their status as persona non grata haunted Aborigines. They had lost land and food sources, were poorly nourished, lost, displaced, without the regular rituals which anchored them in life. The usual territorial boundaries for clans could no longer be maintained with serious disruptions to their families and clan groups.

Take a moment to think yourself into an Aboriginal existence at this turn of the century.

Victoria was settled in 1835 after John Batman made his treaty with the Wurundjeri clans. They were willing to share the land but trading it was not in their minds. They were the land. Batman brought his sheep with him and soon their hard little hooves were destroying the native grasses and Yam daisies, orchids, lilies and other forbs, the tubers of which were a staple food source. The NSW governor ruled that Batman’s treaty had no legal power as all land now belonged to the British Crown.

Many other squatters followed from Tasmania and NSW with herds and flocks with less concern for agreements with local inhabitants. They spread to the western districts, to the eastern highlands, northwards and south along each side of the bay.

Melbourne town grew on the Yarra banks and the Wurundjeri and other tribal groups which were banished from their own lands gathered near Melbourne at Dight’s Falls. There on the banks of the Merri Creek, William Thomas Protector provided food in return for Aboriginal presence at church services. A large Aboriginal camp developed on the Yarra where Como House now stands.

Eventually Aboriginal presence in Melbourne was discouraged by the growing town settlers who did not want Blacks around their living areas. The population of Wurundjeri had declined dramatically due to disease, massacre, loss of land for traditional living, depression until at one stage only 18 were recorded. Many of the Aboriginal people living around Melbourne came from further away in Victoria, driven off their own land by squatters and settlers.

The NSW and Victorian governments, 1855-6, set up Aboriginal Protection Boards and it was these that established reserves on which Aboriginal people had to live. Churches took up the management of these missions. There were eventually 16 established in Victoria, 11 in NSW. One very successful one was Coranderrk at Healesville, established in 1863 by Simon Wonga. It is still there today with a small cemetery and 200 acres farmed and revegetated by Wurundjeri.

Meanwhile for state governments in Victoria and NSW a policy of assimilation was developing quickly.  From 1860 onwards, laws controlled what Indigenous people could do and where they were forbidden. An Exemption certificate was needed for travel and for use of coaches and trains. They were not permitted in pubs and public buildings, public gardens. And not allowed to marry unless approved of by the Aborigine Protection Board. Life was dreadfully constricted and poverty stricken. Prison was the punishment for offending.

The policy of government relied on the expectation that the Aborigines would die out or intermarry and become assimilated and invisible.

To this end the practice of removing children who were from mixed families began.  Police and Patrol officers went to communities and  Aboriginal families and literally snatched up thousands of children. They were taken to orphanges. Some were sent to white families in the hope that they would learn British ways of living and become fully assimilated. I am sure you are aware of the Stolen Generations. Many Aboriginal families today have this traumatic history in their family stories of Great Grandma, or Grandpa or Aunty and Uncle with their loss of family connections and family history. These practices began in 1910 and did not stop until the early 1970s which takes most of us into times we can well recall.

The Apology presented by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 brought tears and joy for many but that has not removed the pain of these experiences nor the despair and rage.

The 1901 Constitution for the Federation of Australia explicitly stated that Aborigines were not to be counted as people of Australia. And the new Federal Govt was not permitted to make laws about Aboriginal people. That was left with each state.  The draconian measures continued. Along with them the despair and ignominy of being Aboriginal. Think yourselves into their lives at this time. This lingers today in what is called  intergenerational trauma. As an Aboriginal today you know that this is your history, and when racists calls are made you know it is your place in today’s Australia.

Indigenous activists, those who were fighting for a better deal and for respect and acknowledgement of their humanness, were rising up. From mid nineteenth century and on into the twentieth and now the twenty first century Indigenous people have had spokes people, men and women who have led requests and petitions for human rights and for recognition as the First Peoples of the nation of Australia in the constitution.

Requests for recognition and constitutional inclusion have been constant since 1846. There have been 49 petitions, requests, expert panels, promises of referendums, treaty and constitutional inclusion.

Every couple of years.

In 1938, on 26 January there was a celebratory enactment of Captain Phillip’s arrival at Sydney Cove. The Sesquicentenary. The Eora People of the region refused to take part so the government imported some Aboriginal prisoners from Queensland and kept them locked up until they were needed. Meanwhile Aboriginal people defied the restrictions on travel. One thousand marched with banners in Sydney demanding their right to belong to the nation and to be treated with respect and human rights. They called this day the Day of Mourning. Over the years the annual event morphed into NAIDOC Week.

In 1946 a strike was organised on cattle stations in the Pilbara Aboriginal workers wanted better pay and conditions and freedom from their colonial masters. They began mining ventures and were able to negotiate improvements.

In 1966 the Gurindji people walked off Wave Hill station settling on their own land some distance away. They wanted equality with white stockmen. It took 9 years before Gough Whitlam met with them on their land and handed Vincent Lingari a handful of his own soil with the promise of returning their land. From Little things Big things Grow:  Kev Carmody.

The 1967 Referendum is famous as it achieved the greatest number of yes votes of any referendum. Over 90%. Supported by both sides of government and with a powerful unity between both black and white supporters the successful referendum gave them the right to be counted in our census.  They were thus finally recognised as Australians. And the Commonwealth government could now make laws for them. This had been forbidden in the first constitution.

Soon after this in 1972 the Tent Embassy was established in Canberra, the beginning of the Land Rights movement.

Various Acts dealing with Land Rights have established the Land Councils and over the years have granted freehold title to over 40 percent of Central and Northern Australia.

There have been three acts legislating for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander body that could advise and administer Aboriginal services. 1977, 1985,  ATSIC  1990. Each of these was closed down when a new government took office.

In 1990 the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission  ATSIC was established by the Hawke government.  It gave Aboriginal people a greater say in how the money allocated to them was spent. This body had financial management of grants and loans to Aboriginal enterprises. It functioned well for 15 years until 2005 when rape charges for Geoff Clark, the Chairman, led to it being disbanded under the Howard government for the reason that it was not serving Aboriginal people well. Instead, a ministerial taskforce was set up to administer funds for Aboriginal services. Aboriginal people mourned deeply their disempowerment.

Memories of these failed legislations lie behind the need for constitutional enshrinement.

Aboriginal people today still have to deal with racisim. I have an adopted nephew who is a tall, big black man. We were shopping together in Tweed Heads in a large centre. We went into the Reject shop to buy Christmas decorations and immediately the guard on the door took off and followed Tim closely.  I asked Tim if he had noticed. Of course, but you get so used to ii. You just ignore it.  But I thought, at a deep. And hidden cost. To walk around a shopping centre and know that many people who walk past you are noticing you and feeling just a little frightened of you, wishing you were not there, some even driven to mutter racist words. What must it be like to be unwanted in the place where you live? We think of Adam Goodes and Nicky Winmar. Of other Indigenous sports people.  Of Stan Grant.

2007, the Close the Gap Campaign was established by non- government organisations. This has had Commonwealth, Territory, State and local government support. A sizable piece of the Commonwealth budget is allocated for projects aimed at closing the gaps between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous statistics. Each year the Close the Gap report reveals that the Gaps are not closing. Health, education, life expectancy, numbers in prison. Aboriginal statistics fall below those of the rest of the population.

Now that you have heard a very brief account of some of the history of your nation you will begin to see that the current referendum is the outcome of a very long line of Aboriginal requests for a respected and recognised place in the nation of Australia. They call it a rightful place. The referendum is destined to determine what the rest of Australia calls it. It is in the trajectory of the history of Australia. We are making history.

In 2015 Malcolm Turnbull  and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten together set up a Referendum Council.  Over the next two years this council ran 13 First Nation Regional Dialogues all over Australia with 1,200 delegates from a population of 600,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait people. It is the first time that a consultation of this size and diversity has been held for these people who were totally excluded from consultations about the original constitution. They discussed options for constitutional reform. They ensured Aboriginal decision making was at the heart of the reform process.

The National First Nations Constitutional Convention was held at Uluru in May 2017.The purpose was to ratify the decision making of the

Regional Dialogues. 250  members of Aboriginal organisations and communities met together for four days. They talked, they discussed and considered and out of these deliberations came the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart: a very generous, thoughtful request to the people of Australia. It was not addressed to government. But to us.

We possessed the land under our laws and customs.  Our spiritual sovereignty co-exits with the sovereignty of the Crown. It could

Shine thru to a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.

We are the most incarcerated people. Not innately criminal.

Our children are alienated from their families. Not because we do not love them.

Our youth languish in prison. They should be our hope for the future.

The Structural nature of this crisis is the torment of our powerlessness.

Constitutional reform: to empower our people, to have our rightful place in our own country.

We seek recognition in the constitution with a Voice to Parliament and a Makarrata, a coming together after a struggle, to come to agreement based on justice and self determination.

Voice, Treaty, Truth.

We have come to the Referendum. Our responsibility to vote for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inclusion in our constitution in recognition of their status as the First Peoples who have survived with their cultures and languages, families and clan nations. To change the way in which Aboriginal advice is given to the government about those matters which are of concern to them: health, housing, land, incarceration, child removal. A further attempt to improve the effectiveness of laws made and money provided for ATSI services. Enshrined in the constitution so that it cannot be closed down with a change of government.

 The Voice is to be in the constitution. However, its structure and mode of working will be designed and legislated by the government of the day. It is important that the constitution does not enshrine all details. This leaves government power to shape the Voice and its mode of functioning. Parliaments will always have the power to make the laws and distribute the funds. They will be able to change the structure and functioning of the Voice. But they will be required to listen to the advice given. And the Voice will be required to act responsibly and ethically. It will come under the Integrity Commission.

I have researched the Voice and its history extensively. And considered both sides of the arguments presented. It is actually not a political choice unless you make it so.

 I have not felt right about my country since learning about Aboriginal history. I did a degree in Australian History in 1956. We began in 1788. It is only since I retired that I have looked into the true history. I do not feel proud of where we stand in relation to First Nations. The Voice in the Constitution is their request and their responsibility to use it effectively. I will vote yes.

Humanity towards all human beings includes Aboriginal people. What has been called: finding the sacred in the other. I want a rightful place for our First Nations. I have a tussle with my heritage of white Australia. We were all brought up with that ideal.

 There are unknowns and I am most sympathetic to those of you who are pausing before the possible awful outcomes that are projected by some no arguments.  We make a lot of major changes in our lives without knowing everything, with tolerating the unknown aspects. Think about buying a house. We spend 1Million dollars not knowing the neighbours, not knowing what might go wrong with the building, not knowing what the local council might decree in the future. Yet we buy and live through what follows, dealing with problems as they arise.

We can do that with the Voice.

It is an advisory body; no veto; no money to spend; dependent on the government’s willingness to listen and consider when making laws and implementing them. Governments constantly consult with advisors. For ATSI people they are now being required to do that with an elected representative committee of Indigenous people.  With the protection of the constitution.

And would the High Court be interested if a complaint about the government was presented? Only if it came under the laws which govern what the High Court has power to decide. The High Court only makes decisions on the legality of actions, not their merit.

Is the Voice divisive? You have heard something of Aboriginal history today. There have always been Aboriginal people and the rest of us. The divide was there from the beginning. The 1901 constitution recognised the Aboriginal people by excluding them specifically. This change to the constitution is bringing First Nations people into the Australian nation giving them their own special identity and significance. It could unite all Australians with the richness of Indigenous culture. I see it as unifying. Healing a divisiveness.

If you don’t know, vote no. Troubling. I suggest you find out more and think more closely if you don’t know. Voting NO can be the easy way out of a referendum. It can also be driven by fear of change and by the political needs of an opposition party. It does take some courage to investigate fully the issues for yourself and to stand for what you finally decide. There are multiple information meetings available.

This referendum is a major challenge to us Australians. We will have to put aside our inborn fear of Aboriginal people. To really think about our answer to this request. Our wish that they would not make their presence felt in this way.

 Our right to this country is undermined by the secret knowledge that we stole it. We need to reverse that secret.

Recognising First Peoples in our Constitution in a way that they can be looked after effectively is a major step towards looking history in the eye and dealing with what we see. It follows too, that it is a nation building act of reconciliation. It means that we are acknowledging that we have in our nation, First Peoples. They make Australia unique with a cultural heritage of 60,000 years, the oldest living culture in the world.  They will always be with us.

You will each vote in this referendum. All I ask you to do is to be informed. And Thoughtful. And make your vote really count for what you think is right.

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