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After Australian voters last Saturday rejected a proposal for an Indigenous Voice to parliament to be embedded in the Constitution, First Nations leaders who for years had loudly advocated for this form of recognition asked for a week of silence to consider how they might respond.
The referendum’s resounding No decision immediately opened serious questions for the nation: where to now for Indigenous recognition, for reconciliation, for endeavours to close the gap, for healing?
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who had set in motion the referendum and advocated strongly for the Voice, was pressed for answers. He said he wanted Indigenous people to lead the way forward, he respected their silence, and he would wait for them.
Having endured a brutal and bruising campaign against their cause, Indigenous leaders who have taken the past week to reflect on “the role of racism and prejudice against Indigenous people” in the No result will break their silence in coming days.
When they do, there is a high likelihood that they will ask the government to continue to honour the essence of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its guiding principles of Voice, Treaty, Truth, and move forward with the two remaining pillars.
If Albanese is asked that his government engage in a national process of truth-telling and treaty negotiation, he should embrace the opportunity as a chance to heal the nation, despite the political challenge it would present. There will be arguments that the outcome of the Voice referendum proved that Australians have no appetite now for governments advancing the cause of Indigenous people.
A Resolve poll taken in the lead-up to the referendum, and published in The Age, showed that the most persuasive reason for people intending to vote No was the claim that the Voice would divide Australians by race. This was the single most powerful argument on either side, and underpinned the national result of 59 per cent No to 41 per cent Yes.
It is worth noting, though, that before the No campaign swung into gear, national sentiment towards Indigenous people was considerably more generous, with 65 per cent approval for the Voice. The complexity of the referendum and the fact it was specifically attached to constitutional change made the Voice an unpalatable proposition for most Australians for a multitude of reasons.
That said, the vote against the Voice was not a vote against truth-telling and treaty, and should not be misconstrued or misused as such.
But there is good reason within the Voice vote for the government to pursue truth-telling and treaty. It is the simple fact that a considerable majority of First Nations people voted Yes for Indigenous recognition and for Indigenous people to have a greater say in matters that affect them.
Anthony Albanese at Uluru during the Voice campaign.Credit: Bill Blair
It is affirmation that the 250 delegates who gathered at Uluru in 2017 to endorse the Statement from the Heart properly captured the will of their people in laying out Voice, Treaty, Truth.
Softening the ground for Albanese to embrace a truth and treaty process is the fact that work has already begun. Most Australian states have committed to, or are proposing, a government-led process of truth-telling and negotiation of treaties or, in the case of South Australia, have implemented a First Nations Voice to parliament.
In this, Victoria has led the way. It established the First Peoples’ Assembly – an independent and democratically elected body to represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria, which has a focus on treaties. It also created the Yoorrook Justice Commission, the nation’s first formal truth-telling process examining the historical and ongoing injustices experienced by First Peoples in Victoria.
The induction of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria in July.Credit: Justin McManus
By their nature, these bodies have not been without their problems, representing as they do traditional owners and representatives from many (and sometimes contested) nations, corporations and tribal groups. In the case of Yoorrook, the content of its submissions and inquiries has often been harrowing, especially for those who have delivered their truth, and confronting for Victorians digesting it.
This, though, has been the point. It is through the unavoidably painful process of truth-telling that a wider population of non-Indigenous Australians can find awareness of, and empathy for, the ongoing suffering and disadvantage wreaked by the injustices of colonisation and dispossession.
Awareness and empathy can be sources of healing that might best challenge the weaponisation of Indigenous matters for political gain, something that has become an insidious byproduct of the Voice referendum debate.
Already, it has been used to threaten state-based truth-telling and treaty processes – most notably in Queensland, where almost 70 per cent of people voted No. There the state’s Liberal National Party leader has abandoned bipartisan support for the Path to Treaty Act he championed earlier this year, reflecting on the Voice vote and saying: “Queenslanders do not want to continue down a path that leads to more division and uncertainty.”
In NSW, the only state that has not initiated a treaty process, Labor Premier Chris Minns faces an almost impossible task finding bipartisan support for negotiations with Indigenous people.
The advanced nature of Victoria’s process makes it more robust, but Liberal leader John Pesutto is under pressure from within his party to withdraw bipartisan support for a bill to establish a Treaty Authority in light of the state’s dominant Voice No vote.
Then there was federal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s attack on treaty and truth-telling this week, in which he claimed the process would “go on for between 20 and 30 years”, cost Australia tens of billions of dollars and be a “continuation of the division that he [Albanese] has created out of the referendum”.
For Albanese, federal support for a process of truth-telling and treaty will not be about a test of popularity but a test of conviction, as he searches for a way to lead the nation to healing.
Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.
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