Writer Rachel Buchanan has lived in Australia for 30 years (interspersed with many extended visits back to Aotearoa, including a year living in Wellington in 2012). Here she explains why she’s voting Yes in next week’s Voice referendum.
Back in 2001, the Australian literary journal Meanjin was preparing a special issue called Poetics. Selected writers, including me, were invited to record their poems to a CD (ironically titled “Enhancer”) that would be sold with the journal, tucked into a plastic pocket at the back.
I was asked to go to a place miles away from where I lived in Melbourne’s west, and read out “The Immigration Experience”, a two-part piece about what the title says.
When I got there, Lisa Bellear was at the mic. I’d heard of Bellear, a Koorie woman, from the Koorie Survival Show that used to be on community radio in Melbourne. Lisa read two powerful short poems, “Reconciliation Spins My Head” and “Prepared to Die”, in a voice that was slow and dreamy, edged with menace.
Then Lisa hung around to watch me. I was nervous. As I reflected later, I had not imagined what a Koorie person would think of my work. I had written my piece with a white Australian audience in mind, I guess, and maybe a Pākehā one as well.
Afterwards, we had a chat. Lisa was a warm person with a beautiful smile. She commented on my outfit — a subtle combo of a bright orange fake fur maternity dress worn over stripey bell-bottomed leggings — and noted that we had both made mention of cousins in our work. I felt her reference was rather more sophisticated than mine but whatever. Then Lisa got to the point.
“We don’t like it when you Māoris come over here and tell us how things should be for us,” she said. Lisa was looking away from me as she spoke. Her voice was light, almost joking, but I heard her message. Do not speak for me. Do not compare your people with mine. Be respectful. Listen. Don’t ever forget who you are and where you are.
Five years later, Lisa Bellear — poet, playwright, photographer, comedian — died in her sleep, and the obituary published in The Age said 1,000 people attended her funeral at the Victorian Aboriginal Advancement League headquarters in Thornbury.
I’ve learned that it is a gift when someone important — say, Lisa Bellear — decides you are worth dressing down. As Australia prepares to vote next weekend on altering the constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, this encounter with Lisa has come back to me.
One in five Māori, about 170,000 people, live in Australia. I am one of them. Like many others, I didn’t intend to migrate to Australia. I was just passing through. Then I met someone. Then we had a child. Then another child. And a third one.
With eyes wide shut, I had made a decision. Our childrens’ whenua is buried in the backyard, between a palm tree and a puka, on Bunurong land in Naarm/Melbourne.
In total, just under 560,000 New Zealand-born people live here, making us the fourth largest immigrant community, behind people born in England, India and China.
Some of us refer to Australia as Te Ao Moemoeā, which could mean the land of dreams or the land of the dreaming. Even though we arrived as uninvited guests, this country has welcomed us. Australia has certainly been good to me. I have received an excellent tertiary education here, raised three kids with a top bloke (Italian-Anglo Australian), written four books, had good jobs and made good friends. But I also know my place.
I am an Indigenous person in Aotearoa New Zealand. Here in Australia, as Lisa Bellear reminded me all those years ago, I am a manuhiri, a guest. A surface person wrapped in the blanket of my ancestry, a thin covering compared with the luxurious cloak First Nations people wear — the one created by 60,000 years of occupation, custodianship and care.
Next weekend’s referendum is a chance for all of us manuhiri in Australia — Māori and Pākehā — to show our respects to our hosts by voting yes.
Now, I’m aware that many Māori people in Oz haven’t yet “had the op” (become Australian citizens) but for those of us who are dual citizens, the time has come to make a down payment on the debt we owe our hosts and vote yes.
The same goes for all other New Zealanders in Australia, including the hundreds of people who’ve passed the citizenship test since the rules changed on July 1, 2023.
The Voice to Federal Parliament was first proposed in the 2017 Uluru Statement From the Heart. Constitutional reform was the first of three steps to empower First Nations people “to take a rightful place in our own country”. First Voice, then Treaty, then a Truth-telling commission.
In arguing for a constitutional Voice to Parliament, Professor Megan Davis says Australians “could see an unconventional yet compelling invitation to address one of the most acute challenges for Indigenous Australia: getting the government to listen”.
Professor Davis, who is a Cobble Cobble woman from Queensland and an international expert on Indigenous rights, says Australian parliaments don’t listen to Aboriginal people because they don’t have to.
In “Voice of Reason”, a recent Quarterly Essay, Professor Davis uses the phrase “the torment of our powerlessness”, to explain the structural nature of the crisis facing Aboriginal people. That same phrase is in the Uluru Statement From The Heart.
The recent past shows the extent of governments’ failure to listen and act.
Bob Hawke promised a treaty in 1998. Didn’t happen. Royal Commissions have come and gone — Deaths in Custody in 1991 and Little Children are Sacred in 2007 — but still nothing changes. The Northern Territory set up a Treaty Commission in 2019 but the work fizzled out. South Australia announced treaty negotiations in 2016, then a new government canned them. Now they are back on. A change of government in Victoria could derail the work that happened here too.
As Professor Davis said in her 2021 Mabo oration: “Treaties that are not premised on the country’s federal structure are not binding treaties.”
Pandered to, placated, patted on the back, fobbed off with “Acknowledgments of Country and an endless parade of posters and water bottles and wristbands” or Reconciliation Action Plans (yesterday’s news), Davis damns the ritualistic ways that federal, state and territory governments have signalled “connection and deep engagement” with First Nations Communities while continuing to ignore what these communities are actually saying.
The Voice is a first step towards meaningful change, and I am full of respect for Professor Davis, Aunty Pat Anderson AO and the many other First Nations leaders who continue to advocate for the Voice in the face of racism and misinformation.
(If you’d like to watch a fantastic Indigenous response to some of the naysayers, check out rapper Adam Briggs’ reel, Far Enough.)
Although the polls show support for the Voice is slipping, I’m still hopeful that Australians, including Māori people who are also Australian citizens, will do the right thing on October 14.
If not for ourselves, then for our old people.
Award-winning novelist Alexis Wright, a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria, has asked if people who come to Australia from other places are accompanied by their ancestors. I first read of Wright’s radical question in “Sovereignty of imagination”, an essay by Tony Birch in The Monthly, and I have to say that, for me, the answer is yes.
In this special place, Te Ao Moemoeā, my second home, I am accompanied by tūpuna who experienced muru me te raupatu, confiscation and marginalisation, on an epic scale on our tribal lands in Taranaki.
So my yes vote honours my tūpuna’s memory as well.
Sovereignty was never ceded. Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.
This article includes material first published in Quarterly Essay 91, 2023.
Rachel Buchanan (Taranaki, Te Atiawa) is the author of Te Motunui Epa (BWB Books, 2022), Ko Taranaki Te Maunga (BWB Texts, 2018) and The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget (Huia, 2009). Te Motunui Epa was a co-winner of the 2023 Ernest Scott Prize for History and was a finalist in the 2023 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. She is also a finalist in the inaugural Keri Hulme Award Māori Literature Trust | Pikihuia Awards 2023 Finalists (mlt.org.nz). Rachel is based in Naarm/Melbourne.
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