“A referendum can work only if people make their decision to say Yes or No from a basis of knowledge.” — Tainui Stephens. (Pictured: a young girl holds an Aboriginal flag during a demonstration on Australia Day in Sydney in 2022. Photo: Steven Saphore / Getty Images)

The failure of the Voice referendum last month shows Australia is hobbled by a racist history that it refuses to address with humility and efficiency, writes Tainui Stephens.


On October 14, Australia faced an empathy test as a modern nation — and it failed.

The results of the referendum (grandly known as the Voice) showed that the vast majority of Australians didn’t agree that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should have the constitutional right to be heard. So they said No to the Voice.

It’s easy to slag off Australia and say that it disgraced itself in the eyes of the civilised world. I think that’s true, but not just because of the result. The referendum could only ever have offered limited hope, and it was let down by incompetence. It shouldn’t have been held. But it’s never been a habit of mine to think of Australia as forward-thinking when it comes to race relations.

For a while, in the late 1970s, I was a barman at the Blues Point Hotel in McMahon’s Point, Sydney. It was easy to become friends with the immigrant clientele of the pub.

There was Andy the Lithuanian, whose stutter got worse as the night wore on. But you knew he was always in pursuit of “vodka and pepper with a beer chaser”. Then there were Jim the Scot and Jim the Pom. One was the spitting image of Tsar Nicholas with a neat, trimmed beard, and the other was a spooky Rasputin with flat, lanky hair, a long scraggy beard, and piercing blue eyes. They were all sweet people who’d come from different cultures and who understood oppression and racism.

But they, too, fell prey to what was even more endemic in the white Australians I met. Somehow, any talk of the oppression of Aboriginals led them to shake their heads sadly, and make two comments.

“You Maoris aren’t like the Abos.”

“The tragedy is, they’re always pissed.”

At that time, the only Aboriginal people I encountered in my small Sydney footprint were down on their luck in Kings Cross or squalid parts of Redfern. I knew that the deprivation that I’d barely glimpsed was much worse elsewhere — and that made me question how a rich country like Australia could allow such poverty.

It was only a few years after, in 1984, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people gained full political equality with other Australians. In the decades since, their activism has seen monumental strides to address the ignorance of Australia about its history.

The narratives of the Stolen Generations and the institutional abuses and the suicides have punctured the conscience of the nation. From time to time, politicians swing in from the left or the right to score enough brownie points to win votes. Leaders in the communities encourage grassroots action with “Turn Up democracy”.

In 2017, after years of research and political manoeuvring, Indigenous leaders from around the country created a document called the Uluru Statement from the Heart. In it, they state their position:

Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.

These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.

We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny, our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

Two solutions were sought. The first was an Indigenous voice enshrined in the constitution. The second was the creation of the Makarrata Commission to engage in truth-telling about history and agreement-making with governments.

This led to the referendum known as the Voice to Parliament. It was the fulfilment of a promise from the prime minister, Anthony Albanese. This is where the mistake took shape.

The Aboriginal population is about 3.8 percent of the total. That’s just under a million people. It’s obscene to leave the future of the original Australians at the whim of the voting representatives of 25 million others. A referendum can work only if people make their decision to say Yes or No from a basis of knowledge. And if a referendum becomes a political issue, it becomes a wasted exercise that should have been negotiated in parliament as legislation.

In April, the Liberal opposition made it political and came out against the Voice. Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians said: “We have to stop dividing our nation along the lines of race.”

She would later assert that: “Australia is not a racist country!” This became a key message in the NO campaign before the YES campaign even started. It was also the cue for the racism and arrogance of media hucksters and internet trolls. Levels of online bile and intimidation went sky high.

The YES crowd were bedevilled by mixed messages and arrogance that was weaponised by the opposing forces. The stories they told were aspirational and not real. They faffed about too much.

By the time the official campaign launched, they were only six weeks out from the vote, and they were already losing support. Despite a huge army of volunteers and a lot of cash, despite the love and honour in the intent, some basic problems remained — the chief of which was not knowing how the so-called constitutional Voice was going to work. Who would speak? What would it say? Who would listen?

It was a basic lack of information that gave the NO campaign the trump card they needed. By homing in on the fear of something that was hard to understand, their slogan was hard to beat: “If you don’t know, vote no!”

It’s fair to say the referendum failed because enough people allowed themselves to believe the worst. It’s also fair to say that most Indigenous Australians who voted Yes were hopeful that any constitutional presence and mandate would be better than nothing.

There were Indigenous people in the NO camp with justified doubts about the promised merits of the Voice. They believed the advisory role on offer was too weak, and that a treaty would deliver more. Many saw it as yet another pang of conscience that served white and black elites alone — and distracted from the grim realities of community deprivation.

Sixty percent of Australians voted against the proposal. The flawed campaign and the overwhelming result made it clear that a lot of Aussies are, to varying degrees, racist, ill-informed, or simply ignorant.

I think an unsung hero for progress in race relations in Australia has been the influence of Aboriginal thinking on the English language. Familiar words are given new meaning and new power, because to utter them gives people a clue about the way you think, and who you are.

The word “Country” (capitalised) has come to mean the land of Australia — not the majesty alone of its spaces and many moods, but of its continuum in time. It’s such a simple word but says so much more.

“Aunty” and “Uncle” are terms of respect for elders, and you can use them even if you’ve never met them before. How respectful and how friendly is that? A word like “mob” to represent a tribe or groups of connected people, is fun to use. Even “Blackfulla” for any Aboriginal person is a reclamation of language that gives honour to facts.

Australia’s mainstream culture now accepts the use of a variation of these simple but beautiful words to start most speeches, anywhere:

“I acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands and waters on which we meet today, and pay respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.”

Earlier this year, however, a comedian saw fit to mock these sentiments as he entertained a dinner crowd at a conservative political conference. It illustrates the distance yet to go.

“I’d like to acknowledge the traditional rent seekers, past present and emerging. But seriously I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners: violent black men.”

The audience laughed heartily.

The day after the referendum, Libby and I were in Sydney. We’d come to the huge South by Southwest festival, an international event attracting many thousands of people in the creative industries. It was the opening day. A hot, sunny morning.

We gathered in Tumbalong Park for the official welcome to Country. I knew it would be a painful experience for the Aboriginal hosts to offer the expected courtesies with a full heart. The rejection of their identity the previous night had been brutal. Our own mates from mob were sad — and, sadly, unsurprised. How do you face a new day and turn on your welcome face after that?

I’d expected a lot of people to turn up, if only in sympathy for the big body blow to the hopes of millions. Sydney is a liberal town, and creatives are meant to be a progressive lot. Darling Harbour is a busy part of the inner city. But no. Fewer than a hundred appreciative folk gathered before the venue’s main stage.

A Wiradjuri woman, Yvonne Weldon, came forward, found a microphone that worked, and offered her own respects to place and time and ancestry. She spoke of the cycles of life and how we, and all living creatures should honour ourselves and each other in balance with our spirits.

For others in turn and for generations to come, all of us together can bring about positive changes to multiple generations. From our ancient still relevant world to our digital contemporary one, bringing my people, your people and all our people together. 

Which I am at a loss, after yesterday’s numbers, on how that can be done.

I wept inside as she came to the end of her speech, but not too much, because she and other Aboriginal leaders today still speak the eternal language of resolve.

May my peoples’ spirits walk with you and guide you as we strive forward for us all. Welcome to Gadigal land. No matter what you vote, no matter what you say, this will always be Aboriginal land.


Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling Indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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