On October 14, election day here in Aotearoa, Australians will be voting on a referendum that asks whether Indigenous Australians (who make up 3.8 percent of the total population) should have a Voice to Parliament.
The Voice is a proposed body of representatives for First Nations peoples which, if the Yes vote wins, would give advice to parliament “on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”. The role of the body would be enshrined in the Australian constitution — however, like the Waitangi Tribunal on this side of the ditch, there’ll be no legal obligation for parliament to follow its advice.
Polls show support for the Voice among Australians has been falling — and it now looks set to fail, with only a third of Australians saying they’ll vote Yes. And while the Voice was proposed by Indigenous Australians (83 percent were on the Yes side in March, but haven’t been polled since), it’s clear that not all of them are in agreement. That’s to be expected in any debate, of course, but it’s opened up a divide within the Indigenous community that’s saddened some commentators.
In these two pieces first published on IndigenousX, two Indigenous voices present their views. Professor Chelsea Watego, who’s firmly in the No camp, followed by Tyson Carmody, who’s voting Yes.
Professor Chelsea Watego: Why the mob are staying silent
Look, I’m not a fan of writers’ festivals for the most part, but I’ve learnt to play my part — well, sort of.
When I released my debut book Another Day in the Colony, it took me a while to adjust to the white applause for the supposed sophisticated articulation of our oppression while on various festival stages over the past year or so.
The writers’ festival circuit isn’t my usual stage. I’m not in the business of selling books to make a living. I wrote a book to make sense of the violence of this world and the work of trying to make a living, of raising a family in this place. This place, that is ours.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a writer, as opposed to those orators that move us as a people, those who’ve shaped our movement, in such profound moments in our history. Instead, writing is my weapon of choice. But when I wrote that book, I remember a certain Black man and seasoned performer at such festivals, who leant over to me moments before a national television appearance to condescendingly ask: “So Chelsea, this is your first book?”
It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. To put me in my supposed place. I didn’t realise, despite having been an academic for decades, that I wasn’t considered a writer, until I had published a book for white consumption. But, soon enough, I became accustomed to the theatre that is the writing festival circuit, of turning up as a scholar, but being treated like a sideshow or spectacle for supposed white sympathy. I have had white women, who themselves were not academics, introduce my book as a non-academic text, and have had Black men with no original intellectual work of their own, erase the last 20 years of my academic writing career. Not to mention that various agents of the state relegate commissioned expert reports I’ve provided to “opinion”.
The saving grace is the occasional writers’ festivals where I get to be considered an actual writer, as a thinker. Not just about race, but to be seen as capable of thinking about the world, much like white authors of fiction and poetry are able to. I enjoy the freedom of being able to speak on running, humour, the craft of writing and, you know, just being human.
And it’s actually fun to think, to play, to laugh, to debate, and laugh some more. You see, the writers’ festival circuit takes up my weekends and personal leave when they clash with my working week. As such, I value them when they give me joy, because those honorariums don’t justify the labour, nor does it compensate for taking me from my five children who I have sole responsibility for and everything that piles up upon my return home.
But alas, it didn’t matter what the topic, or the curator, or wherever I appeared, or the joy that I found. There was always that one white person that would ask: “So what’s your thoughts on the Voice?”
At first, I hated that question, because I’m not a constitutional lawyer, and I felt I was not qualified to answer. I had been told by a Black lawyer, who has since blocked me on Twitter, that I didn’t know enough about constitutional law to have an informed opinion. And then after some appearances, I still hated that question, because I remember a senior Black academic at a writers’ festival berating me and any other Blackfullas who dared express scepticism, for not having viewed the Boyer Lectures.
“You haven’t done the readings,” the Black experts insisted. As though the Blackfullas pushing trolleys, the admin officer, the truck driver, or the single Black parent trying to survive the violence of the state at every turn, were to blame for holding our people back, for not having done their homework.
Those who have expressed doubt about the cultural authority of the Yes campaign and the emancipatory claims being made, have all been accused of being on the same ledger of the “real racists”, ironically by those aligned with mining companies. There is a very real demonisation of Blackfullas who dare answer the question of yes with a no, as though it is we who are betraying our people — as if we are the ones blowing up sacred sites.
At this moment, it is Blackfullas being routinely punished, in their personal and professional lives, for daring to speak freely about a referendum that will supposedly change our lives forever. It is literally the livelihoods of Blackfullas being threatened in private spheres, in the course of responding to those demands to express our views publicly.
This is the danger right now.
A danger we do not deserve.
A danger we did not ask for.
A danger we did not bring upon ourselves.
I remember Murri academic Dr Lilla Watson insisting that we are not the protagonists as Indigenous peoples in a settler colonial state. Yet, here we are. Blackfullas are being forced into refusing to declare a position, to sit on the fence, to stay silent on the Voice, or concede to voting yes to avoid the backlash. Because it just isn’t safe, not just “culturally” but literally.
Author Derrick Bell is instructive for this present moment when he states: “Power in the hands of the reformer is no less potentially corrupting than in the hands of the oppressor.”
We are witnessing what happens when one’s employer takes a public stance in support of the Voice. We are witnessing what happens when one holds a divergent view from the political party they’ve long represented. We are witnessing what happens when one reports on the utterances of sovereign Blackfullas in mainstream media.
We are witnessing what happens when Blackfullas express doubt, raise questions, and make statements as sovereign Blackfullas. We are witnessing what happens when Blackfullas refuse proximity to settler institutions, to speak to the interests of one’s nations, and to the generations who will follow long after they are gone.
We are witnessing the violence of Black reform right now in the vote yes campaign — a campaign promoting an Indigenous voice to parliament, while casting sovereign Blackfullas as radical, fringe, marginal, as a minority that doesn’t matter, or worse, at odds with progress.
American social reformer Frederick Douglass’s seminal speech “If there is no struggle, there is no progress” speaks to the dangers of a philosophy of reform, divorced from struggle. He states: “Those who profess to favour freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
The yes campaign, in its strategy, reveals the very real dangers associated with enshrining a voice to parliament. To enshrine a voice that in this moment is silencing and domesticating the diverse voices of sovereign Black nations across this continent offers more concern than it does hope for the future.
Douglass reminds us that “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will. Find out what any people will quietly submit to and you have found the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.”
What is the point of a voice, if we cannot tell the truth of how power is operating in this place, and most significantly, speak of our own power as Blackfullas? Our people have long spoken of the hard truths of settler colonialism, a truth that doesn’t demand one do the readings, but rather, just calls on us to remember.
I am not accepting the lie that it’s now or never, or that a seat at their table is the best that’s on offer. I’m not entertaining that what the political left offers is better than the overt racism of the right.
What the Black reformers have forgotten is that Indigenous sovereignty, of the unceded kind, can never be reduced to a matter of settler colonial affiliations of left or right. It’s the settlers, to the left and to the right, who remain on the same ledger when it comes to undermining Indigenous sovereignty. Both sides of the settler yes/no campaigns reduce Indigenous sovereignty to a matter of service delivery. They aim to ameliorate our conditions and save us from our supposed despair. That is not the foundation from which we should be negotiating our relationship as First Nations’ peoples.
Black lack and settler benevolence are as much a settler fantasy as terra nullius.
We will not be saved, at least not from settlers.
We need not be, for we have survived, after all.
We owe neither side a thing — but we owe ourselves so much more.
If those yes vote evangelists are as committed as they say they are to us having a voice, then Blackfullas should be able to express what we think, we feel, and know, with or without the readings, law degrees, children’s books, or whatever. Blackfullas should be able to speak of the limitations of the proposed Voice, without being cast as intellectually incapable, mentally ill, politically disloyal, professionally inept, deceptive, treacherous, and a threat to be contained, complained about, blamed, or blocked.
But this is the gaslighting and the sorry satire of settler colonialism. Those who claim to support us having a voice, are the ones most threatened by the varying voices of Blackfullas in this moment. Even in their knowing that our voice, in terms of our vote, doesn’t count for shit.
Settlers meanwhile roam free with their outlandish claims to benevolence or destruction on either side of the campaign. It is not they who are perpetually required to declare and defend their voting intentions at writers festivals or wherever else, nor are they being summoned to the principal’s office as a result of such utterances.
While the nation muses over whether to vote yes or no to an Indigenous voice to parliament with no actual power, we are witnessing how power actually operates on the lives and livelihoods of Blackfullas in this place right now.
Another day in the colony indeed.
Chelsea Watego is an Aboriginal Australian academic and writer. She is a Mununjali Yugambeh and South Sea Islander woman and is Professor of Indigenous Health at Queensland University of Technology. Her book, Another Day in the Colony, was published in 2021.
Tyson Carmody: Why I’m voting Yes
Whichever way you choose to vote, this is a momentous occasion for this young country, Australia.
Picture 60,000 years of continuous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is converted to 60 minutes on a clock. Let’s say one minute equals 1000 years.
British colonisation first scarred our shores in 1788, 235 years ago. That 235 years equates to somewhere just under 15 seconds. Fifteen seconds of calculated murder, rape, dispossession, theft and trauma. So much damage and pain, yet also so much strength and wisdom from 60,000 years of sophisticated systems of culture and lore.
Within that 60,000 years of culture, lore, wisdom and experience, you will, if you look and listen properly, find a voice. But, in the 235 years of damage and pain since colonisation, we’ve yet to find a collective audience who will listen to understand.
You listen to respond — but you don’t listen to understand.
Recently, I’ve reflected deeply on two questions.
Do we have a voice?
Yes. We’ve been writing reports with explicit recommendations, we’ve been protesting and disrupting traffic, we’ve been taking a stance on the footy field, and on the netball court. We’ve been fighting for our country back and for our kids to come home, and we’ve been screaming in agonising pain for help as we lay dying on the cold floor of a jail cell.
Do we have an audience who will listen to understand?
I’m not so certain.
For many of you who have followed the journey of Kings Narrative to date, you may be aware that we purposely do not seek, want or need government funding to deliver essential programmes. We do seek creative and courageous investment but those “audiences” seem to fade away when we change the language from funding to investment.
Those of you who know me personally, know that I really struggle trying to listen to what feels like the scripted stories from politicians, and I’m not interested at all in engaging with politics of any kind. While Kings Narrative is new, my stance on politicians, politics and government audiences is not. I’ve worked in many different government, private, for-profit, not-for-profit structures for 20 years, and from these experiences, I’ve formed the view that government funding has failed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people well and truly.
So you can imagine why, at Kings Narrative, there is a reluctance to have a Voice to Parliament — to the very government agencies or political parties who have consistently disregarded our voices.
To be honest, during our journey here at Kings Narrative, we’ve found a much more reliable and respectful audience in corporate Australia. People who are experts in their fields knowing they know nothing about Aboriginal people. People who have the resources to invest without the conditions. People who are willing to listen to understand.
Our voices need to be heard at all levels.
For too long, Australia has been too comfortable with perpetrating and witnessing the despair of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Whenever we speak our truth, you get uncomfortable. Truth-telling is hard and uncomfortable to listen to. But how are we to grow if we stay comfortable? This is why we need to vote Yes for our voice at the referendum. We need our voice there making everyone uncomfortable.
We can’t afford to spend energy worrying about how our truth makes you feel. Personally, I never used to be like this, and I wouldn’t say I am 100 percent like this right now. Rather, I am growing uncomfortably into this political activism of truth-telling because, for so long, I was comfortable with letting shit slide for the sake of keeping the peace, for fear of looking like a whingeing Blackfulla using the “race card”.
Kings Narrative now is growing uncomfortably and slowly but surely. We are becoming more and more comfortable with people being upset by our political activism in truth-telling. Yes, the man who struggles listening to politicians or who won’t get involved with games of politics is becoming political. The mere fact that I’m breathing is political activism, because I am trying to be something my kids have never seen before. You can’t be what you can’t see and that’s why Kings Narrative needs to be seen. Kings Narrative is political.
We know the implementation or actioning of the Voice will likely be problematic to begin with. I listened to a great explanation by Mililma May from Uprising of the People, who were originally opposed to the Voice but now are in favour. Mililma May, a Kulumbirigin Danggalaba Tiwi woman, argued that valid sentiments of reservations, doubts, or criticisms of how or who should action the Voice are not reasons to vote no. Instead, our criticisms are important reasons to vote yes because “it’s a yes with an asterix”. Vote yes, then use that criticism to implement alternatives to peak bodies or councils running things.
Kings Narrative will be voting yes, but we will be critical of the implementation to ensure our voices are heard locally, collectively and uncomfortably.
We encourage our families, our community and Australia to vote yes and to bring your criticisms, so that, eventually, when it does work, it works properly. It’s time now, non-Indigenous Australia, for you to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
You don’t know everything; you don’t have all the expertise. But the reality is you will have the majority say in what direction this referendum goes. This won’t impact your lives in any way. However, there are significant implications for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. A vote for no will tell us unequivocally that you are comfortable to continue witnessing the despair of our people. A vote for yes says you want to be a part of change.
Tyson Mpetyane Carmody is the founder and director of Kings Narrative. He is an Arrernte man whose family roots are in Apmwerre — an area about 80km northeast of Alice Springs. Tyson set up Kings Narrative in 2021 in response to the lack of support services for Aboriginal men in the Northern Territory. He has worked in youth and community development in Alice Springs for more than a decade. This year, he was also a finalist for Northern Territory Australian of the year.
More Indigenous perspectives on the Voice to Parliament can be found in IndigenousX, where these two pieces were first published.
See also this explainer from The Conversation.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.