Australia rejects referendum on indigenous “voice” | ET REALITY


Sitting on the banks of the Fitzroy River in remote Western Australia, watching a plume of smoke rise into the air from a distant bushfire, the Aboriginal elder lamented how his parents’ generation had toiled for sugar, flour and tea, not for wages, and how His community now relies heavily on social assistance after the government withdrew employment programs.

But “we have something ahead of us,” Hector Angus Hobbs, 67, a member of the Walmajarri tribe, said earlier this week. “We will win”.

Their optimism proved misplaced on Saturday when the nation voted “no” to a referendum that would have given indigenous Australians a voice in Parliament in the form of an advisory body.

The proposal, polls showed, was widely supported by the country’s indigenous people, who make up less than 4 percent of the country’s population. Many of them saw it as a sign that Australia was taking a step to do right by them after centuries of abuse and neglect. Hobbs and many of his neighbors in the town of Fitzroy Crossing believed it would help with everything from solving everyday problems like home repairs, to boosting important aspirations like repairs.

In reality, the proposal, known as the Voice, was much more modest, making some of these expectations quite high.

At the same time, it had given rise to unrealistic fears (such as that landowners would be forced to return their land to indigenous people) that galvanized opposition to The Voice.

And because the conservative Liberal Party opposed it on the grounds that it was divisive, it was widely expected to fail. Official results published Early polls on Sunday showed that 60 percent of voters had rejected Voice, which failed to win a majority in a single state.

On Saturday afternoon in the Sydney suburb of Gymea Bay, near where Captain Cook first landed on the continent in 1770, voters laid out the reasons for their opposition. Katherine Frenda, 55, said the Voice would not represent the diversity of views in Aboriginal communities, and Jade Bell, 18, said she would vote no because “that seems like what everyone else is doing”.

Others, like Faye Jones, 71 said they didn’t believe the creators of Voice expressed the effect it would have.

“I’m not normally a suspicious person, but there is a secret agenda that they were never going to tell us about,” he said. “There are rumors that ‘they will come and take your land in 20 years,'” he said, adding that while he knew the claim was “silly,” the fact that it was widespread showed how much was unknown about the proposal. .

For Joe Ross, an Aboriginal leader of the Bunuba tribe in Fitzroy Crossing, the debate and the resulting outcome had “shown the real vulnerable side of this country”. And he added: “Now we know where we are.”

The Voice was conceived by indigenous leaders to address the growing and entrenched disadvantages in their communities. Aboriginal life expectancy is eight years lower than the general population, while suicide and incarceration rates are much higher than the national average. The problems are most acute in remote communities, where some Aboriginal people live to maintain their connection to their traditional lands.

Indigenous experts and leaders say Australians are generally aware of this disadvantage, but generally do not understand it. Many in the country, they said, see these problems as failures of indigenous peoples and communities, rather than the systems that govern them.

It’s something Australians feel a collective but unexamined sense of shame about, said Julianne Schultz, author of “The Idea of ​​Australia” and a professor at Griffith University.

“The genesis of shame is when people look at it and think, ‘We have some responsibility for why this happened, but we can’t understand it,’” he said. “And how do you hide that? Well, you blame the victim.”

The Voice, which would have included constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples, had also been criticized for being ineffective because it would not have had the power to create or veto government decisions or policies. But this was intentional, say Indigenous leaders involved in creating the measure, who hoped it would be benign enough to be acceptable to the Australian public.

One such leader, Marcia Langton, described it as a way to heal the wounds of colonization and “end the postcolonial politics of guilt and blame.” But after the Voice was expected to fail, she wrote, “The nation has been poisoned. “There is no solution to this terrible result.”

Part of the reason people in Fitzroy Crossing had such high hopes for the Voice was because many remember how much better things were under a previous policy. From 1990 to 2005, an elected body, the Torres Strait Islander Aboriginal Commission, provided advice to the government and directed programs and services for Indigenous communities.

“Aboriginal people had their own governments,” recalled Emily Carter, executive director of the local women’s resource center, who is from the Gooniyandi tribe. “They were able to take care of their own finances. “They made rules about the work people did in their communities.”

That body was abolished by a prime minister who said that the future of indigenous peoples “lies in being part of the mainstream of this country,” setting the tone for the next two decades of policy.

Since then, residents say, their autonomy has been taken away, community-controlled employment programs have been replaced with what is effectively a welfare alternative, and services have been withdrawn.

Indigenous leaders maintain that constant policy change, due to what they see as the whims of governments, continues the disempowerment and trauma that Indigenous communities have experienced since colonization. That sense of helplessness manifests itself in the form of social harms such as suicide, domestic violence, and drug and alcohol addiction, they say.

“What has led to our disadvantage has been our exclusion in the development of the nation state,” said June Oscar, who is the head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice program at the Australian Human Rights Commission. and who lives near Fitzroy Crossing.

In Fitzroy Crossing, a town surrounded by more than 30 small Aboriginal settlements, the historical impact of colonization is felt immediately. Settlers hunted and killed the region’s Aboriginal people well into the 20th century. Seeking protection, many fled to stations or ranches, where they were protected by the government, but also stripped of their culture.

There they worked, usually for little or no pay, and were often prohibited from speaking their native languages.

“Our people built stations, worked hard, just to get flour, tea and sugar,” said Hobbs, the Walmajarri elder.

In the 1960s, amid a push for Aboriginal workers to receive the same pay as whites, many were driven from stations by owners who did not want the extra cost. They settled in and around Fitzroy Crossing, creating the beginnings of the town that exists today.

On a recent weekday, as the temperature soared above 100 degrees, Eva Nargoodah, 65, sitting outside her home in the small community of Jimbalakudunj, about 60 miles from Fitzroy Crossing, explained how sometimes the high Chlorine level in the water supply caused residents to experience rashes, watery eyes and sore throats. Other times, it was filled with so much salt that a thick layer formed on top.

He said he had been waiting for years for repairs to his house, including filling in holes where snakes can enter. That maintenance used to be carried out by the Torres Strait Islander Aboriginal Commission, but now the process is much slower. And he spoke of his father, who had been part of what is known as the Stolen Generation: indigenous people forcibly separated from their families and culture in an effort to assimilate them into Western society.

“They need to give something back to us,” he said. If the Voice referendum passed, he was optimistic, saying “we have the power.”

But when the results came in Saturday night, hope turned to resignation.

Given the challenges faced by Aboriginal people, many remote communities hold one funeral a week, sometimes two in a week, said Natalie Davey, 43, a member of the Bunuba tribe, who said she was not surprised by the result.

Being told no “is normal, unfortunately,” he said. “In some ways we will continue to put one foot in front of the other. It’s just a question of: How many funerals will we continue to attend?

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