Voices of reason speak
On 21 May last year, Anthony Albanese began his speech as newly elected Prime Minister of Australia by making a heartfelt promise to our First Nations people.
“I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet,” he told the nation.
“I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.
“And on behalf of the Australian Labor Party, I commit to the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.
“We can answer its patient, gracious call for a voice enshrined in our Constitution.
“Because all of us ought to be proud that amongst our great multicultural society, we count the oldest living continuous culture in the world.”
Fast forward nearly 12 months and that “patient, gracious call for a voice” continues to dominate discussion around the country.
In February, Albanese said he expected the country to go to a referendum before the year is out on whether that indigenous voice to parliament should be included in our Constitution.
The Uniting Church wholeheartedly supports a referendum yes vote and, in late February, President Rev Sharon Hollis and Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress Interim National Chair Rev Mark Kickett launched the #Yes23 campaign.
“This is an historic opportunity for Australia to acknowledge and honour First Nations people and their deep spiritual ties to this land and to walk together as a nation toward a better future,” Sharon says.
“We support the yes vote for the voice as a pivotal step toward the full implementation of the Uluru statement, so that as a nation we can finally confront the truth of our past and present and make way for justice.”
Mark says now is the time for Australians to unite in support of justice for First Peoples.
“The Uluru statement is an invitation given by First Nations people to the people of Australia,” he says.
“A constitutionally enshrined voice will shape and guide the relationship between First and Second peoples in this country by enabling our people to have a say in the decisions that impact our communities.
“In the same way the 1967 referendum brought Australians together, this is an opportunity for all of us to unite in a big way as we seek to restore justice and promote healing for First Nations people in this land.”
As the discussion around a voice has continued, two indigenous Australians with strong ties to the UAICC and the fight for recognition for their people have watched on with great interest.
Uncle Vince Ross is a retired Victorian Uniting Church Minister, former UAICC chairperson, founder of the Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Geelong and, in 2006, was named NAIDOC’s Aboriginal Elder of the Year.
Alison Overeem runs Leprena, the home of the UAICC in Tasmania, is a former member of the Tasmanian Women’s Council, and in 2019 was added to the Tasmanian Honour Roll of Women for services to the community, education and training, and cultural heritage.
They are, indeed, perfectly placed to offer their thoughts on a voice to parliament and what it might mean as part of a broader discussion about ongoing recognition for our First Nations people.
But, more than that, they have much to tell, and teach, us about what is expected from non-indigenous Australians, and if that means offering a few home truths along the way, so be it.
Vince says a yes vote in a referendum would send a signal to First Nations people that at long last they are being heard when it matters on issues that affect them.
“I guess for many Aboriginal people we struggle to convince government that the only voice we hear loud and strong is theirs and it’s now time for our mob to be heard,” he says.
“Any partnership across communities comes about when people decide to make their voices heard and so here we want people to give us that voice in government.
“What I believe can come out of this yes vote for the voice is that government and community will realise we have a voice and want to be heard.
“Strong relationships will be developed and strengthened and there will be further understanding of the true history of this country.
“Our mob will be able to assist in the locking in of policies that actually work and self-determination and self-management will become a reality.
“A voice will push aside those who think the Aboriginal mob don’t know how to do it, and open new doors of opportunities.”
Alison says an indigenous voice in our Constitution is a must, but there is a caveat: it needs to be part of a much wider conversation around justice, truth telling and a treaty.
“I speak into this space as part of the UAICC, as a proud palawa woman, and as a big part of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, and I think it is a missed opportunity if we don’t have a voice,” Alison says.
“But it’s also a missed opportunity if we don’t embed that in justice, truth telling and treaty.
“Is constitutional recognition on its own going to close the gap for First Peoples across the lands now called Australia?
“Absolutely not, but I think if we don’t start the conversations we might miss an opportunity that may never come again.
“I really don’t want it to be just a voice to parliament, I want it to be voices and, as a collective, that’s how we should speak into the space.
“This is a chance for education to be the healer.”
Like Alison, Vince says a treaty would continue a journey towards self-determination for his people.
“There have been many written and spoken words about welcome and acknowledgement of country, reconciliation, the voice to parliament, black deaths in custody, juvenile detention, domestic violence and other issues,” he says.
“Government has for years struggled with these issues and tried many things but continues to fail.
“The answer lies within the Aboriginal people, if given the mandate through a treaty and not just a voice to parliament but a new structure that brings with it a self-determination model that sustained our communities for thousands of years.
“Aboriginal people have had to learn the Wadjala (white) man way and what is required is trust and for the wider community to understand the Aboriginal way of doing things.
“In a number of communities we see positive action taking place as people from both sides take the time to allow for that cross flow of information.
“This way of doing things is not rocket science, but what mainstream Australia needs to do is to value a culture that’s had a long go at developing lifelong skills and survived.”
In 1988, Prime Minister Bob Hawke made a political commitment at Barunga in the Northern Territory to a treaty as part of the journey towards reconciliation.
Just four years later, Prime Minister Paul Keating delivered his famous Redfern speech and, in the process, accepted responsibility for Aboriginal loss, devastation and trauma.
Yet over 30 years later, indigenous Australians can rightly say there has been little movement towards the actions that would cement their rightful standing in a land they have occupied for 60,000 years.
Alison says with reconciliation must come the process of truth telling?
“Let’s relook at that word ‘reconciliation’, because reconciliation assumes that there was something to reconcile in the first place,” she says.
“It also assumes that there was a relationship and I think we have overused the term ‘reconciliation’ more as a comfort to non-indigenous Australians than as justice leverage for First Peoples.
“I think we need to embed it in truth telling, in learning and unlearning.
“Just because you have a reconciliation action plan sitting on your table doesn’t mean you know about us, so we need to reconcile with our own truth telling that sits with us within our education system and our family histories.
“I think non-indigenous Australians need to delve into that first and actually ask the question ‘what are we reconciling?’
“For me, reconciliation is achievable, but we need to use the language that is used around self-determination, not just reconciliation.”
A recent trip to Alice Springs made Alison a firm believer that change will come through our younger generations.
“I think there’s a lot of goodwill out there, and in Alice Springs I was absolutely overwhelmed at the young people and their real passion to want to learn and know more about First Peoples history,” she says.
“But I think the education system continues to let us down and, to quote my mentor, First Nations human rights advocate Cindy Blackstock, ‘today’s learners are tomorrow’s educators’.
“So until we have that three-generational change, I don’t think we’ll get where we need to, but I think we can get there if we keep the momentum going and we make it about culture and truth telling, rather than phrases like ‘reconciliation’.”
Vince admits to being a glass half full type of person and, with that in mind, believes Australians are big enough and mature enough to vote yes to an indigenous voice in our Constitution.
But even if a no vote was to prevail, he believes not all will be lost.
“It is my belief that even if the vote doesn’t get through we, as a nation, will be further down the track in having a greater understanding of our history that will bring us closer together,” Vince says.
“No way will our voice be silenced any more and the voice will become the foundation for our communities.
“It’s encouraging to see the public response and the opportunity to build that which is required for the mob.
“One of my favourite responses is, ‘together we build’.”
Alison, too, believes there are enough non-indigenous Australians wanting to create real change in the relationship with First Nations people.
“I have actually been quite surprised and comforted by the amount of non-indigenous Australians that want to walk with us, particularly young non-indigenous Australians in the Uniting Church,” she says.
“I think we do have a long way to go but I have a long time to give to it.
“I am still as passionate about this as I was when I was a mouthy little five-year-old.”
And with a voice in place, says Alison, must come the process of healing.
“If there is healing in the voice, and if there is change in people’s thinking, perception and a real acknowledgment that a white Australia has a black history, this is the opportunity,” she says.
“But it’s not just an opportunity for non-indigenous Australians just to say, ‘oh, I’ve done something’,
“I was quoted the other day posing the question, ‘what happens the day after the referendum?’
“And I think that’s a significant question, what does happen afterwards?
“How do we keep Aboriginal voices at the forefront, not just in the back stalls.”
Vince has seen much in his long life and now sees in front of him a country with an opportunity to make a meaningful statement on behalf of its First Nations people.
He feels confident it’s an opportunity enough Australians will want to grasp when they come to tick a “yes” or “no” box at the referendum later this year.
“The word reconciliation speaks about a coming together and discovering our true history and having that capacity to be change agents throughout the wider community,” he says.
“My view is that we as a nation are moving toward a better understanding and that’s where we need to focus on and continue over whatever time it takes.
“Our mob will continue to believe and demonstrate that ability to be able to hang in there and certainly won’t be going away.
“We still have a long way to go but I do believe that if we continue the dialogue then the positives will come out of that, I’m sure.”
And as the clock counts down towards a decision on an indigenous voice in our country’s Constitution,
Alison has one final message for non-indigenous Australians.
“I’d tell them to sit, learn, listen and hear the stories of our old people, that’s who I’m guided by,” she says.
“I’m not the storyteller, I’m the carrier of the story, so we need to dig deep into the storylines and songlines of the elders.
“I would want to ask what they don’t know and what they do know, then work from there because that’s how we learn.”
This piece first appeared in Crosslight. View the original post here.