My mother’s side of the family were immigrants from Scotland who arrived here in the late 1800s. My father was a first generation immigrant from Northern Ireland, making me the first on that side of the family to be born in Australia. I’m about as white as it gets.
I grew up in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, where if you weren’t white, you were probably Greek, or occasionally Italian. There was one girl of Chinese heritage in my entire primary school. There were no Indigenous kids at all until a handful appeared during high school. My formative years were spent living in a world where almost everyone I knew was white, and we took for granted that we were the ‘real’ Australians.
We didn’t think of ourselves as ‘privileged’. We had all the opportunities we could possibly want, and an unhealthy dose of race blindness to go with it. For us, ‘disadvantage’ meant that you either were or knew someone who lived in the Housing Commission flats down by the local creek. The idea that there might be people in Australia who lived with crippling disadvantage simply because they were Aboriginal never even entered our heads.
In 1984, I voted in my first election with great pride. My voice was being heard – I was helping shape our nation’s future. Pretty heady stuff for a kid who was only just beginning to grasp how much power I held as an adult in the Australian democracy. At school, we’d learned the history of Australia, and barely any of that mentioned that the nation I loved was built by people with skin like mine shouldering aside those who’d already been here for tens of thousands of years. The only voices we heard were our own – and so we assumed we were being taught the truth.
It’s not that Indigenous folk weren’t trying to be heard. It’s that we, the white people who thought of ourselves as ‘real’ Australians, assumed they had nothing to say. It took a long, long time before we got to the moment in 1992 when our Prime Minister stood up in Redfern to publicly acknowledge, for the first time, that our nation wasn’t founded on brave colonists and convicts, but on blood. And, as a nation, we reeled.
Some of us rationalised away that awful truth by saying “we didn’t do it, it was people who are long dead”. Some rejected it altogether. And some accepted it, and started to talk about how we could start to redress the wrongs we’d done to our Indigenous people.
But here’s the crucial point – we still did all the talking. Oh sure, we listened occasionally to the people we’d systematically screwed over, and we even elected a few of them to Parliament; but for the most part, when the speeches and the laws and the court judgments were made, those voices were still white voices.
In 2003 we turned the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services into an unrepresentative, toothless tiger. In 2004, Prime Minister John Howard declared the experiment in elected representation for Indigenous people has been a failure, and the following year abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. And in 2007, we had the appalling Northern Territory National Emergency Response, that saw Indigenous people stripped of basic human rights. In every case, these decisions were made by white people – and whether you ascribe that to paternalism, ignorance, or racism, the reality is that yet again, we silenced our Indigenous folk.
Yes, we said Sorry for what we’d done. Yes, we promised to “close the gap”. But we, the white majority of Australia, were still speaking for and speaking over the voices of those we pledged to help.
In 2017 a Constitutional convention was held at Yulara, in the heart of our country. There, for the first time, Indigenous voices had pride of place. From that came the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a simple, heartfelt message from Indigenous folk to the people who sat in power over them – when you make laws for us, let us be heard. Give us a Voice so that we may speak for ourselves.
Now here we are, with an opportunity to do just that, with the Voice to Parliament referendum that will be held on October 14 this year. And I hate it. I hate that we are at a point where – yet again – it will be white people who dictate the outcome. That we, who take for granted our own ability to speak and be heard, will vote on whether or not to extend that same right to the people we invaded and oppressed and actively tried to exterminate. What right do I have to decide whether Indigenous people get to speak?
When you get right down to it, though, this isn’t about me having the right to do anything. It’s about me having the responsibility to redress a terrible wrong from which I – and everyone who looks like me – have benefited all my life. It’s about realising that voting ‘No’ would make me complicit in continuing to deny our First Peoples their rightful voices in the planning of their own lives, and their own futures.
The No campaign says that voting to give Indigenous people their Voice would divide our nation. I say that we are already divided, and we have been so since the first white person stepped ashore and announced that this country belonged to them. A Voice to Parliament won’t magically cure that – but what it will do is take us a little way forward. At the very least, it will mean that Indigenous people have the kind of access to government that big business and churches take for granted.
If we vote ‘Yes’, we take the risk that we will hear some hard truths. That we will have to face the reality of the harm we have done – and are still doing. It means accepting that we, as white people, do not have the right to keep the voices of Indigenous people from reaching the people in power – and that we never did.
I want to believe that we, as white people, are grown up enough to realise the opportunity we have before us – to make our claim that we are a nation of equality one step closer to reality. So here I am, finally, begging you to set aside the fear-mongering, the politics, and the ridiculous debate over John Farnham’s gift of his song, and to listen to what ‘Yes’ is really all about.
Read the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Read what Aunty Jill Gallagher, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, says. Read Kay Gehan, an Indigenous elder. Watch Professor Marcia Langton’s address to the National Press Club, and Cape York leader Noel Pearson sitting down to speak to consumers of Murdoch media. Watch former social justice commissioner Mick Gooda speak of his fears of what a ‘No’ vote would mean for our nation.
Recognise the power you have. Exercise it carefully, responsibly, and ethically. We have dictated long enough.
It’s time for us to step back, and let our Indigenous people speak for themselves.