Politics Opinion

Voice Referendum can achieve even more success than in 1967

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Then and now - in both 1967 and 2023, there has been a nationwide push for Indigenous rights in Australia (Image by Dan Jensen)

While the 1967 Referendum achieved a great deal towards Indigenous rights, the Voice Referendum has the potential to accomplish even more, writes Gerry Georgatos.

I DO NOT WRITE as merely an ally or as an experiential researcher and relentless advocate, but rather in our intertwining as the human family.

I have oft written there is much contention as to whether the Australian context is home to narratives of victimhood. Many social commentators, borne of privilege or who have passed into privilege, argue the narrative of victimhood is inauthentic and it is the product of political campaigns from the Left. Many argue that narratives of victimhood cannot be possible within the Australian experience; we are the world’s 12th-largest economy and one of the wealthiest nations that have ever existed.

Two decades ago, and continuously thereafter, I disaggregated from a “racialised lens” health and wealth quotients — of the descendants of this continent’s First Peoples, in stark contrast to the rest of the Australian population. The comparative disparities are wider than in any other nation.

In 2011, the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index ranked nations on public health. Australia ranked second, behind Norway. However, when I stood alone the descendants of the First Peoples in terms of a sovereign nation, they would have ranked 132nd for public health.

Nearly 40% of this continent’s descendants of its First Peoples live below the Henderson Poverty Line. In my approximations, more than another 20% live near the Henderson Poverty Line. One in six of the descendants of the First Peoples, living today, have been to prison – that’s more than 150,000 – compared to one in 50 Australians. Nearly one in four in Western Australia and in the Northern Territory. One in 13 First Nations adult males in Western Australia is in prison today.  

Politicians, journalists and academics have said to me that if we want to experience authentic narratives of victimhood we should travel to the sub-Sahel or to Central Asia. I have travelled extensively and have seen the narratives of victimhood. I have also journeyed to hundreds of First Nations homeland communities and I have seen the narratives of victimhood — the grim realities.

The discriminatory degradation of these third-world-akin communities and towns is the work of one government after another. Governments stripped social infrastructure or denied them the equivalency of social infrastructure enjoyed by nearby non-Aboriginal communities. Equality denied is racism and such neglect has been entrenched — hence, we have the intersection with classism.

Despite my two decades of work in highlighting the abominable extensiveness of suicide among the descendants of the First Peoples and the multifactorial impacts that are borne of chronic and acute disadvantage, we are being told by some that this is so because of a buy to a false narrative of victimhood. It does not matter to those naysayers how many are dying — unnatural deaths, how young they’re dying, how many are sent to gaol, how many remain impoverished or homeless.

At the turn of the century, I disaggregated the suicide rate of the First Peoples to one suicide in every 26 First Nations deaths. The suicide rate was around one in 50 Australian deaths — and thereabouts has remained. However, the suicide rate of First Nations people has dramatically increased. In 2013, I disaggregated the suicide rate to one in 23 deaths. Soon, thereafter to one in 21, one in 20, one in 19, one in 17 and presently one in 16.

Some of the naysayers have walked alongside me through the shanty towns and corrals of human suffering and misery, through some of the poorest neighbourhoods on this continent where just about no one goes to school, where hopelessness is all one knows. Their authorial translations are as if there has been some sort of desperate defamiliarisation of their witness in order to continue public narratives sponsored by politicised agendas.

We languish in an era of the abstract rather than in the crusades to right wrongs. Where there is no redress, there steadfastly remain inequalities and the longer the inequalities continue, the divides widen. The continuum of inequalities and the widening of the divides toxically translate as classism and racism. To prevent a moral panic those guilty of attempting to defamiliarise Australians from understanding the truth instead repugnantly propagandise the victims as melodramatic.

There is a counter-narrative of self-injury, of irresponsibility, of the implication that Indigeneity is an architect of doom, of standing in the way of nurturing positive living. Counter-narratives are powerful tools for the propagandist, exploiter and oppressor. Counter-narratives are used to legitimise police violence, to legitimise the use of deadly force, to allow for naming and shaming laws, to legitimise draconian laws and to legitimatise xenophobia.

There has never been a more profound human rights struggle on the Australian continent than that of the First Peoples — for the right to be free and for self-determining values. The Australian nation cannot be defined by its Constitution until this scrap of paper is inclusive of truth-telling – such as a preamble enshrined of this continent’s First Peoples – and till abhorrent disparities are fervently redressed. The First Peoples should have a Voice, where they have the right to be heard. These are rudimentary narratives.

The Australian nation must recognise its racism and the historical and contemporary contributors to intergenerational poverty and dysfunction. There continues racialised profiling smashed in by the epistemic violence of the oppressor — White privilege. Calling this violence institutional and structural racism downplays the brutality of the oppression.

There is a narrative of Palestinian victimhood, narratives of oppression and abject poverty throughout our world. So, too, the Australian experience houses narratives of oppression, none worse than the narrative that denies equalities and opportunities, and self-determining values to many of the First Peoples which this nation has marginalised.

Generations will be born into this marginalisation, into narratives of victimhood. How are generations unborn the architects of their doom? This harrow is the uninterrupted narrative of the sins of a nation. When more than 5% of the deaths of the descendants of the First Peoples are suicides, there is no denying the abominable narratives. When we investigate further and find nearly 100% of these deaths were of people living below the poverty line, the majority in crushing poverty, we find the architects of doom are the Australian nation as we know it. Yet there are those, far too many, who are sceptical.

The Australian nation has long been denied the dialectical — the art of investigating and discussing the truth of opinions and assertions. This is what happens in oppressive societies, in societies bent on a dominant cultural norm.

The Constitution which for so long condemned us all to racism – with its White Australia fervour, with its mission management of the First Peoples – needs the simple rewrite of at least the truth-telling of this nation’s actual identity. Of the tens of thousands of years of this continent’s First Peoples and of their right to a Voice to our parliaments.

To be heard is always the first step in the best possible direction. This cannot be another missed opportunity. Everything others and the multitudes are calling for, may also be amplified by the Voice. If you are not heard, it is as if you do not exist.

I will remind you of the 1967 Referendum to include the First Peoples on the Census. Activist Faith Bandler fronted the charge and with multipartisan support, 90% of Australians voted “Yes”.

What did the inclusion of the First Peoples on the Census achieve? It shone the light on disparities with an immutable truth. It allowed us to disaggregate to the First Peoples and highlight ways forward, galvanise change. Because of the Census, we have since been able to indisputably disaggregate the suicide toll. One in 16 deaths a suicide, the highest in the world. One in six First Nations people living has been incarcerated, the highest in the world. Child removals (8,000 on the day of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations and thereafter 1,000 further removals every year since 2013, to the 23,000 removed presently), higher than ever before in toll and rates.

Because of the Census inclusion, four years thereafter the first Aboriginal medical service was established and soon thereafter 140 more, the one hundred plus Aboriginal legal services, First Nations media outlets across the continents, and local community media.

There was a rapidity of affirmative actions to support the children of the First Peoples into education and employment. In 1970, there were no First Nations doctors, no First Nations lawyers, no First Nations psychologists and no First Nations entrepreneurs. Presently, there are nearly 400 First Nations doctors with 300 more on the way, while numbers of First Nations lawyers, magistrates, psychologists and psychiatrists, and entrepreneurs are increasing. The extensiveness of what has been achieved, despite so far to go, would not have been possible without the successful “Yes” vote in the 1967 Referendum.

Without the 1967 “Yes” vote, there would never have been a Closing the Gap, because the disaggregation was the bedrock. Disaggregation shines a light and if nothing else, Closing the Gap keeps the nation accountable.

There is nothing to lose by voting for the First Peoples to preamble the Constitution and for their Voices to be directly heard by our parliaments. Indeed, there is much to be gained.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus on social justice.

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