Politics Opinion

Votes against the Voice will return us to White Australia

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Voting against the Voice to Parliament is a promotion of racism and a revival of the White Australia policy of the past, writes Henry Johnston.

I’M NOT SURE what shocked me the most: the cockroaches scurrying out of my dead mother’s spare room, or finding an unframed oil painting hidden amidst the musty clutter of a rickety old cupboard. 

There are nights when I wake at 3:00 A.M. in a funk, startled by the memories of that sad afternoon rummaging through bundles of frail and faded goods. But I slip back into a doze by thinking of the painting, which shimmers with light as effervescent as when delicate strokes first touched the small canvas, guided by the hand of an amateur artist, those decades ago.

The scene is sweet and simple. To the left of the frame, the fronds of three healthy coconut palms sway in the afternoon sea breeze. Dense foreshore scrub girdles the lower portion of their trunks, as cycad quatrefoils struggle through impenetrable undergrowth, seeking the sun. A sward edges toward a warm tropical white-capped blue, ruffled by the offshore wind. I can almost smell the rotting seaweed on the beach and recall a primal caution to look out for oyster shell clustered rocks underfoot.

I am drawn to four seabirds, hovering on the updraft, eyeing those rocks, scattered along a glimpse of sandy beach. The frigate birds, or man-o-war, soar above the bay in search of prey. Five smaller mates are suspended to the right of my sight and draw my gaze to a two-masted yacht, which completes the painting’s foreground.

Four banks of whitish-grey clouds tower above the work’s dramatic locus,  a distant long island, offset by a curved rise that could be an extinct volcanic peak and dominating the low, distant horizon. And it is this faraway land that locates the artist on the mainland foreshore, painting his homeland.

Though small and almost unseen, the yacht is the artist’s conduit to the object of his longing — his country. If only he could be aboard, sailing toward the land almost hidden beneath pearly clouds. But his yearning is not to be fulfilled.

How do I know this? Because the painting was a gift to my mother for her kindness. And I remember the artist’s name, or nickname.

He was called Elvis. Young, good-looking, with longish black hair, slicked back with a quiff held in place over his forehead, courtesy of a popular commercial pomade.

 Elvis was a contemporary of Albert Namatjira, an Arrernte man from Central Australia, which is about as far from the saltwater people of Townsville in far North Queensland as you can get.

Namatjira’s artworks sell for millions of dollars, but it is unlikely the creator of my painting had an inkling of Namatjira’s existence. Despite this, both men shared one thing in common — both were wards of the state. And while Namatjira’s status was eventually rescinded and he was granted full citizenship in 1957, Elvis was the subject of close supervision.

He had tested positive for leprosy.

I’m not sure if he was transferred from the leprosarium on Fantome Island, which is part of the Palm Island Group, or if he came from Great Palm Island, glimpsed in his artwork and about 65 kilometres northeast of Townsville. What I know is the painting was a heartfelt gift to my mother, who assisted with his treatment regime.

I hope Elvis was cured and lived a long, happy life.

During those dark hours of wakefulness, I calm myself with the thought he returned to Palm Island, but if he did so, Elvis did not have the right to vote in national or state elections.

This changed after the Referendum of 1967 when Australian voters were asked to alter a provision in the Constitution, that is:

‘Do you approve the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution entitled “An Act to alter the Constitution to omit certain words relating to the People of the Aboriginal Race in any State and so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the Population”?’

Almost 91 per cent of the votes cast and, with a majority in all six states, approved the alteration.

Once again, we are being asked to vote in a referendum.

This time the words read:

‘A proposed law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve of this proposed alteration?’

If we vote in the affirmative, we give a voice to the descendants of thousands of Aboriginal men and women, incarcerated, stolen from their families, cheated of wages and vilified for the colour of their skin. But if we vote ‘No’, we ignore the entreaty of the Uluru Statement From the Heart and deny any chance of truth-telling or Makarrata, a word from the Yolngu language which means a coming together after a struggle, to face the facts of wrongs and to live in peace.

A ‘No’ vote metaphorically banishes Indigenous men and women to the leper colony that is racism. We cannot and must not allow this to happen. A ‘No’ vote is a victory for a revival of the White Australia policy and a contemporary reimagining of Apartheid.

Vote ‘Yes’ and enjoy a good night’s sleep. Vote ‘No’ and be forever haunted by the scurrying cockroaches of hatred.

Henry Johnston is a full-time Australian author and essayist. You can follow Henry on Facebook here and on Instagram @ harryjay1226.

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