Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

There is no progressive 'No' in Australia's referendum

I haven’t written for a few months. I feel guilty about this, but—in the spirit of the slow theme of the newsletter—I only want to send out words when they are ready. Maybe I’ve had writer’s block?

Today, though, I write angry. The words have arrived. Mostly about how many sections of the population have been given a green light for racism.

Soon the whole country votes on whether we should take a step towards repairing the damage of colonisation. A tiny, tiny, very miniscule, hardly-will-it-make-a-difference step, but an opportunity nonetheless.

Will Australia create an advisory body to take the concerns of First Nations to the Parliament? Will we recognise them in the constitution?

And a section of the population, sitting off stage right, have taken this as their cue to unload every loathsome and hateful opinion they’ve been dog-whistling about for decades.

I research and teach Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories so it’s been easy (necessary, painful and unavoidable) for me to follow the strands of the current referendum debates in Australia. If you’re reading this and you have no idea what this is, this collection on the Conversation covers it.

I’m not about detailing all the awful things that are currently being broadcast by proponents of the ‘No’ campaign. They don’t need repeating. Instead I wish I could just metaphorically take the shoulders of some of these people and say: “Can’t you hear yourselves? What you’re saying is patently wrong and disingenuous!”

This would do no good, of course, because the whole intention of portions of the ‘No’ campaign appears to be to muddy the waters and sow seeds of confusion and distrust among undecided voters.

I liked to believe, until relatively recently, that the Australian population were, on the whole, not racist. Folks, I’m losing faith.

The odds (at the time of writing) of Australia voting ‘Yes’ are $5.65, and of voting ‘No’ they are $1.11. I’m not versed in gambling but this paints a pretty sad picture.

Added to this are multiple missed opportunities from the Labour Government who called the referendum and maybe, like me, believed Australians would do the right thing and enough people would vote ‘Yes’. The cynical among us believe this is deliberate. If this fails, it will be years before another grand attempt is made.

(Meanwhile, a referendum isn’t needed for the government to start listening to the voices of Indigenous people. But that is a different issue/rant.)

As Patrick Dodson, Labour Senator for Western Australia, outlines in a recent piece for the Saturday Paper:

The consequences of our vote in the referendum will give us some insight into the meaning of that concept of a fair go that we proudly proclaim.

Think on that. What will it mean on October 15 to wake up to a country deciding not to move forward with their First Peoples?

It also astounds me (because of the position I write from) that the population at large, the population I liked to think of as giving their fellows ‘a fair go’, don’t see the impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This makes me the angriest. If you’ve lived in this country for even a short time, or any colonised country for that matter, how can you somehow avoid noticing the systems set up for you at the expense of an entire people? If you think of yourself as a decent, non-racist type of person you should vote ‘Yes’, simply because it’s the least you can do and more complexly because in the end this isn’t about you. It costs you nothing.

I’ll stop my rant there.

As the most millennial of solutions, I’ll share a podcast and suggest some music to listen to.

  • It's Not just the Vibe, it's the Constitution - an eight-part series from Kim Rubenstein (law professor) and James Blackwell (a Wiradyuri man and Research Fellow at ANU and a member of the Uluru Dialogue at UNSW).
  • If you’re a John Williamson fan, have a listen to his new song, with Lindsay Waddington Uluru Forever.
  • Consider attending an event near you to show solidarity. If you’re in Victoria the Now & Forever festival is on Friday 6 October, all ages, featuring amazing First Nation’s talent.
  • Lastly, have those awkward conversations with your relatives if they’re undecided. Many amazing First Nation leaders are making positive and constructive cases for why you should vote ‘Yes’, their voices are often not heard in the mainstream presses and they’re going beyond the insipid messages from Federal Labour. Do you own research!

This is a post from Slow Looking, a newsletter about art and history. Subscribe at https://nikitavanderbyl.substack.com/