As Australians prepare to give their answer to the referendum question on October 14, another question is playing out between the two campaigns vying for your vote.
Can love ever win in war?
In the final weeks leading up to a vote that will define our nation, the debate around the Voice referendum – which has been steadily moving in a problematic direction for several months – has entered its lowest ebb yet.
Misinformation is rife and Indigenous Australians are bearing the brunt of a national debate that has been difficult and often devolved into racism.
Discussions about the proposal itself – whether Indigenous Australians should have a representative body to advise governments on laws and policies that affect them, and whether this is the best way to improve the lives of the people of the First Nations – are almost non-existent.
Instead, the straw men pile up, ready to be thrown one after the other into the dumpster fire that is debate.
Issues once considered settled – such as the impact of colonization, intergenerational trauma and the shameful legacy of the Stolen Generations – have been reopened and indelicately examined on the national stage, for nothing more than brazen political gain .
The undercurrent of misunderstanding and anger between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians was highlighted by the referendum debate.
In his 2012 essay, Great Expectations: Government, Law, and an Angry NationLaura Tingle summed up the anger that permeates Australian political debates:
“Many of our public discussions contain suspicions or assertions that we might be victims of a scam, or that someone else might benefit from a preference.”
At the time, Tingle was writing about the scare tactics surrounding asylum seeker policy. But more than a decade later, the politics of “the other” is still as strong.
The story of two press clubs
In two diametrically opposed speeches to the National Press Club, the Yes and No campaigns presented their visions for Australia.
Warren Mundine said on Tuesday he believed the Uluru Declaration from the Heart was a “symbolic declaration of war” against modern Australia.
What exactly fits that description in the 440-word statement, Mundine did not say.
If there is a war, it is between two sides of an increasingly bitter and increasingly damaging campaign.
For months, yes supporters have hesitated to meet their counterparts on the battlefield of public opinion. Instead, they made a modest plea for change and hoped Australians would hear it.
Perhaps the Yes campaign subscribes to a theory expounded by Sun Tzu, who wrote in The Art of War that no nation has ever benefited from prolonged war and that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
Rising above the fray of combat is one thing, but can they subdue their opponent with love?
By comparison, the No campaign has been beating the political war drum for months now – telling Australians that the proposal is risky and divisive – while deftly avoiding any mention of their role in the division.
Mundine says he thinks it’s time to leave the past in the past and move forward without examining or acknowledging the scars of the past and the wounds of the present.
“Many Indigenous people are angry about past wrongdoing, but those events are irreversible,” he said in his speech.
“So as Indigenous people we have a choice: continue to feel wronged or draw a line in history and not be captive to that past.”
But this referendum publicly attacks the yellows of history. Beneath is an unhealed nation where so many Indigenous Australians still live with the consequences, the inequalities born of a country that for too long denied them equal rights.
A scary image
The following day, Noel Pearson told the Press Club that he believed the statement was an offer of friendship which, when fulfilled, would unite Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians who love our shared country.
Pearson spoke about the legacy of inequality her community still endures, where rheumatic heart disease, a disease that has been virtually eradicated outside of Indigenous communities, is killing her people.
“Young children, teenagers and young adults in their 20s and 30s. They’re falling dead by the creek, on the football field, sleeping in their beds at night,” he said.
Pearson went on to say his MP had held Leichhardt’s seat for a quarter of a century, but had done little to address the shameful state of Aboriginal health in his own backyard.
His words paint a chilling picture. There are truths that clearly need to be told about Australia past and present, and some Indigenous people are now wondering whether this had already been done and whether the debate could have been approached very differently.
Rights and Responsibilities
We have yet to see whether a proposal of love can quell fear at the ballot box, but if Australia is to be united as both sides of this campaign hope, there will be much to repair in the wake of the referendum vote. – whatever the outcome.
Pearson says he approaches October 14 with a mixture of “hope and dread.”
“This referendum is the biggest mirror we have ever seen as a nation: 27 million people will look in this mirror on October 14 and see themselves like never before,” he said.
The obvious question is: what kind of country will look back?
Rights and responsibilities are part of the civic fabric of democracy and, on October 14, all Australians of voting age will have the right to write yes or no on their ballot.
With that power comes the responsibility to find out what we are going to vote on.
If the polls are correct, large numbers of Australians, preoccupied with the pain of a cost of living crisis, have not yet thought about the referendum questions or offering a voice to Parliament.
Many have had the luxury of staying out of the debate and avoiding their responsibility to find out what they will vote on.
According to Noel Pearson, this proposal is about responsibility.
“We can close the gap when we are empowered to take responsibility for our destiny,” he said. “Blame us when you give us a voice.”