We are witnessing a profound moment in the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ struggle with this nation.
Indigenous peoples came to the Australian people with lumps in their throats, asking for a place in a document written for a nation-state that had once tried to annihilate its original nations.
They were pushed back.
It is now the beginning of the end of a deadly era in black politics.
The door has closed on a 20-year-old question: what would change if we meaningfully included Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution? We cannot know the answer and we will not think about this question again for another generation, if ever.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney said the policy was full of progress and heartbreak. Black politics is more accustomed to the latter point.
After a divisive debate, Australians have said no to creating a permanent vehicle for indigenous communities to make their voices heard in the corridors of power. It was a resounding no from Australians who were unconvinced by an ineffective Yes campaign and a simplistic but convincing No campaign that had his opponent spinning online.
For many Australians, it was a no to a proposal that had nothing to do with them, in the middle of a major cost of living crisis and massive global upheaval. No, in a media climate that prefers headlines over substance.
For others, their no was motivated by false information stirred in a fog of disinformation. These no’s are troubling. They say a lot about our modern political era. It seemed impossible to counter the shadow campaign that played out on social media, where Australians were fed false truths by influencers and individuals who exploited age-old prejudices and racism.
And then there were the refusals of mistrust on the part of the First Nations people, rooted in the great Australian silence which has never disappeared.
It seemed possible to many
Where does this rejection leave people who retained some faith in their fellow Australians?
That yes seems possible to the elders who have lived their lives hearing the no of this country should tell you everything you need to know about the courage of the First Nations.
Yes, it seemed possible for old women born on hospital verandas where their mothers were not allowed to enter.
Yes, it seemed possible to old men who remember being excluded from public swimming pools and theaters, their fathers left destitute after returning from the world wars – black diggers forgotten by the country they served.
This seemed possible to camp women living on the outskirts of regional towns where locals wink at you to avoid the “black” pub.
It seemed possible for a new generation of leaders in our cities to work day and night to improve the living standards of an indigenous urban diaspora.
Most tragically, Yes seemed possible to the elders who co-signed the Uluru Declaration from the bottom of their hearts, who are now dead and did not live to see the day when a referendum would be called.
This declaration which spoke of the “torment of our helplessness” now reads more prophetic than ever.
For others, it was never enough
For others in our Indigenous communities, no, that was the answer they wrote on the ballot to reject what they saw as a meager prize after a lifetime of struggle.
The way they saw it, a no from their neighbors, their work colleagues, their friends, was not surprising. No, we didn’t expect it. This was not the way things were done for decades. For many Aboriginal people, the no vote was inevitable.
There is a legitimate need for a proper – Indigenous-led – analysis of what went wrong in this campaign. Did a referendum without bipartisan support spark a wild debate that exposed Indigenous communities to unnecessary abuse? Was enough done to educate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities ahead of the referendum?
Regardless of how they voted, do not underestimate the grief and burning anger that exists among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people right now. The ripple effects could be significant.
After decades of disastrous policy failures and a political refusal to confront Australian history, Indigenous leaders will strategize, come together and rise again. But they are tired and in shock.
As politicians return to Canberra, there is talk of Federal Parliament moving on. This is not an option for Blackfellas.
They are back at work today. Australia doesn’t have years to tinker. We are already on borrowed time.
If you are unable to load the form, you can access it here.