The Voice – dismissed but not silenced

Yes, I did say I’d write the occasional piece, but not always on a Friday. Just deal with it!


Pop up library in Millmerran

Before and after the Voice referendum, I was reading an Australian classic, Coonardoo, by Katharine Sussanah Prichard.

This dark novel resonated more as we left on the day of the referendum for a western Queensland caravan trip.. At that stage, we did not know that 60%+ of Australians would vote No to the Voice.

Our first stop was Girraween national park where mobile reception is hard to find. It took a day or two for news of the referendum result to filter through. In our oft-described naivety for having positive regard for disadvantaged minorities, we did perhaps fail to see how hard the wind was blowing the other way.

In our electorate, Maranoa, the No vote topped 82%. This overwhelming response was no doubt helped along by an official endorsement from the Federal member and National Party leader, David Littleproud.

Maranoa extends 729,897 square kilometres across the Southern Outback and is socially conservative. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation finished ahead of Labor on preference count at the 2016 and 2019 elections.

Not that I ever agreed with editorials in The Courier-Mail, still the only State newspaper, but the headline in the Friday before the referendum, “Voice Care Factor Nil”’ revealed a poll showing the Voice referendum was number 17 in a list of issues rated as important. The ‘exclusive’ poll revealed an apathetic mood and gave the newspaper an opportunity to headline its editorial ‘the vibe is not enough’.

This late summary which tested the mood of the people came hard up against the difficulties of passing referenda in Australia. Only eight of 44 referenda held since Federation have succeeded. The most recent one – to decide if or not we should become a republic – happened 24 years ago. Young people voting for the first time had no adult memories of the issue or why it failed.

As I overheard a bloke saying at the petrol bowser on the Tuesday after the referendum “Aussies just don’t like change, eh?”

If you’ve not read Coonardoo, I should warn that it was shocking and controversial when first serialised in The Bulletin in 1928. It is no less disturbing a read in 2023; a work of fiction overlaying a factual environment. The story deals with a then-taboo love affair between a white station manager and an Aboriginal woman (or ‘gin’ as they are more commonly referred to in this work).

In a preface to the edition I read, Prichard defended the book as a work of fiction, but overlaid with historical and social accuracy.

 “Life in the north-west of Western Australia,” she wrote, “is almost as little known in Australia as in England or America. It seems necessary to say, therefore, that the story was written in the country through which it moves. Facts, characters, incidents, have been collected, related and interwoven. That is all.”

Prichard first published the novel as a series in The Bulletin, using a male pseudonym. It caused a stir then and later, when ‘re-organised’ and published as a novel. It was the first book by a European author to portray Aboriginal people positively, at least in some ways, with insights into their language, culture, natural abilities working the land and loyalty to the station managers for whom most of them worked. As Hugh Watt, the central character explains to his new wife, Mollie, “the blacks are not servants, and we don’t pay them’’. (Which, to me, sounds tantamount to slavery. Ed) Watt is described in positive terms in relation to his treatment of blacks, doling out rations like meat, flour, salt, sugar and tobacco. He doesn’t work the ‘gins’ after noon, in recognition of the fact they have their own family and cultural obligations.

Coonardoo is an ugly read, introducing me to a term I had never heard – ‘gin shepherder’ to describe Hugh’s amoral neighbour Sam Geary. He collects ‘gins’ as mistresses and is fond of quoting the Old Testament (Solomon) to justify his exploitative behaviour.

It was well known in the period of colonisation that white station managers and workers used Aboriginal women as a sexual convenience. What was shocking about Coonardoo was the intimate portrayal of a love affair between a white man and an Aboriginal woman.

Post-referendum, as we spent a week travelling short distances between Girraween, Tenterfield Texas, Yelarbon, Goondiwindi, Millmerran and Crows Nest, I found myself seeing these towns through a different lens.

Walking around the old Council boardroom at Goondiwindi (now a museum), I could not help but dwell on Wikipedia’s sobering report of frontier conflict with the Bigambul Aboriginal people. Resistance was finally quelled in 1849 by pastoralists aided by the newly formed mounted Native Police, with up to a hundred Aboriginals killed in a “skirmish”.

After a night at the Millmerran showgrounds, we set off as tourists, checking out the town’s murals, which depict early colonial days on the farm. The museum was only open by appointment, so we took a walk through the library grounds which includes a walk past plaques commemorating early settlers. We asked an older woman walking the same path why there was no mention of the original inhabitants.

“Too long ago and it’s too divisive” was the answer.
Some 5.60 million people in Australia voted Yes. The majority of us rent or own properties on land which as they say, ‘always was and always will be’ Aboriginal land.

Conservative people who grew up on the land were encouraged to be believe the Voice was a ‘land grab’. Just as the conservative parties of the time whipped up similar fears about Mabo and the Apology, this is now and always was a furphy.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott is credited (or discredited) with spinning the much-repeated false hood that the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) spends $30 billion a year on programmes for indigenous peoples.

A spokesman for the NIAA told the RMIT’s fact checking department that the agency administers programs through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) and had “provided grant funding from the IAS of $1.6 billion in the 2022-23 financial year”.$30b-on-indigenous-programs-annually

The Voice proposal was simply a change to the Constitution to give an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander committee a say in laws that affect them.

Proportionately small as it was, the Yes vote was broadly represented across Australia, as opposed to the notion that only ‘inner city elites’ supported the proposal. As one example, the deeply conservative New South Wales electorate of New England returned a 75% No vote, as claimed in a headline in the New England Times. Another way of looking at it is that 28,565 people in Barnaby Joyce’s electorate voted Yes.

In Maranoa, David Littleproud’s vast electorate, the No vote was declared ‘decisive’, as opposed to divisive.

While Maranoa itself returned a Yes vote of just 15.8%, the Yes vote was proportionately higher in the towns of Stanthorpe and Warwick.

One of the positives for us during the Yes campaign was that we formed a collective of like-minded people who distributed pamphlets, put signs up in their front yards, volunteered at polling booths and dared to wear a Yes badge when out shopping.

We, the people who voted Yes for a positive change, can keep the momentum rolling. We can do it in small ways. Laurel wrote a letter of support to Cr Wayne Butcher, Mayor of Lockhart River Aboriginal Council in FNQ. He was commenting on the Queensland Opposition leader David Crisafulli’s announcement that he would not support Treaty if his party won the next election.

She received a positive reply the same day – building bridges across physical and metaphysical distances. For my part, I spotted a copy of Sally Morgan’s classic ‘My Place’ at the pop-up library in Millmerran. As you can see (above), a surge of empathy motivated me to give the book a more prominent display.

(a broader explanation of the $30b citation, which proves, I believe, how the No vote made mischief with this data)


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