Aboriginal Australians ponder future after Voice to Parliament defeat

Ronnie Webb stands on the veranda of his shack in the town camp of White Gate. Alice Springs town camps are Aboriginal communities located within the town of Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia. (Tamati Smith for The Washington Post)

ALICE SPRINGS, Australia — It would have been the perfect day for a party. Hundreds of people had gathered in this desert town to celebrate the 50th anniversary of an Aboriginal health organization. Children played games and had their faces painted. Food trucks served fried rice and ice cream. Bands began to tune their instruments.

And above it all, on a hill dedicated to fallen soldiers, a cluster of flags fluttered in a cloudless sky. Among them were the blue ensign of Australia and the two banners of its Indigenous peoples.

But as Vincent Forrester took the stage, the Aboriginal elder was angry. He knew the event was supposed to be a celebration, but he was fuming about what had happened less than 24 hours earlier. In a constitutional referendum Saturday, Australia overwhelmingly rejected an Indigenous advisory body, or “Voice,” to Parliament.

“They kicked us in the guts yesterday, so now, stand up,” the 71-year-old exhorted. “We’ve got to show the world that Australia is a racist country.”

Forrester pointed to the hill and swore he’d never go back up there. Nor would he attend Australia’s version of Memorial Day. And he called on Indigenous people to boycott traditional ceremonies — known as “welcomes to country and the 2032 Olympics in Brisbane.

Saturday’s referendum — in which 60 percent of the population voted “no” — left many Indigenous Australians reeling. Elders who had spent their lives fighting for recognition felt scorned. Aboriginal youths felt their hopes curdle. “Yes” campaign leaders called for a week of silence to reflect.

The Voice, as it is known here, would have given First Nations people a right to express their views on policy through representatives elected by their communities. Lawmakers would not have been bound to follow its advice, but they would have been required to at least listen.

In Australian ‘Voice’ referendum, door-knockers battle misinformation

While many non-Indigenous Australians now seek to turn the page on the plebiscite, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are left wondering how they can, when the path forward has just been blown to pieces.

Some think the Voice should be rescued by Parliament or adopted by states and territories. Others argue that the failure of the “modest” proposal means it’s time for something more radical.

If the result exposed Australia’s original fault line, then few places feel as fractured as Alice Springs. The “no” campaign singled out the town of 25,000 in the heart of Australia for its struggles with crime. The remote Indigenous communities surrounding Alice Springs overwhelmingly supported the referendum. Yet the town voted against it.

“This referendum was like a sieve shaking out all of our ugly nuances,” said Ken Lechleitner Pangarte, an Aboriginal consultant who works to bridge the cultural divide in town. “The question is: How do we go forward now?”

On the morning after the referendum, Bernadette Shields went to Sunday mass in Darwin as usual. But this time, the mood among the congregation’s many Indigenous members was funereal. Adding to the somber atmosphere was a text message she received from a local Aboriginal community health organization.

“The Voice to Parliament referendum has been hard on our mob,” it said, using slang for community, before providing a number for “urgent mental health support.”

The loss had been hardest on Australia’s “Stolen Generations,” Aboriginal children who were taken from their families and placed in White-run institutions where their language and culture were forbidden.

Stolen Generations survivors received an apology in 2007 and reparations. But many, including Shields, saw the referendum as a way for the country to finally reckon with its racist past.

“I’m in mourning,” said Shields, who didn’t think she would live to see a similar proposal. “I’m 77 — this heart can’t take much more.”

Australia to pay hundreds of millions in reparations to Indigenous ‘stolen generations’

Adding to her pain was the fact that the most prominent “no” campaigner was one of the Northern Territory’s two senators: Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, whose mother is Aboriginal and whose father is White.

Shields was enraged by Price’s claim that there were “no ongoing negative impacts of colonization,” only positives such as running water.

In an interview, Price, a member of the conservative coalition now in opposition, doubled down on her comments by suggesting the Stolen Generations had benefited from the experience.

“If we want to be completely honest about the situation, descendants of the Stolen Generation are those that have had access to an education, they often own their own homes, they are part of the Aboriginal middle class, they head up many organizations,” she said.

Anger toward Price is strong in Alice Springs, where she served on the city council before entering national politics.

Among her many critics here is Geoff Shaw. As a boy, he was routinely kicked out of town for being Black. He served two tours of Vietnam only to return home and find he wasn’t allowed in the local veterans club. He was homeless for a few years.

The decorated veteran said he, too, would skip Anzac Day in protest of the referendum result.

The hunt for wild crocodile eggs that feeds the designer handbag craze

The Voice could have helped prevent government missteps, such as harsh restrictions placed on Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory in 2007. Sixteen years later, an alcohol ban remains in place.

“I served my country,” Shaw said, “but I’m not even allowed to drink a beer.”

Kumalie Kngwarraye lit a bowl full of emu bush leaves and let the smoke wash over her audience, clustered atop Anzac Hill overlooking Alice Springs. As a traditional owner, she was performing her first “welcome to country” ceremony since the referendum three days earlier.

“We have a strong connection to the land,” she said. “That, the referendum can’t undo.”

As she spoke, two White women who were not part of the group interrupted her by singing and laughing.

More Australians are paying tribute to Indigenous people. Some worry it’s just lip service.

Across Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people spent this week searching for how to respond to the referendum’s painful result. For Kngwarraye, who is in her 70s, the ceremony was a small way of reasserting herself, along with teaching her language, Arrernte.

Where the broader movement for Indigenous rights goes now remains unclear, however. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has vowed to find ways to address disadvantages facing Indigenous people.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton promised during the Voice campaign to hold a second referendum on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, shorn of the Voice. But he reversed course Monday, saying “the Australian public is probably over the referendum process for some time.”

With the Voice defeated, hopes for a federal commission to explore treaty-making and truth-telling appear to be dashed. Parliament could legislate the Voice, but it would be politically risky after the referendum failure and would lack the constitutional foothold Indigenous leaders wanted.

The struggle could shift to states and territories, some of which have started their own processes for establishing Indigenous advisory bodies, truth-telling commissions and treaty negotiations.

But the states are already facing a post-referendum backlash that some Indigenous Australians fear is just the beginning. Tony Abbott, a former prime minister and one of the leading “no” campaigners, recently called for Indigenous place names and flags to be rolled back — something Price refused to rule out.

“Conservatives are going to come at us with everything now,” Forrester said.

Some young Indigenous activists said they, too, intend to adopt a harder line.

“My grandfathers and grandmothers fought while trying to be polite,” said Armani Francois, an 18-year-old from Alice Springs. “But enough is enough.”

A few miles outside of town sits a stark reminder of the need for change. About a dozen people live in a ramshackle community called Irrkerlantye, or White Gate. Their metal sheds grow scalding hot by day and frigid by night. Under sagging floorboards lurk venomous snakes, which residents combat by adopting stray cats.

Running water was cut off in 2014 by none other than Price’s mother, a government official at the time who said the community’s water pipe was unauthorized and posed a health hazard. She offered residents housing in town, but they declined.

As he sat next to a fire, resident John Hayes said he wanted a better home but had no intention of leaving.

“This is my family’s place,” he said. “Has been for a long time.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *