After Bruising Vote, Indigenous Australians Say ‘Reconciliation Is Dead’

The result of the referendum was decisive, and at the same time, divisive. It bruised Indigenous Australians who for decades had hoped that a conciliatory approach would help right the wrongs of the country’s colonial history. So, the nation’s leader made a plea.

“This moment of disagreement does not define us. And it will not divide us,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, visibly emotional, said this month, after voters in every state and territory except one rejected the constitutional referendum. “This is not the end for reconciliation.”

But that was a difficult proposition to accept for Indigenous leaders who saw the result as a vote for a tortured status quo in a country that is already far behind other colonized nations in reconciling with its first inhabitants.

The rejection of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament — a proposed advisory body — was widely anticipated. Nonetheless, it was a severe blow for Indigenous people, who largely voted for it. With many perceiving it as the denial of their past and their place in the nation, the defeat of the Voice not only threatens to derail any further reconciliation but could also unleash a much more confrontational approach to Indigenous rights and race relations in Australia.

Supporters of the “Yes” campaign in Sydney this month.Credit…Jenny Evans/Getty Images

“Reconciliation only works if you have two parties who are willing to make up after a fight and move on,” said Larissa Baldwin Roberts, an Aboriginal woman and the chief executive of GetUp, a progressive activist group that campaigned for the Voice. “But if one party doesn’t acknowledge that there is even a fight here that’s happened, how can you reconcile?”

She added, “We need to move into a space that is maybe not as polite, maybe not as conciliatory and be unafraid to tell people the warts-and-all story around how dispossession and colonization continues in this country.”

For Marcia Langton, one of the country’s most prominent Aboriginal leaders, the consequences were obvious. “It’s very clear that reconciliation is dead,” she said.

For decades, Ms. Langton and others championed a moderate approach to Indigenous rights. They worked within Australia’s reconciliation movement, a broadly bipartisan government approach aimed at healing and strengthening the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

One visible sign of this effort is the flying of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags next to the Australian flag in most official settings. Many public events start with an acknowledgment of the traditional owners of the land the event is held on.

But activists have long said that these displays can be tokenistic, and the focus on unity can come at the expense of agitating for Indigenous rights. And the referendum has shown that wide schisms still persist in how Australia views its colonial past — as benign or harmful — and over whether the entrenched disadvantages of Indigenous communities result from colonization or people’s own actions, culture and ways of life.

“We are very much behind other countries in their relationships with Indigenous people,” said Hannah McGlade, a member of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, who is an Aboriginal woman and a supporter of the Voice.

A rally against the Indigenous Voice to Parliament in Melbourne last month.Credit…James Ross/Australian Associated Press, via Reuters

In countries like Finland, Sweden and Norway, the Sami people have a legal right to be consulted on issues affecting their communities. Canada has recognized First Nations treaty rights in its Constitution, and New Zealand signed a treaty with the Maori in the late 1800s.

British colonialists considered Australia uninhabited, and the country has never signed a treaty with its Indigenous people, who are not mentioned in its Constitution, which was produced more than a century after Captain Cook first reached the continent.

To rectify this, more than 250 Indigenous leaders came together in 2017 and devised a three-step plan for forgiveness and healing. The first was a Voice, enshrined in the Constitution. A treaty with the government would follow, and finally, a process of “truth-telling” to uncover Australia’s colonial history.

But some Indigenous activists argued that forgiveness shouldn’t be on offer. And other Australians were rankled by the suggestion that there was something to forgive.

“The English did nothing wrong. Neither did any of you,” one author wrote for a national newspaper earlier this year. Another columnist argued that any compensation paid to Aboriginal people now would be “by people today who didn’t do the harm, to people today who didn’t suffer it.”

Some Aboriginal leaders opposed the Voice but by and large, polls showed, the Indigenous community was in favor of it.

Aboriginal residents in Jimbalakudunj in a remote part of Western Australia.Credit…Tamati Smith for The New York Times

But for many opponents, “this was cast as a referendum about race, division and racial privileges, special privileges — it really failed to grasp or respect Indigenous people’s rights and the shocking history of colonization, which has devastating impacts to this day,” Ms. McGlade said.

For decades, the country has gone back and forth on how improve Indigenous outcomes. The community has a life expectancy that is eight years shorter than the national average, and suffers rates of suicide and incarceration many times higher than the general population.

Although many Indigenous leaders and experts have said the repercussions of and trauma from colonization are the root cause of this disadvantage, governments — particularly conservative ones — have been resistant to this idea. The remedy, some former prime ministers have said, is to integrate remote Indigenous communities with mainstream society.

During the debate about the Voice, this view was echoed by Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, an Aboriginal senator who became a prominent opponent of the Voice, and who said that Indigenous people faced “no ongoing negative impacts of colonization.” Aboriginal communities experienced violence “not because of the effects of colonization, but because it’s expected that young girls are married off to older husbands in arranged marriages,” she added.

Such arguments helped galvanize opposition to the Voice.

“A significant chunk of the Australian public has been able to find legitimacy in that opposition to not to come to terms with that past,” said Paul Strangio, a professor of politics at Monash University.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia and the minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, delivering statements on the referendum results in Canberra this month.Credit…Lukas Coch/EPA, via Shutterstock

In April, the main opposition party, the conservative Liberal Party, said it would vote against the Voice, all but sealing its fate — constitutional change has never succeeded in Australia without bipartisan support. Its leaders argued that proposal was divisive, lacked detail, could give advice on everything from taxes to defense policy, and was a politically correct vanity project from Mr. Albanese, the prime minister, that distracted people from issues like the high cost of living.

This stance, Mr. Strangio said, appealed to a sense of “economic and cultural insecurity” among many voters, particularly those outside big cities.

The particulars of the Voice, Mr. Albanese and other supporters said, would have been hashed out by Parliament if it succeeded. But the lack of concrete details gave rise to misinformation and disinformation, the sheer volume of which shocked experts.

In such a climate, any pursuit of more forceful politics by Indigenous activists may bring a more combative response. On Friday, Tony Abbott, a former conservative prime minister, said Australia should stop flying the Aboriginal flag next to the national flag, and acknowledging traditional place names.

The defeat of the Voice, Mr. Strangio said, is likely to emboldened the conservative opposition to continue with “the politics of disenchantment, of cultural and economic insecurity, that taps into that grievance politics.”

He added, “We are in for a polarized, divisive debate.”

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