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Now is the time to act. The referendum must not lead to despair, but to a search for new ways to secure justice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

This opinion piece by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar AO, appeared in The Guardian Australia on Sunday 29 October 2023

The day the proposal for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice was rejected by the majority of my fellow Australians will be remembered by many as a sombre day in our country’s history.

After the result, there is much pain to process. However, more than 200 years of cruel and wanton dispossession has clearly revealed that the people of our First Nations are resilient and enduring. We will heal and we will forge the way ahead through other ways and means.

We must find strength in the groundswell of support. Millions of Australians mobilised around First Nations justice throughout this referendum year. They are still there with us.

People like my non-Indigenous brother who called me after the result, give me great hope. He and others like him have become more engaged through this process. They have developed a deepened understanding of our shared histories, the difficulty of making substantive change, and the barriers that need to be overcome.

Now is the time for action. There is so much that we can do together to educate and inspire the next generation.

As we look forward to future opportunities, it is valuable to reflect on the origins and subsequent trajectory of the referendum.

I was there at the momentous constitutional gathering in 2017 on the ancient lands of the Anangu, standing with other First Nations leaders from across this vast nation of nations, as the Uluru statement from the heart was presented.

We united in hope, striving to chart a path forward that would extend an invitation to all Australians to join us in putting an end to the exclusion of our people from the constitution – the birth certificate of the modern Australian nation state.

We aimed to underscore that policies designed and enforced by those who are unfamiliar with our lives only serve to undermine our rights and harm our communities.

We were determined to rectify the wrong of our lived experiences and knowledge being excluded from decisions that profoundly affect us, a terrible indignity we have endured since colonisation of this continent began.

The truth is, from that pivotal moment until early this year when the referendum campaign was set in motion, I genuinely believed the majority of Australians had come to embrace the generous offer to right the historical wrongs of our exclusion, and to recognise that our sovereignties could coexist, with no loss to any Australian, and much to be gained in our shared healing.

The referendum was meant to unify us, but instead, during months of campaigning, we found ourselves mired in intense conflict. What we have experienced makes it abundantly clear that we need a Makarrata process, a period of truth-telling, healing, and dialogue as a nation – as fellow Australians – so we can reset and move forward together.

This process will necessarily be difficult, especially because the referendum and the merciless politics around it have underscored a harsh reality: it is increasingly challenging, if not impossible, to engage in reasonable and safe public discussions in today’s political and media climate.

The impact of this civic dysfunction cannot be overstated. It threatens the very core of our democracy. This is a significant challenge we must now confront and endeavour to overcome.

There is no denying that the wildfire of mis- and disinformation that permeated physical and online spaces played a significant role in sowing fear and uncertainty among Australians. In turn, this fuelled unprecedented levels of racism and intolerance against First Nations peoples and communities.

Perhaps one of the most egregious pieces of misinformation of the campaign was the false assertion that Indigenous peoples in regional and remote Australia did not support the voice.

The results from relevant polling booths unequivocally demonstrated that we do indeed support the proposal for a voice. We now have a clear mandate to establish regional and remote voices. This should inform the agenda for structural reform.

The repercussions of the referendum and the tsunami of prejudice it unleashed will reverberate through the generations, far beyond the polling booths. Already we see the rejection of the voice deployed as a weapon, whether it be by schoolyard bullies or by those in the political sphere who wish to pathologize our cultures, to dismiss the harms that colonisation has wrought, and to deny us the realisation of our rights as Indigenous peoples.

However, my fellow First Nations peoples as well as our allies and supporters, please do not despair for our future. Despite how we feel in the aftermath, this was not a referendum on our human rights, our rightful place in this nation or our self-determination. They are not privileges to be granted or denied by a simple majority.

Our rights are the bedrock of justice, equality and respect. They are not contingent on the outcome of a single vote but are an integral part of our shared commitment to building a fair and equitable society.

With meaningful investment in social and emotional wellbeing and healing mechanisms, our communities will regroup and join forces with our supporters to chart the way forward.

I express my gratitude to all of our people, and to non-Indigenous Australians, who boldly and courageously campaigned for the voice. I assure you your efforts were not in vain.

A momentum for change has been created with millions of Australians, and there are numerous paths ahead. With open hearts and open minds, we can unite as a nation and navigate our way towards truth, justice, and a better future for all who now call these lands home.

Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner