The result of the Voice referendum was a lost opportunity to be a more inclusive nation.
DOES ‘no’ mean ‘no, not now, not ever’? In the 1967 referendum, against a backdrop of the beginning of an era of social progress, Australians overwhelmingly voted ‘yes’.
Of eligible voters, 90.77 per cent wrote ‘yes’ to the question: “Do you approve the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution entitled ‘An Act to alter the Constitution so as to omit certain words relating to the people of the Aboriginal race in any state and so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the population’?”
My great uncle, journalist, and political cartoonist Les Tanner captured the sentiment of the Australian public at the time in his drawing of politicians being overwhelmed with a wave of ‘yes’ voices roaring above them.
The resounding ‘yes’ vote was a defining moment for our country. A campaign of more than a decade, the movement ‘Right wrongs, write YES for Aborigines’ struck a chord that no doubt tugged at Australians’ sense of fairness. It seems there wasn’t an organised ‘no’ campaign at that time.
Another defining moment in our nation’s history was the 2008 apology in which then Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised for: “[T]he laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.”
On February 13 that year, I stood with thousands of others at Perth’s foreshore and listened to the apology. As I arrived, the mood was upbeat in anticipation of what was to come. Afterwards, there were hugs and cheers for and with our First Nations people.
In the lead up, I recall the schism in the public discourse between two opposing arguments: one that said we had nothing to be sorry for, and the other we had everything to be sorry for.
Regardless, we moved on as a nation and the apology created a juggernaut.
In the 15 years that followed, governments, companies and individuals have been actively involved in reconciliation-based activities and made commitments to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
It is in this context that the 2023 referendum was held.
When asked whether voters supported, “A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”, the answer from the majority of voters was ‘no’.
‘If you don’t know, vote no’, resonating more strongly than a simple ‘yes’.
The national result was known before the polls had closed in Western Australia, and I stood in my kitchen and cried. I offered support to my Noongar friends who I knew would be hurting. I reached out to allies, who were disappointed at the outcome.
The following day I posted: “Wake up Australia, it’s business as usual! For those of you who voted ‘no’, nothing has changed.
For those of you who voted ‘yes’, nothing you wanted has eventuated. I voted ‘yes’ simply because what’s currently being done isn’t closing the gap.
To my Aboriginal friends who told me yesterday that they are ‘devastated’, ‘heartbroken’, ‘crying’ – from the bottom of my heart – I am so sorry.”
When I was crying for what I saw as a lost opportunity to be a more inclusive nation, Aboriginal leader and activist Marcia Langton declared: “It’s very clear that reconciliation is dead. A majority of Australians have said ‘no’ to an invitation from Indigenous Australia, with a minimal proposition, to give us a bare say in matters that affect our lives, advice that doesn’t need to be taken by the parliament.”
The hangover from the referendum is that we are a nation divided. The ‘no’ camp declaring victory and the ‘yes’ camp defeated.
‘No’ means ‘no’. Definitely not now and potentially never.
‘Yes’ means ‘yes’. Not for now but hopefully in the future.
And where does reconciliation fit, if at all, in this binary argument between yes and no?
We seemingly have no common ground.
For the health of our nation, its people and reputation, we must find a way forward. A pathway to the future that has its foundations based in truth, mutual respect, and a mutual love of Australia.
• Marion Fulker is an adjunct associate professor at UWA