Inside Story

Yes or No, history won’t go away

Regardless of the outcome of the Voice referendum, Australia’s past will continue to unsettle the present

Peter Mares 10 October 2023 1671 words

Protests, pleas, petitions: Silas Roberts (left) and G. Yunupingu with the Yirrkala bark petitions at Parliament House, Canberra, in 1976. AIATSIS

In August, not long before the referendum date was announced, I joined a kitchen table conversation about the Voice. There were eight of us, some acquainted, others meeting for the first time. We were all tending towards Yes, but our levels of certainty varied, along with our knowledge and understanding of the issues.

The host used materials created by the Victorian Women’s Trust to get us talking, including a set of cards laid face down between mugs of tea and plates of biscuits. We took turns picking up a card and reading the text on the reverse side. One was about events in New South Wales in 1881:

Forty-two Yorta Yorta men living at the Maloga Mission petition the governor to grant them land, to support themselves raising stock and cultivating crops. The petition is published in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph. Six years later, representatives from the Maloga Mission present the governor with a petition to Queen Victoria, again requesting land.

Eventually the NSW government did set aside 730 hectares in the area for a reserve that came to be known as “Cummeragunja,” or “our home.”

Another card told of the 1963 Yirrkala bark petitions:

The Yolngu Nation from Yirrkala in the East Arnhem Region sends Bark Petitions to the federal parliament. They object to land on their reserve being excised for bauxite mining, without consultation. Territories Minister Hasluck rejects the first petition, challenging the validity of signatures. A second bark petition adds the thumbprints of clan Elders…

The petitions led to a parliamentary inquiry, which visited Darwin and Yirrkala to collect evidence. The committee didn’t support a halt to mining, but it did recommend that sacred sites be protected and the Yolngu compensated for loss of livelihoods.

Dating back as far as 1788, the twenty-nine cards detail resistance, protests, pleas, petitions, strikes, walk-offs, court cases and letters to newspapers. They record the creation of new representative organisations — including the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (1924), the Australian Aborigines League (1933), the Aboriginal Progressive Association (1937) and the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (1958) — and the release of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Together, the cards tell a compelling story of a 235-year struggle for land, recognition and justice, of which calls for Voice, Treaty and Truth are the latest manifestation.

Since that conversation, I have played a small role in the Yes campaign, handing out flyers outside a supermarket, a train station and a pre-polling centre. Plenty of people have been supportive and I’ve had constructive, civil conversations with individuals who were genuinely unsure about how to vote. I’ve also been labelled a racist and a race-traitor and accused of not acknowledging that the “real” Uluru Statement from the Heart is much longer than just one-page. This is trivial stuff compared with the abuse copped by First Nations’ representatives on both sides of the campaign, but the atmosphere feels like it has become increasingly polarised as the vote approaches.

Perhaps that was inevitable once the Coalition made the vote partisan and turned the campaign slogan, “Vote No to the Voice of Division,” into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But anger and resentment at the idea of a Voice haven’t come out of thin air. Misinformation and sheer falsehoods need receptive ears. Just as the push for Yes is informed by the long struggle for recognition and rights, so the No campaign draws on deeper wellsprings, including an entrenched defensiveness about Australia’s past.

In a talk at the Byron Writers Festival in August, historian Henry Reynolds recalled the intellectual environment he encountered when he started teaching at the University College of Townsville in 1965. Although it later became James Cook University, at the time the college was a northern outpost of the University of Queensland, and the main textbook set by Reynolds’s southern professors was Gordon Greenwood’s Australia: A Social and Political History.

Greenwood’s collection, with essays by six researchers, was reprinted twelve times between 1955 and 1975, and widely used in teaching around the nation. But it contained nothing about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Reynolds scoured academic reviews of the book and found that “not one of the eminent historians who reviewed it realised there was something missing.”

This is evidence of what art historian Bernard Smith called “the white blanket of forgetfulness” in his 1980 Boyer Lectures. Twelve years earlier, in his own Boyer Lectures, the anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner had introduced a similar concept — the great Australian silence. Reflecting on the lack of Indigenous voices in histories and commentaries, Stanner said that “inattention on such a scale cannot possibly be explained by absent-mindedness” but must be structural, like “a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape.”

More recently, in Telling Tennant’s Story, Inside Story contributor Dean Ashenden showed how this view has been constructed and maintained. Stopping in the old railway town of Quorn near the Flinders Ranges on the road north from Adelaide, Ashenden finds lots of information about the Ghan but nothing about the Aboriginal people of the area, “who they were or how they fared when the inexorable frontier arrived.” The story was similar all the way up the Stuart Highway.

This is my story too. Growing up in South Australia in the 1960s and 1970s, my main exposure to Aboriginal Australia was seeing people sitting under trees in Victoria Square and the Adelaide Parklands. I had an inspiring fifth grade teacher who introduced us to the culture and lifestyle of the central deserts, and around the same time I met a group of Pitjantjatjara elders who were staying with a neighbour who had worked at the old mission of Ernabella (now Pukatja).

Despite these experiences, though, I never thought to ask who had lived on the lands around Adelaide prior to 1836. I don’t recall hearing the name of the Kaurna people until I was in my early twenties. Like so many, then and now, I was blanketed in forgetfulness.

When he arrived in Townsville, Reynolds was struck by the very visible presence of Aboriginal people in North Queensland — something he was not accustomed to in Tasmania. When he started researching local history with his students he knew they had to include the story of relations between coloniser and colonised. And once they went looking, they discovered records of dispossession, conflict and war waiting to be found, not just in the oral stories handed down through Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal families but also in newspapers, court records and diaries.

The first newspaper in North Queensland, the Port Denison Times, was established in 1861. Reading through copies in the Bowen Council Chambers, Reynolds found that frontier violence was openly acknowledged in the nineteenth century. What’s more, the morality of the colonialism was fiercely debated in its pages.

Yet when Reynolds first pitched his landmark 1981 book, The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia, Penguin knocked it back because there were already “too many books about Aborigines.”

“Invasion” is still a rarely used word to refer to the origins of the Australian state. “Settlement” remains far more common, suggesting a benign process that met with little resistance and was long ago complete. The Voice referendum is unsettling because it tugs at the corners of the blanket of forgetfulness to destabilise the dominant sense of who we are as a nation.

Many within the No camp believe that nothing is to be gained by looking back and it is time to draw a line under history. After all, we’re all Australians with equal rights. To give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a Voice to Parliament amounts to special treatment and breaches the basic liberal-democratic tenet that every citizen has one equal vote and equal standing before the law.

If we are to move forward together based on a shared commitment to liberal principles, though, we must surely confront the fact that the colonisation that shaped Australia and its institutions was entirely illiberal. It did not treat First Nations peoples equally. It ignored their rights, stole their property, suppressed their languages and cultures, denied them voice and votes. The liberal state is supposed to uphold freedom and equality, but the Australian state denied both of those things to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and faced down their fierce resistance with violence, segregation and imprisonment.

The push for constitutional recognition of Australia’s First Nations peoples anchored in the Voice reminds us of these deep and unresolved wrongs. Its challenge to the legitimacy and identity of the liberal state was bound to be met with anger and resentment. Yet, as political philosopher Duncan Ivison has argued, the Voice also provides a way forward — an opportunity “to reset what seems currently fixed.”

As Ivison writes, “By providing a legal and political framework within which Indigenous peoples’ voices can be heard on matters of deep concern to them, whilst at the same time engaging with the core political structures of the Australian state, it offers a distinctive opportunity for ‘re-founding’ these relations.”

I still hold a hope that the opinion polls are wrong and a surge of undecided voters will swing the vote to Yes on polling day. But I’m not optimistic. Whatever the result, I’m confident that history will keep reaching into the present in unsettling ways.

Each successive generation, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, migrant or locally born, will discover, and rediscover, discomfiting truths that pierce the great Australian silence. Historians and others won’t stop delving into the trove of archival and anecdotal records, stirring up the sediment of the past to cloud the waters of the present. Some Australians, many even, may fail to listen or refuse to hear. But there will always be those who grapple with the insistent moral and political demands history makes on us. There is no foreseeable point in the future where we can draw a line under things and say, we’ve dealt with that, now let’s move on. •