We have always had a voice, but we have never been listened to | Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts
I come from a long line of fighters and grew up attending collective protests where we would ensure that our fight for justice and a better world for our elders, children and youth continues. This is the formula we lived by growing up.
During the early stages of my childhood, I grew up listening to a variety of aunts and uncles, so I know that even though we had different opinions, we were always ready to yarn.
That is why I believe it is important to think deeply about the process of the voice and where it comes from. The voice was created out of grassroots First Nations movements that have been calling for treaty, justice and land rights for decades.
The voice in its current form is only five years into the discourse.
First Nations people are still the talking points of national affairs, but are never heard. The voice argues this is an opportunity to be heard. The representatives of the vote state that it will only be a “vote”, with the role of providing advice, comment or representation on particular issues to parliament. The proposed constitutional amendments do not give this body any real powers.
Parliament has full say over the roles, responsibilities and membership of this body. The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, says it will be “subordinate” to the parliament. There is absolutely no guarantee that parliament will listen or act on anything this voice says. As First Nations people we need action, not just votes thrown around. First Nations people have had a system of governance since the first sunrise.
With our unique sacred history, we carry stories, bloodlines and songlines that connect our unique lands. Particular countries have unique demands and needs for their surrounding lands, waters and people. To have another government advisory body determine the affairs of First Nations people, or give some commentary on some of the struggles we face, is not genuine. A voice can disrupt our governance and cultural systems by appointing “spokespeople” who may not be the best person for this.
The government must articulate how it will ensure that the voting representatives are elected from among the hundreds of nations across the country that already have their own governance practices.
We have passed the advisory phase, and many community members are demanding treaties, and a time to be heard, before this referendum. The reality is that we have always had a voice, but we have never been listened to.
It is the nature of silence that I echo in the current debate about the voice. Indigenous community-run organizations, scholars, researchers, activists and individual advocates have been speaking on our behalf for far longer than the pitch for a voice.
This nation was built on mistrust, harm and colonial violence that continues to target and harm First Nations people, bodies and souls
Royal commissions, reports, consultation and submissions from community organizations to parliament were the voices of children, youth, elders and community. They continued to outline their stories and pain, but in turn were denied any response.
If the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and the recommendations of the Bringing them Home report are implemented, there is likely to be a shift in the vote to a yes majority.
But until then, the government must be prepared to meet the demands of the people, especially the demands that we have been calling for urgently for too long. This is what the people are asking for and these recommendations are not impossible to implement. These recommendations will save indigenous lives.
Will Labor get serious about saving Indigenous lives?
With the vote to the parliament, we see a process with not yet enough detail. We need more details before the referendum, not after.
This is negligence, and just adds more reasons why we cannot vote yes at this time. A debate about a voice cannot take place if Aboriginal people are silenced; ironically the very thing the voice wants to combat. I believe it is critical that we give all First Nations people a position to speak and share, while learning equally.
This nation was built on mistrust, harm and colonial violence that continues to target and harm First Nations people, bodies and souls. There are real reasons why First Nations people do not trust this process. I am for fair process and transparency.
There is not enough detail, and while some arguments are made around the no veto powers and their impossibility, we deserve to have the power over our own affairs as First Nations people. Recently we have seen our Prime Minister provide $14.2m for the policing of Alice Springs, with relatively little funding going to prevention and early intervention, and we have little evidence that the voices of the community articulating their needs and demands have been heard. We are reminded once again that the power does not lie with the community.
As a survivor, I like to envision a time when all children stolen from their families, and those subjected to policing and the disproportionate impact of the law, are free. I like to think that those in higher positions are there to make real change with real power. A vote without real power removes any accountability.
I need to see a time when other First Nations children who were stolen like me because they are black are brought back home. I need to know that these calls will be heeded and when this apparent onus is put on the vote to parliament that real change and power is possible.
Meriki Onus, an activist and organizer of the Invasion Day protest in Naararm (Melbourne), said at the event, “this is not a no rally. We are not here to tell you how to vote in the referendum. We are here to remind you of our sovereignty. We want you to listen and engage critically. We have views across the political spectrum. Stop polarizing us into a yes or no.”
It is a reminder of the deep complexities that are dealt with as First Nations people and the trauma that arises from the distrust.
It must be recognized that sovereignty can never be ceded, as we never gave permission for the theft of our land. However, the messages it sends have implications and raise questions about why we have a mention in the constitution (like the vote) with no real powers granted to First Nations people. Many First Nations people continued to maintain resistance and strength without being part of the constitution, and at no point did we march and chant, “I want to be part of the constitution.”
It is a proof of our people, the long struggle, the healing and the love for justice that we have to create a better world.
First Nations people deserve to be heard, the fear is justified, and First Nations people and our concerns matter.
We know the history of this nation, and while the vote may come with “good intentions” or be “a kind gesture by the Australian people”, we don’t need gestures, we need real change and our community already has the solution.
We have always had a voice; we just have never been responded to.
Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts is a proud Bundjalung Widubul-Wiabul woman and human rights advocate, who is passionate about education, children and young people. Vanessa completed Law at the University of New South Wales and was awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal for her work around the Adoption Acts and forced removal of children in Out-of-Home Care. Her research is centered around the decolonization of child protection in the lives of First Nations people and she is currently writing her first book “Long Yarn Short: We are still here” – for the children who could not come home, those who still must come house and those who saw neither.