Tensions ran hot at the West Australian launch of the yes campaign for an Indigenous voice to parliament as the event exposed community divisions.
Hundreds packed the forum on Thursday night on Nyungar land, at Curtin University in Perth’s south-east, as the state joined the nationwide “voice week of action” aimed at winning the referendum set for the end of this year.
As Western Australia grapples with the highest rate of incarceration of Indigenous youth and a troubled Banksia Hill youth detention centre, Labor senator and Aboriginal elder Patrick Dodson spoke of the need to pull the nation out of the “dark days of the colonial era”.
“This is a very simple proposition, recognise the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s voice to the parliament to make representations on matters that affect them,” Dodson said.
“Now, I don’t know why that cannot penetrate to those on the other side.”
While the event promised to raise awareness and support for a voice to parliament, it exposed deep divisions within WA’s First Nations community about the referendum.
Members of the audience spoke angrily of their frustration and anger at issues facing their communities, including poverty and the world’s highest rates of incarceration, child removal and suicide.
On several occasions, audience members loudly voiced concerns that a body enshrined into the constitution as a voice was powerless to fix the complicated problems and suffering.
“Our voices aren’t heard, and I think that if the government really wanted to do something they would implement into domestic legislation or the constitution a treaty process,” a Whadjuk Noongar woman audience member said.
“A lot of mob think the voice is a show on Channel Seven. I know it is funny, but I am dead serious.”
But human rights lawyer and Curtin academic, Noongar woman Dr Hannah McGlade, says that Indigenous Australians need a national voice to negotiate a national treaty.
“I think the voice will have to focus on the human rights issues that Aboriginal people are experiencing,” McGlade said.
“This is the cries of everybody. I really think that this is up to us, the Aboriginal people, to vote for our best Aboriginal leaders to tackle these issues.”
Dobson said he understood and could also feel the frustration in the room, but he called on the nation to act.
“The people of Australia, this is squarely in your bailiwick,” he said.
Earlier this month, Greens’ First Nations spokesperson Lidia Thorpe quit, becoming an independent in opposition to the party’s pro-voice stance.
As the yes campaign officially launched in Adelaide on Thursday, Thorpe told ABC radio that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples: “deserve better than a powerless voice”.
“We need a treaty. We want real power,” Thorpe said.
But Thorpe’s replacement, Noongar-Yamati woman and senator Dorinda Cox, appeared at the forum via video link from NSW, and said that the lead up to the voice referendum is a chance for people to become involved and have important conversations.
“Most importantly, play your part in ensuring that our First Peoples are recognised in the constitution,” Cox said.
“We need a seat at the table, so we can actually inform discussions that happen in parliament that impact our people, and we need to tell the truth, not only about what we have faced in the over 200 years since colonisation but also about the rich and diverse nations that existed for over 65,000 years.”
Independent MP for Curtin, Kate Chaney, told the crowd that she was concerned about the voice process but she drew an analogy between the Noongar cycle of life and seasons and the discussions about the referendum.
“The Uluru statement is a generous invitation to invest the time in listening and understanding. It’s an acknowledgement that we are in the season of makuru, the season of fertility. We have the ideas, but we’re not yet ready to implement them,” Chaney said.
“Through the voice, let’s invest in building relationships and respect. Let’s invest in listening and learning. Let’s commit, in our constitution, to continuing to try to get it right together.”