October 22 - 28, 2023: Issue 602
Volunteering For Yes
By Loretta Barnard
In 1988, the Bicentennial year, my mother, took in a lodger, an Aboriginal man she’d met in prison where she taught inmates with literacy problems. I’ll call him Charlie. When Charlie’s sentence was complete, Mum offered him a room in her home. I visited my mother often - I had a newborn baby and a toddler, and it was always nice to spend time with her. As the days and weeks turned into months, I came to know Charlie a little. Born in the late-1930s, he’d been shunted from institutional care, to foster home after foster home, and turned to petty crime when he was just a boy. And as the years went on, he was in and out of juvenile detention, and later, the prison system. He also developed a problem with alcohol.
Charlie was the first member of the Stolen Generations I ever met, and as his story unfolded I came to understand why his life had panned out as it did. Snatched from his family when he was about the same age as my then-toddler son, he never knew a mother’s love, a father’s devotion, the security of a safe and loving home, the culture of his extended family. There was no affectionate guiding hand to help him navigate childhood and adolescence. There was very little in the way of schooling. He was directionless, a Black ‘orphan’ in a country that routinely took children away from their families in the name of assimilation, a country that professed a fair go for all Australians, but pointedly ignored the original ones. The government took away his family, his culture and his language, and then judged him a bad person. Charlie’s story moved me deeply, and as I came to learn more about the unspeakably disgraceful stain on our nation of the Stolen Generations, the many, many other injustices perpetrated on Aboriginal people also became apparent.
When the Uluru Statement from the Heart was released in 2017, I was reminded of Charlie, who, after he left my mother’s house all those years ago, went north to search for his family. I hope he found them. He, I know for sure, would have welcomed the Uluru Statement with all his heart. The culmination of years of consultation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, the Uluru Statement called for the establishment of a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in our Constitution. It was a simple and generous invitation to the rest of us to walk hand-in-hand with Indigenous Australians for a better, fairer Australia. Unfortunately, the Turnbull-Morrison governments rejected calls for an Indigenous Voice, but when Anthony Albanese became prime minister in 2022, he promised a referendum on the matter. As we know, this was held on 14 October 2023, and was defeated, with some 60 percent of people across the country voting No.
As one of the 40 percent who voted Yes, and who had been active as a volunteer in the Yes23 campaign, I was heartbroken. It’s still impossible to comprehend that people who have lived in this country for just 235 years rejected Constitutional recognition of the people who have lived in this country for 65,000 years. It beggars belief. I was particularly shocked at some acquaintances of mine who’d arrived here as immigrants in the last 30-40 years – even they believe they’re more Australian than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. I wish I understood how their minds work. Sadly, I feel it’s ingrained racism, whether these people think they’re racist or not. I’m not going to comment on the Indigenous people who opposed the Voice – they had their reasons. But remember, of the almost one million Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country, over three-quarters of them were in favour of the Voice. For them, the result was a kick in the guts. They asked for so little, so very little, and once again, they were spurned. I cannot even begin to image how they are feeling in the wake of the result.
I want to say a little about my experiences as a Yes volunteer in my local area in the months leading up to polling day. The group I joined was a most remarkable group, made up of people from all political persuasions, all demographics, and all walks of life. They were dedicated, informed, upbeat, cooperative, willing to step up, polite, positive, supportive. There was such a generosity of spirit, with people working countless hours behind the scenes as well as on the ground. The leadership team was always on call, always cheerful, always willing to answer questions. Everyone was friendly and helpful, and it was such a great privilege to work alongside them. There were over 50,000 Yes volunteers across the country – a record for the number of volunteers for any campaign ever held in this country – and I’m proud to have been one of that number.
As well as all the love and respect I encountered while volunteering, this short period was also shockingly revelatory. My first job as a volunteer was a banner-waving session one morning at a busy intersection in my electorate. Many motorists tooted their horns in support, or gave the thumbs-up as they passed. Others yelled obscenities, spewing hateful remarks that don’t bear repeating. At each banner-wave, the vitriol increased. People were hurling personal insults to volunteers, or screaming out vile racist language. As they passed, some cyclists communicated though vulgar gestures. This pattern was repeated at later banner-waves. These people were so unnecessarily aggressive. And then there were those who criticised Yes campaigners for ‘virtue-signalling’. Oh please, spare me.
At all the street-listening sessions I was involved in, passers-by walked by, some saying they were voting yes, others suddenly engrossed in their phones in order to avoid eye contact. Of those who engaged, undecideds and the curious were happy to talk and listen, and occasionally to take information away to study. A few strident No voters were stroppy. I was completely taken aback when a local business owner, with whom I’d enjoyed a long and amiable business-client relationship, spoke nonstop about his extremely repellent views of Indigenous people, whom he clearly loathed. Not that he’d ever met one. This man is a professional; he’s educated, wealthy, and, there’s no other word for it, completely racist. It was extremely tough remaining polite, but as volunteers, we weren’t there to argue, but to listen and hopefully correct some misconceptions.
At a pre-polling session, I met a well-known Indigenous woman, a multi- award-winning creative artist. Her partner told me that she’s followed whenever she goes into certain retail outlets. This is a highly acclaimed, well-dressed, middle-aged woman who, some business owners seem to think, is also a shoplifter simply because she’s Black. I mean, seriously? A young Aboriginal woman I spoke to at a bus stop one afternoon, told me that from the moment the polling date was announced, she’d experienced a barrage of sickening racist language on her social media sites, and was taking a break from it for the sake of her mental health. How is this acceptable in a country we consider ourselves to be fair-minded?
Indigenous leaders were at the forefront of the Yes campaign, and bore the brunt of insults, trolling and racial abuse. How they managed to maintain their equilibrium is nothing short of miraculous. Outstanding in their fields of intellectual, legal and artistic pursuit, they were indefatigable. Ordinary volunteers like me could only imagine the personal toll the negative campaign had on them.
One of the things that most struck me, as it did others, was the aggression, anger and hate exhibited by some people opposed to the Voice. Why were they so bellicose? After all, in elections, each of us votes one way or another, and the average person doesn’t vilify anyone because they vote for a different candidate or party. We all have friends who have political views at variance with our own, that’s life, so why the belligerence in this case? I don’t have the answer, but there was definitely a core influential group who believed that if Indigenous Australians had a voice, theirs would somehow be diminished, and this false assumption fuelled their resentment and racism.
The No campaign relied on fear and ignorance to get their message across. Your home will be snatched, a Yes vote would result in ‘Aboriginal uprisings’, Indigenous people will be given something you won’t be. They actively promoted ignorance (‘if you don’t know, vote no’), a shameful message for any issue. It was a travesty that mainstream media failed to call out the many lies and disinformation that were knowingly being peddled by politicians and others invested in a No outcome. The claim that Yes was ‘divisive’ hit hard – it was believed by millions of people. What a crock. Do people really think the country hasn’t been divided for the last two centuries?
This is a country in denial about its history. The Uluru Statement also called for truth-telling and we sure as hell need it. Now, more than ever. The Frontier Wars continue. Australia has always had something of a reputation for racism. The referendum result means that reputation has been well and truly cemented, and we are forever shamed as a nation. My heart goes out to all First Nations Australians who are hurting.
Loretta Barnard is an author, arts writer, reviewer and editor. Her new book Imagining Australia: a history of our nation through music, film, literature & art will be published in November.