If, like me, you are over 42 years old, you would have voted in the 1999 republic referendum. This was a referendum to answer a simple question: Do we cease being a constitutional monarchy and become a republic? Despite most of us, at the time, desiring a republic, and despite the YES vote being far ahead in the polls, in the end it was the NO that won, defeating our hope for an Australian head of state. Many of us can still remember why and are still angry about it.
A decision was made back then to choose a model for the election of a president and then go to the referendum with that model. This made the NO campaign’s job easier as all they had to do to remain a monarchy (which was all they wanted) was to split the republican public and ensure that some of those who wanted a republic would vote against it. The way they did this was simple: they got the republicans arguing on the model, and encouraged people who wanted a republic but disagreed on how the president should be selected to vote NO.
This split—between the republicans and the other republicans, some of whom went on to vote NO despite their support for a republic—was what killed the republic referendum. If people had set aside their dislike of the model, if they had decided becoming a republic was important enough, we would be a republic right now.
Now we are facing a new referendum, the first since the failed republic: the nation is deciding on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, and once again people on the same side are being wedged. Some people who support Aboriginal rights are campaigning for NO—many of them because they stand for Treaty, either before or instead of the Voice.
On 2 September, interrogating the stance for treaty before the Voice, Noongar Senior Curator Clothilde Bullen wrote on her Instagram story:
When you’re calling for treaty, do you actually know what that entails and what it means, and what it requires? What it entails is a lot of legislation and legal requirements, as well as the development of up to 300 separate treaties for each nation as we aren’t all one. Where are the resources in our communities to pay for this legal framework? And who speaks for each nation? What’s the legal framework to determine that?
What I would add to that is this: What happens when you do the work to develop a treaty, after receiving an education to support and enable this, and someone does what you are doing now and derails your process because they disagree with you? You don’t get to say ‘I’ve worked on this, I have the skills’ if you are not listening to the experts and lawyers who are advocating for a voice now. Nobody has the automatic right to be listened to and supported. The ‘treaty before voice’ campaign, if they get their wish and NO is the winner, have not earned the inherent right to be listened to.
A treaty-first movement would have to start again gaining support—and the support they are attempting to gain would be from a government who offered change and was rejected, and their erstwhile allies in the NO campaign, who are against any changes that give Indigenous people our rights. In particular the NO campaign are against treaty—they have been fear-mongering about a voice leading to treaty as a reason to vote NO. Treaty first would need support from a population who have proven themselves hostile to Indigenous rights by voting NO, as well as the Yes voters, who support Indigenous rights but are not about to help people who have fought against them in the Voice campaign.
In other words, the minority ‘treaty before voice’ crowd will be, in the case of a NO win, campaigning against what the government want, against what the opposition want, and against everyone who was fighting for and voting for YES.
Additionally, the racists who have come baying from the woods at the chance to fight for a NO vote, the emboldened trolls (some of them in parliament) who seem to be enjoying the pain they are inflicting and love watching us fight amongst ourselves, will be emboldened further. Their racism would have won—it doesn’t matter to them that anti-racists helped them win—and they will be encouraged to fight harder next time.
Every time far-right trolls get an apparent win, they get nastier. A win for NO will fire them up to sickening levels.
If the NO campaign win this referendum, the treaty-first/sovereignty mob will find themselves in a fight they cannot win. They seem to believe that a failed referendum will make treaty easier to achieve. This belief exposes a complete failure to understand the political landscape. The right-wing NO don’t want voice or treaty; when you argue for NO they support you, then when you ask for treaty they are no longer on your side. The NO campaigners who have been using paid advertising and public relations companies to amplify the treaty-first campaign because it helps them will suddenly leverage the same resources to fight against treaty.
The treaty-first movement would then end up fighting for treaty or sovereignty with diminished capacity, against an emboldened enemy, and without the support of the allies and friends they alienated with their uncompromising NO stance.
If, on the other hand, the people who consider treaty more important campaign for YES, they will almost certainly have the support of the YES side of the referendum when they go on to fight for treaty—because they will have united everybody who wants a better deal for Indigenous people. So the best way for the ‘treaty first’ campaigners to achieve their aim of a treaty is to campaign for YES in the Voice referendum, and thus gain the support of those of us who think the Voice is necessary. Most importantly, they will have the support of the Voice to Parliament and the resources and influence the Voice would wield.
In other words, if the progressive/sovereign/treaty-first NO movement help the racist NO campaign to win, it will be a Pyrrhic victory, a victory that itself leads to one’s eventual defeat. They will, perhaps, win the battle but lose the war, defeat the Voice they consider to be standing between them and treaty but also, through their campaigning, lose the chance of treaty. Not only will it hurt when they find themselves fighting with less support, but they will have to face the decisions they made that led them there.
I have said this before: at the end of this referendum we still have to live with ourselves.
Through all their campaigning, all their media appearances, publicised by the mainstream NO campaign who should be their enemies, I have never seen a mention of how the treaty-first mob intend to achieve treaty. I cannot fault their vision; I believe in thinking big and being brave, but I cannot see how they can obtain a treaty or Blak Sovereignty against such terrible odds. If they burn the bridge of Voice, the bridge the government of the day are determined to build, they will just make things harder for everybody who is fighting to end the colony.
That is why I fight for the Voice—not because I think the Voice is what we should be doing first, or because I think the Voice is a perfect solution, but because the Voice is what is on offer: an opportunity to begin dialogues that will lead to treaty and truth.
When the republic referendum failed, I am sure there were republic supporters who voted NO hoping for another chance with a question they could get behind completely. It’s true that the majority of Australians were then, and still remain, republicans at heart. It would have been in their heads to vote NO then wait for the next chance, when they could go to the booths again and vote for a referendum they agreed with.
They have waited 24 years and there has not been another chance. People who had gone into it with hope at the age of 18, thinking to themselves ‘if not this time, then next time’, are now 42—and still have not had another chance to vote for a republic. If the Voice referendum fails, because people are confused or because the progressive/treaty-first NO have muddied the waters, if we hold back waiting for a better offer, that offer might not come. I am not going to wait another 24 years, because frankly in 24 years, even if it is only that long, I will be elderly if by a miracle I am alive.
As Paul Kelly asks in his song for the YES campaign: ‘If not now, then when?’ It’s time to act now, to take the offering we have in the referendum—and then, once we have won that, fight on for treaty and a truth commission with the weight of a constitutionally empowered Voice.
Editor’s note: In the weeks before and after the Voice to Parliament referendum, Meanjin is publishing online pieces by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers only. This is the first of three pieces published ahead of the referendum.
IMAGE: Bust of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, Roman copy of Greek original. Photograph by Richard Mortel (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) CC BY 2.0