The Voice referendum: Blak sovereignty and justice after ‘No’
By: Roxanne Moore
I knew a ‘No’ was coming. In the weeks leading up to the Voice to Parliament referendum, the grief and tears started, as did the panic attacks, the inability to concentrate, the looming heaviness.
But nothing could have prepared me for that moment: when an entire nation resoundingly rejected that our peoples should have any say about our lives, and rejected recognition of our existence.
Images by: Charandev Singh (supplied by the author)
This referendum has been the most harmful, destructive policy to happen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities since the Native Title Act – and we will see the ramifications on our bodies, spirits and communities for years to come.
The rejection came from every single state and territory except ACT; except Indigenous communities; and except some areas like Boorloo, Meanjin, and the inner Melbourne bubble. It creates a damning map ranking racism across so-called Australia.
It felt gut-wrenching to have the racism of this nation confirmed by the AEC in cold statistics: a truth we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people know and live every day, but one that is constantly denied. There’s no hiding from it now.
While the referendum was about the Voice, it was never really about the Voice. It was about our humanity, but without our voices at the heart of it. First Nations communities overwhelmingly voted ‘Yes’, but it didn’t matter, because it was decided for us. And the stark, painful, resounding ‘No’ pierces my heart.
I’m not surprised. But it still hurts. The ‘No’ vote is itself an act of oppression.
I’m devastated for mob who have dedicated their careers and lives to this reform, like Professor Megan Davis, Tanya Hosch, Dr Jackie Huggins, and too many more to name. I’m concerned for mob who door-knocked, campaigned, worked on polling booths – and the toll this will take on their bodies and spirits.
I’m gutted for ‘Sovereign No’ mob, who were disrespected and invalidated by media, politicians and ‘Yes’ campaigners. I’m crushed for our communities and families, who were torn apart over this. For the Elders who wanted to see change in their lifetimes. I’m also scared for young Blackfullas, who’ve had to get up and go to school this week.
I’m heartbroken for mob who were sold the hope of something better, from politicians who knew that no referendum has been won without bipartisan support.
One campaign cannot undo 250 years of racism, dispossession and murder. Most people in this country have never met an Aboriginal person and rely on Murdoch media to inform their views, which pushes racist tropes and stereotypes to suit conservative agendas.
In the lead-up to the referendum, multiple businesses had refused my request to put up a ‘Yes’ placard, because they apparently needed to be “neutral” – even in the bubble of Melbourne’s inner-north. One of them told me this while framing an Aboriginal dot painting.
There is no “neutral” when you’re living, working and profiting on stolen land; you’re complicit in upholding the injustices that continue to kill our people and destroy our sacred country.
Part of me wishes I did more. But I also know that wouldn’t have changed anything. Neither the ‘Sovereign No’ or ‘Yes’ campaigners shoulder responsibility for this outcome.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter what Blackfullas did.
We didn’t stand a chance against the racism, the millions of dollars that Clive Palmer pumped in, and the vitriol of Murdoch press. The richest person in so-called Australia, Gina Rineheart, attended the ‘No’ campaign celebration party.
I spent the Saturday of the referendum with mob. Queer and trans BIPOC lovers and besties showed up to feed us, hold us, and put on a rave for us – just so we could be together. Even if we were disassociating, crying, dancing or yelling Barkaa lyrics at the top of our lungs, we were together.
I’m so grateful for this community.
As we waited for the results to tick in, we agreed that it felt like being in an episode of Black Mirror.
For months, we’d witnessed white people on panels talking about “grassroots”, and people we’ve never seen at a rally waving their ‘Yes’ banners. We’d heard Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine spouting poisonous mistruths and stereotypes about our communities every time the TV was on. And we’d even seen Rio Tinto funding the ‘Yes’ campaign.
Post-referendum Sunday was grim. I couldn’t get out of bed. I just felt numb, mixed every now and then with spirals of rage and despair. I texted mob all day, not having the words, but just sending messages of love. I eventually dragged myself out of bed to go hug my sister. I remembered us as little girls joyfully dancing around the living room to ‘Treaty’ by Yothu Yindi.
The next day, I went to a smoking ceremony put on by Dardi Munwurro, followed by a community meeting. It was hard. There were mob who abstained, mob who voted ‘No’, and ‘Yes’ campaigners. But we heard each other, held each other, and began the work of rebuilding.
We come back together no matter what pain we are feeling.
Later, I sat by the Merri Creek with a brother who played the didge for us. We sung in language we barely know, to ground and find ourselves.
Right now, we are witnessing in real time the Israeli state-sanctioned genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.
I read that a child is being killed every 15 minutes by Israeli forces in Palestine. Horrific war crimes are being committed. The violence of settler-colonial states and the power of their victim narratives feels overwhelming.
It doesn’t stop. We don’t have the luxury of taking time to grieve this violence against us as Indigenous peoples before the next injustice occurs.
Unsurprisingly, the mob I have drawn strength from during this time are Black queers: the same mob that I organise with and spend most of my time with. Despite this being the second national vote on our worthiness/identities, we’ve shown kindness, generosity, love and community care, as we always do.
An abolitionist approach means we don’t leave other Blackfullas behind, regardless of our views. Being queer and gender diverse means that we exist beyond the binary on so many dimensions, and we hold that complexity every day. It’s a complexity that the colony has proven it can’t grapple with.
This isn’t our last chance to win change. I believe we can come out of this stronger. Four out of 10 people voted ‘Yes’, and that’s a lot more allies than we knew we had before. We can use this to build our power, but we need you to come with us.
We have a strong vision of what we want. These calls come from the tireless work of mob, Elders and communities that came before us. From the Aboriginal Tent Embassy – the world’s longest living protest. From our community leaders and community-controlled organisations. From years of Royal Commissions and inquiries where Blackfullas have retraumatised themselves in the hope for change.
It’s time for treaty, for truth-telling, for climate justice and for protecting country.
It’s time to end Black deaths in custody. To end the family policing regime and removal of children, to abolish prisons and police.
It’s time for community solutions that centre First Nations truths, knowledge and wisdom, so we can be connected to land and culture and strong in our spirits, with Blak joy.
We demanded the bare minimum, and it was too much for the colony. I feel that the time for reconciliation is done. We’ve had 20 years of that – now there’ll be less concessions and palatability.
We need to do things on our terms. We will not be silent.
I’m finding some comfort in the words of Professor Chelsea Watego’s Another Day in the Colony:
We are trapped in a daily existence where the odds are stacked against us, but it is in our being, in our turning up, that our sovereignty, through our insistence, is embodied and enacted, regardless of what they do. Our bodies hold power – a power not dependent on the myths of white hope.
I went for a bushwalk on Wurundjeri Woiwurrung country. Through my numbness, the sun was still sparkling gloriously on the Yarra. A Nyingarn (meaning echidna in Noongar) scratched its nose in the dirt, unaware of the outcome of the referendum. The Nyingarn came right up to me, and I was lost in its magic.
A little gift from the ancestors to keep going.
So, we show up, we survive. We always were and always will be sovereign peoples – they can’t take that away from us.
Regardless of your position, if you support mob (but especially if you voted ‘Yes’), we need to hear from you. We need to see you, to know we are supported, to feel safe. We’re calling on everyone to wear your solidarity, and to support Blak businesses and our campaigns.
Keep showing up for this generation of young mob, and the next – we owe it to them.
This week, we are holding rallies and actions around the country in Blak-Palestinian solidarity. The fight continues, and I hope to see you there.
For details of national actions, see here. There will be a rally at 6pm on Wednesday 25 October at the State Library.
Roxanne Moore (she/they/baal) is a queer Noongar person, living on unceded Wurundjeri lands. Roxanne is a campaigner, community organiser, lawyer and 2013 Fulbright Scholar. They currently work with young people on social change, and have previously held positions as Executive Officer of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, National Director of Change the Record, Indigenous Rights Campaigner at Amnesty International Australia and Policy Researcher at the Australian Human Rights Commission. Their views are their own and not representative of any organisation they are affiliated with.
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