WARNING: This article contains mention of Aboriginal people who have died.
Today I saw a row of stobie poles bearing YES campaign posters over which someone had spray-painted NO.
The posters were up fairly high so it required a bit of planning and a ladder.
Later, in a supermarket, I watched a young First Nations kid in a Crows footy jumper — maybe 14 or 15 — shopping with his parents and wondered how that kid will feel on October 15 should the No vote get up.
I’m sick to my heart at the divisive, angry politicisation by some people on both sides of this referendum debate.
I’m also resigned to the fact that this opinion piece may precipitate even more unpleasantness.
I suspect the majority of people who intend to vote No on October 14 haven’t had very much to do with First Nations people.
I hadn’t either until 2008, when I joined a small team helping restructure an Aboriginal corporation delivering municipal services to 12 remote communities in the Northern Territory. The Governing Committee of the organisation comprised elders and senior men.
It was the first time that I’d worked closely with First Australians. Once trust was established, the Governing Committee and our small team worked together with energy, intelligence and boundless humour.
The Governing Committee readily acknowledged dysfunctions, inefficiencies and venality and together we went about fixing things.
Our small team hadn’t worked in Indigenous affairs before but we quickly realised there was plenty of dysfunction, inefficiency and self-interest on the whitefella side of the equation too.
Contractors riding the gravy train and public servants and politicians who resisted change and the diminution of their control with a grim, flint-eyed determination.
Resplendent in brand-new moleskins and clutching mobile phones and iPads, these politicians, advisers and the inevitable gaggle of public servants would drive from community to community in Toyota LandCruisers from Avis, dispensing funds and whitefella wisdom.
As part of the organisational restructure, we worked with the Governing Committee to prioritise each community’s needs and wants. I distinctly remember one community’s request that a strong fence be erected around the water plant to protect it from the camels that wandered through every night. However, the bureaucrats decided what the community really needed was a long fence strung across one side of town to stop the papers blowing. True story.
Another time, in a desperate attempt to instil some sense into the Department of Premier and Cabinet which had responsibility for Indigenous Affairs, we met in Alice Springs with a bureaucrat/political advisor from the Premier’s office.
Despite his ignorance about pretty well everything, he arrogantly conducted himself in the meeting like he was the Premier. While I resisted the temptation to throttle this kid, I watched one of the senior men, Kunmunara Burton.
Sitting on the other side of the table, Kunmunara was quietly gathering all the beer coasters and stacking them on his knee.
When it was his turn to speak, Kunmunara Burton slowly pulled one beer coaster after another out from under the table and laid them out on the tablecloth like a poker hand.
“Tell me,” he said, “Why you mob always deal the cards from under the table?”
Working with the Governing Committee, we rewrote the Constitution and we set up a Community Chairpersons’ Council to drive the cost-efficient delivery of services to the communities. We developed a robust mechanism for management of funding and set up a training regime with an RTO so young people from the communities could learn how to deliver the municipal services themselves.
In a very short time, we had six trainees and apprentices in place and we’d secured funding for 30 more. Over and above all that, we’d identified about $440,000 worth of recurrent savings.
The fact is that this organisational restructure and realignment was very much informed by the elders and senior men. They knew what was wrong and they told us how to fix it.
Nonetheless, politicians and bureaucrats (both state and federal) went about discrediting and unwinding nine months of very effective work. I remember their names.
This was my experience. It still rankles and will do so until the day I die.
I reckon if there was a Voice, all that work would be in place still. Chances are the consultative model we built would have been replicated across Australia by now.
The Voice is an advisory body FFS — nothing more. It will answer to the National Anti-Corruption Commission and it will have a separate, independent ethics council for transparency and accountability. Would that the banks, Qantas and Price Waterhouse Coopers could say the same.
The Minerals Council of Australia, Australian Medical Association, Universities Australia, National Farmers Federation, Business Council of Australia: all these peak bodies and many more have been set up to advise Parliament about matters which concern them.
How many of us are aware that advisory bodies exist for first Nations people in Fiji, Canada, New Zealand, Taiwan, Finland and Scandinavia, just to name a few? Do we really think that these countries are flawed, divided democracies because their constitutions mandate asking First Nations people for their opinions before making laws about them? Really?
I read the Uluru Statement from the Heart as a warm-hearted invitation from indigenous Australians to walk with them so that we can really become one mob under the Southern Cross.
We can work out the details later.
If we let our elected representatives sort out our industrial relations, taxation and health systems, we can let them sort out the Voice too.
Our divided nation needs to heal.
I want Australia to fix this.
I want First Nations people — my fellow Australians — to have their voices heard in a way that this and future governments can’t ignore or wind back.
This is why I am voting Yes.