As the referendum approaches amplify sovereign voices and continue the fight for First Nations rights

Independent Senator, Lidia Thorpe, addressing the Invasion Day rally. She is a powerful voice for the Blak Sovereign Movement. Photo: Alison Thorne/Freedom Socialist Organiser
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As the national vote on Constitutional recognition and a Voice for First Nations people gets closer, the discussion gets uglier. The referendum has become a contest between two simplistic arguments, presented by mainstream media as the only legitimate ones.

“Fair Australia,” or the No case, asserts that a Voice is a divisive form of special treatment. To address disadvantage is unfair, it claims, because everyone supposedly has an equal chance in life. The Yes case, branded “Yes23,” is confused. On the one hand, it hails the referendum as a great moment in history. On the other, it assures voters that a First Nations Voice will be a purely advisory body, leaving Parliament firmly in charge. No need to fear that the boat will be rocked.

While $10 million of government funds deliver Yes and No pamphlets to every mailbox in Australia, most First Nations people struggle to be heard. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples call for truth-telling and treaty before the establishment of a Voice. Others assert the sovereignty of First Nations and the inalienable right to self-determination. These diverse Indigenous voices are not getting the same opportunity to reach a mass audience.

Celeste Liddle, an Arrernte woman, feminist and unionist describes discussions at the community level as “robust.” In a 17 August episode of The Full Story — a podcast produced by The Guardian — Liddle said that the dominant talking points do not represent “the very real conversations that our mobs are having across the country about if this is or isn’t the best way forward.” At the grassroots, mob are demanding rights, which some think treaties will deliver. Liddle highlights that sovereignty has never been ceded. This makes claims that the Constitution and government have authority over Aboriginal people deeply problematic and offensive, she says, because they ignore the ancient frameworks of the sovereign owners.

In September 2022, the Freedom Socialist Party showed that the process leading to the development of the Uluru Statement was flawed, because it froze out the majority of First peoples. (The link to Truth and treaty: Foundations for First Nations justice is below.)

Ask mob. We argued that there should be a vote of First Nations people prior to any referendum. In a powerful ABC interview on One Plus One earlier this year, Fred Hooper, a Murrawarri elder and one of the 250 delegates to the conference at Yulara hosted by the Referendum Council, said, “one extra thing needed to be added to the whole process — a referendum of Aboriginal people to ask us if we wanted to be in the Constitution.”

Significant numbers of grassroots First Nations people reject recognition in the Constitution of Australia, a capitalist settler state. John Howard proposed the idea in 2007 — the very same Prime Minister who had just introduced the Northern Territory Intervention, which stripped First Nations people of the most basic controls over their lives.

Constitutional recognition has the backing of big corporations. Among them are mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP. Yes, the same Rio Tinto that destroyed the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge in 2020 and the same BHP that damaged a culturally significant Banjima rock shelter in the Pilbara in 2021. Recognition gives the appearance of action without conferring any rights to First Nations peoples. It gives a cover for big capital’s ongoing, genocidal expropriation of First People’s lands.

This campaign has been years in the making. Its first version, “Recognise,” was a hit in the boardrooms and promoted by companies like Qantas whose fleet was emblazoned with the “R” logo. But it didn’t get traction on the ground and had to be ditched. Then came the 2017 Uluru Statement From The Heart, the culmination of a process carefully crafted and led by the Referendum Council. Despite all the talk at the twelve regional dialogues hosted by the council, disagreements among divergent interests remain unresolved.

The corporate drivers of constitutional recognition reject any changes that would confer rights, including the right to take a matter to the High Court. As long as amendments to the Constitution meet this threshold, corporate Australia is ready to spend up big. Rio Tinto proudly proclaimed its donation of $2 million to Yes23. ANZ, BHP, Commonwealth Bank, Insurance Australia Group, Telstra, Westfarmers and Westpac have all matched this figure, stumping up $2 million each. The Yes23 logo is now splashed across Qantas planes.

While The Uluru Statement reflects demands arising from regional dialogues, including the assertion that First Nations sovereignty “has never been ceded or extinguished,” any reference to rights in the referendum is strictly symbolic. All it offers is an advisory body whose composition, structure, rules of operation and funding are set by Parliament.

Photos: Invasion Day

The message from the huge Invasion Day march in Melbourne on 26 January this year was Treaty Before Voice. All photos by Alison Thorne/Freedom Socialist Organiser.

Signs raised a wide diversity of slogans but there were no calls coming from the movement for constitutional recognition.

The Treaty Before Voice t-shirts produced for the rally were popular. They boldly declare that sovereignty has never been ceded.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum vote, the movement will need to continue the fight to end child removals and deaths in custody.

Limits of advisory bodies. Arguments of the Blak Sovereign Movement (BSM, see links below) have solid support. In Victoria, this year’s huge Invasion Day protest rallied around the slogan, “Treaty Before Voice.” At the NAIDOC march in July, there was a noticeable absence of Yes t-shirts and placards. The call for organisations to respect the diversity of First Nations views is steadily gaining momentum.

Two local councils have already demonstrated why we must heed this call. Darebin Council initially signed off on advice from the Darebin Aboriginal Advisory Council — which has guided Melbourne’s inner northern local council for 20 years — not to endorse the Yes or No case, in order to respect the diverse views of the Aboriginal community in the area. But after immense pressure from the Yes campaign, the council reneged.

Similarly Merri-bek Council endorsed a Yes vote, despite advice from the Merri-bek First Nations Advisory Committee not to take a stance, either for or against. After an outraged response from the advisory committee, Merri-bek Council reversed its decision.

That two local councils blatantly ignored these Aboriginal advisory bodies shows how the Voice would play out at the national level.

The BSM calls for those who genuinely want to support the aspirations of First Nations people to engage more broadly. They caution, “If the only voices you are hearing or amplifying are the “progressive Yes” or “the conservative/racist No,” it shows you are failing to engage with the diverse spectrum of grassroots Blak voices across the country. We may not be on the front page but we are most definitely still here.”

There’s plenty of institutional support for a Yes vote in the referendum. It is not only corporates enthusiastically backing Yes23. The trade union bureaucracy is running a top-down “Unionists for Yes” campaign. The major sporting codes, faith-based organisations and non-government organisations are all on board. Many First Nations people are also backing Yes23. Others are reluctantly on board, repelled by the racist arguments of Fair Australia or pragmatically hoping that what’s on offer might just turn out to be slightly better than nothing.

Yes23 may be cashed up with big donations, stylish corflutes and a huge social media budget, but no mobilised grassroots movement is backing it. Absent is the movement that has firmly entrenched in the popular consciousness that 26 January commemorates an invasion. This should tell us something.

Photos: NAIDOC

NAIDOC is an important week for the community. The traditional march in Melbourne on July 7 brought a large multi-generational crowd out onto the chilly mid-winter streets of Melbourne around this years theme, For Our Elders. All photos by Alison Thorne/Freedom Socialist Organiser.

There were banners, t-shirts and popular beanies promoting the call for a Treaty for Victoria, but the call for constitutional recognition was invisible at this community event.

Campaigning to stop the genocidal practice of child removals is a high priority of the movement. Rieo Ellis, speaking for Grandmothers Against Removals, got a warm reception from the crowd.

Gary Foley, a veteran of the movement, also addressed the NAIDOC march. He is another powerful voice for First Nation’s sovereignty.

Always was, always will be Aboriginal land is one of the most popular chants at grass roots protests. It was emblazoned on banners and t-shirts at the 2023 NAIDOC march.

Our stance. We reaffirm our position that there must be a vote of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to decide whether they want to be included in the Constitution. We advocate not a Yes vote or a No vote, but self-determination. This is the Marxist position that we learned from Lenin.

We are disgusted, but not surprised, to see the Liberal Party, led by Peter Dutton, making its campaign to defeat the referendum central to its re-election plan. The lives and aspirations of First Peoples are being abandoned to a battle between who will prevail — Dutton or Albanese.

Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, the fight will continue to advance the rights of First Nations people. We support the establishment of truth telling and processes to establish treaties. With more than 250 distinct nations, some with as many as seven clans, what’s needed is a process where all First Nations are given opportunities to engage in genuine acts of self-determination.

We also pledge to continue campaigning for implementation in full of all of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Bringing Them Home report. The failure of governments to deliver these concrete recommendations, demanded by the movement for decades, highlights that the problem is hardly a lack of clear advice to governments. It’s the lack of real power by First Nations; it’s the ignoring of their sovereignty.

When the interests of First Nations or those of the working class clash with those of corporations, governments know whose interests they will protect: the class in power, the capitalist class. This is why the Minerals Resource Rent Tax was overturned in 2014, why laws severely restrict workers’ right to strike and why growing the investments of landlords continues to trump the rights of renters.

What happened last month in Western Australia is another salient lesson. Western Australia passed the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act to strengthen protections for sensitive cultural sites following the destruction of Juukan Gorge in 2020. It’s now in tatters, just five weeks after it came into effect, due to the backlash by major resource companies and property owners. The old laws are restored. Traditional owners of Juukan Gorge caves are devastated and angry. But not so the team at Yes23, willing to sacrifice the laws in its bid to achieve a Yes vote in the referendum. Campaign director, Dean Parkin, endorsed the decision of the WA government saying that getting rid of these laws which had racists in a lather “clears the pathway” to sell the Voice referendum! The opportunism of Yes23 is staggering.

In a showdown between big capital and the rights of First Nations, grassroots mob are heartily sick of coming a poor second, and it is clear that they will not be placated by tokenism. The multi-racial working class majority struggling with the soaring cost of living, a housing crisis and insecure jobs wants real change, too.

In his conversation with One Plus One, Fred Hooper explained that without challenging capitalism and climate change, the future would be bleak. We agree and will continue to fight for a bright future where corporate profits no longer rule. As long as we live in a capitalist society built on the stolen land of First Nations and the stolen labour of workers, First Nations, workers and the poor will continue to be offered meagre schemes sold as the best that capitalism can offer. It’s time to stop settling for second best! However you end up voting on referendum day, the fight continues for a truly great moment in history — one where workers and the original owners have power, based on First Nations’ self-determination.

Further reading

Detailed outline of the Blak Sovereign Movement’s Position on the Referendum

Response to Yes and No Campaign cases

Truth and Treaty: Foundations for First Nations Justice, Freedom Socialist Organiser, September 2022

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