The focus on disadvantage and the vitriol are obscuring the positives of the referendum, argues HANNAH HAMMERSCHLAG.
The Voice to Parliament referendum has stirred the Australian community like no issue I’ve seen before.
I’m not referring to the negativity and vitriol that has been amplified by an ever-polarising media landscape, which benefits no one.
I’m referring to the optimism I see within our community and the opportunity that people recognise is before us. What has been forgotten in the fear campaign is the beauty of what we will gain if the referendum is successful.
People who have never engaged in politics, and never thought of themselves as campaigners, are having conversations every day with family and friends about why they believe the Voice is such an important next step. They are putting themselves in uncomfortable positions to talk to strangers on the street, or wearing Yes badges in case someone has a question that they can answer and turn a vote.
As Campaign Manager of Kol Halev (Stand Up’s Jewish community campaign in support of a Yes vote), I have had the opportunity to engage with passionate people across the spectrum of the Jewish community from the orthodox to the reform, and the religious to the secular.
What is it about this issue that has seeped into the soul of our community enough to move us to action? Is it simply the anger felt by so many people with opposing voices that compels them to react and retaliate? No, I believe it is bigger than that.
Australians, when they open their hearts and actively listen to First Nations Australians, get a sense of the wonder and beauty of this country that we call home. We appreciate the rich history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who have lived on this continent for over 65,000 years.
At a recent Kol Halev event we heard from Noel Pearson, who spoke of the decades of work and consultation it has taken to get to the point we are at today. He reminded us that Australia has been offered an olive branch, from those who have been most disadvantaged in this country, in the form of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And despite the waves of negativity that are constantly crashing down on Pearson and other Aboriginal advocates, he truly believes, as do I, that if the Voice is successful, “we can be a beacon of light to the world”.
Australians, when they open their hearts and actively listen to First Nations Australians, get a sense of the wonder and beauty of this country that we call home.
In the context of First Nations justice, we can look across the Tasman. In 2022, I was lucky enough to spend 12 months in Aotearoa New Zealand, a country that embraces its First Peoples, the Māori people. Māori culture and language permeate every element of life for Kiwis. Every street sign and public announcement incorporates Māori language and many non-Maori shop assistants greet customers with the Maori “Kia ora”. It’s a beautiful reminder of what Australia could be and what we should be aspiring to.
The understanding of Māori culture deepened when our children started school. They came home singing Māori songs, reciting Māori stories and talking about how the “tamariki” (children) eat “kai” (lunch) together at tables, and wave goodbye as they are picked up by their “whanau” (family). And so we, too, began to use these common phrases. New Zealand might not be a perfect model for good relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, but this embracing of language and culture is such an enriching part of New Zealand life.
I was reminded of this period of embracing Māori culture, when I heard a rendition of the great John Farnham’s song You’re The Voice (recently adopted as the official Yes campaign soundtrack), performed by an Aboriginal man in his own language. It dawned on me then that this Indigenous language is completely foreign to me as an Australian. I uncomfortably admitted that in the year we spent in New Zealand, I heard more Indigenous language than in the 36 years that I have lived in Australia.
The Voice to Parliament hopes to improve the severe disadvantage that many First Nations communities face today. But it also hopes to protect, sustain and share the treasures of the oldest living continuous culture on Earth. As the Uluru statement puts it, “when we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.”
Let’s imagine for a moment an Australia where we embrace the beauty, resilience and wisdom of our First Peoples, where their language and culture is ingrained into all facets of life, rather than feared, ignored and silenced.
Just as Rome attracts tourists to visit the Colosseum, cathedrals and cobblestone streets, Australia would be inviting the world to share in our own ancient history and resilient culture with pride – one that is full of art, and magical storytelling, with answers to climate change through agricultural and land management practices that are more relevant today than ever. The Voice offers the prospect of a beautiful enrichment and addition to the Australia that we all enjoy.
Some will say I am naive for sharing this dream and that the Voice to Parliament is far more complex than I am giving credit. There are numerous articles from people with far more authority than me that have already addressed these concerns and the misinformation raised by opponents of this referendum.
So, to me, all that remains is a simple question – what Australia do we want to wake up to on October 15? One that accepts the status quo and chooses fear over hope? Or one that says to our First Peoples that we value the culture and lives of Indigenous people and want to see them flourish?
I know which Australia I want to live in and that’s why I will be voting Yes; to bring about change on October 15.
Photo: An image from Terrain, by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance company Bangarra (Bangarra Dance Theatre)