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Australian Indigenous Voice referendum: Why we are here.

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A couple of weeks ago, as I was coming out of Hornsby’s (a Sydney suburb, 25 kms north of the central district) shopping centre, I saw a group of volunteers handing out leaflets around the Hornsby fountain. Now, more often than not, these are the usual evangelists and I steer clear of them but one old lady came towards me and out of sheer politeness, I could not say no.

As I took a closer look at the leaflet, I noticed it was about the “Yes23” campaign. I knew about the upcoming referendum that has been in the news here in Australia. “I am not a citizen yet, but if I were, I’d be voting a yes”, I told the lady.

The lady’s name was Beth McLaren. She was a volunteer for the “Yes23″ campaign.

The referendum which is going to be held later this year is about a recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first Peoples of Australia and establishing a body called the Voice which may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive government of the Commonwealth of Australia on matters related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This can only be achieved by a modification in the Australian constitution. The referendum, if voted “yes”, seeks to do just that.

The last time Australia changed its constitution was back in 1977. There must be a pressing need for something as fundamental as a change in the constitution. To understand that we should go back to the late 18th century, when Australia was settled.

Australia was settled in 1788 by the English. There are no authoritative numbers, but it is estimated that the indigenous population then could have been anywhere between 300,000 to 1,000,000. Such was the impact of the settlers on the Aboriginal community that the number of Aboriginal peoples, by the end of the 19th century, was reduced to around 50,000.

Throughout its history, Australia has always been an island, which means that the first humans here did not have the advantage that the rest of the world had – sharing borders, and with that, knowledge. So, when the English settlers came in, they brought in diseases like smallpox, influenza and tuberculosis. These ailments were the biggest cause of Aboriginal deaths. However, with the diseases, the English settlers also introduced a lot of cruelty.

There are numerous stories of how the English sanctioned large scale massacres of the Aboriginals peoples over centuries, starting from their arrival in the 1780s until the 1920s. So much so that there is even a wikipedia page detailing every massacre of Indigenous Australians, per decade.

There are many books written about such massacres but Bill Bryson’s otherwise cheerful book on Australia, titled “Down Under: Travels In A Sunburned Country” devotes a chapter solely to the atrocities sanctioned by the state. For example, in 1805, Bryson tells, the acting judge for New South Wales, declared that the Aboriginals did not possess the mental capacity for courtroom proceedings and thus, should be refrained from bothering the court. Instead, he recommended that the “settlers should feel free to inflict any punishment on the natives, as they thought may merit”.

Amongst the many massacres that happened then, the most notable was the Myall creek massacre. On 10th June 1838, a group of eleven settlers (‘stockmen’) murdered 28 Aboriginal people, largely consisting of women, old men and children. They had their hands tied, and were later, most of them, beheaded (barring a couple of young girls, one of whom later formed a relationship with one of the stockmen).

What happened at Myall creek was not unusual but things changed when the manager of the cattle station (where this happened) decided to report it. The massacre eventually became the first and only time the colonial administration intervened to punish those who committed such heinous crimes against the native Australians. In the first trial, the jury acquitted these eleven men in less than fifteen minutes (One juror said, “I look on the blacks as a set of monkeys and the sooner they are exterminated from the face of the earth, the better. I knew the men were guilty of murder but I would never see a white man hanged for killing a black”). However, a second trial was ordered and seven of those eleven were found guilty and hanged.

One would think that such a landmark event then would have had some kind of an impact on the civil society of that time. After all, such judgements are passed, many times, to set a precedent. Unfortunately, that did not happen and Aboriginal massacres continued for at least 9 more decades.

What I find unsettling, if not more damning, is what Bill Bryson further describes in the same chapter, about Myall creek. Drawn to the site of the massacre, our author drove four hours from the coastal town of Macksville to Myall creek, expecting a memorial to the slaughter. Indeed he did find a Memorial Hall – a memorial for the dead of the two World Wars. Talking around, he barely received any proper answers about the massacre that happened there. Bill Bryson published that book in 2000, so he must have been there just before that. Bryson writes, “I pulled the car into the shade of a river gum and got out to have a look. There was no memorial, no historical plaque. Nothing at all to indicate that here, or at least somewhere in the immediate vicinity, was where one of the most infamous events in Australian history took place.”

Australians had had 160 years to build a memorial.

A memorial, though, must have come up soon after Bryson’s visit. A quick google search mentions a memorial at Myall Creek which was built in 2000. Still, it took 160 years? If that does not show the apathy of successive Australian governments towards Australia’s indigenous people, nothing else possibly can.

The massacres were undoubtedly the cruellest things inflicted on the Aboriginal peoples but they were not the only ones that reshaped the social fabric of the community. From 1910 onwards, for the better part of the century, the Australian state sanctioned large scale removals of kids from their Aboriginal families so that they could be raised in state run “training centres”. The idea was that this assimilation of indigenous kids into white culture would make them “civilised”. The effect was that for generations, many Aboriginal peoples did not have rights over their own kids. Often, a government van would show up to take the kids away and place them in one of the 480 odd state-run institutions. They were not allowed to practise their culture, speak their language or even meet their parents ever again. In fact, many Aboriginal parents did not even know the whereabouts of their children.

This was not something that was merely done for a few years – it spanned more than half a century, between 1905 and 1967. The victims of this policy came to be called ‘The Stolen Generations’. The hope was that the “full-blooded” Aboriginal race would eventually die out, while “half-castes” would be assimilated into society. Whatever the official version of what they were hoping to achieve by such a policy, it was clear that it wasn’t thought through. The inhumane treatment that the children suffered, as a part of this state endorsed policy, over decades, is not possible to put down in a few words. The impact of this experiment, if one can call it that, is widely evident till this day, in Aboriginal communities. In fact, it is said that every Aboriginal family, at the very least, knew someone, if not one of their own, who had been affected by this, or, in other words, was a survivor of the Stolen Generations.

But, as an Indian, as someone who grew up in a largely democratic country myself, I could not help but appreciate how, in 2008, the Australian Government (and the opposition), came forward in unison and presented a formal apology to Indigenous Australians for the “mistreatment of those who were the Stolen Generations”.

One could say that this must have been a “token” apology, just as some are saying that the voice referendum, if voted “YES” will be a “token” voice.

But at least it will be a start of something.


I met Beth again, a few weeks after I first saw her near Hornsby Fountain. In Beth, I saw a charming, sharp witted, well-read and knowledgeable lady who could give me an insight into how Australia had changed over the years.

Beth’s career had begun as a teacher and concluded with a senior management position, in a large library in Sydney.

We agreed to meet at the public library at Hornsby on a cold Sunday afternoon that was typical of Sydney’s winter.

In the hours preceding the meeting, my mind was inevitably thinking of such parallels in the Indian state, of marginalisation of communities and any such apologies by the Government.

The only such precedent in Indian democracy that I could think of was Dr Manmohan Singh’s apology to the sikhs of India, in 2011, for the 1984 anti-sikh riots. The Americans described it as a “Gandhian moment” in the history of Indian democracy. Perhaps it was the only one. For state sponsored marginalisation, there are plenty of examples, though the Narmada Bachao Andolan comes first to my mind.

So when we started talking, Beth started the conversation by asking me if there were parallels between Australia and India given both countries had been colonised by the British. My response was that while the atrocities did exist, they were far less brutal in India than what we have seen in Australia, even if you were to compare the relatively recent ones (for a like-for-like scenario).

Beth then goes to the very beginning, of how tensions started to brew in the first place, soon after colonisation: “ There was a tension between the settlers and the Aboriginal peoples, who had occupied the land for millennia and had successfully established ways of gathering their food and managing their land. The settlers who had a farming background used the land quite differently, often imposing on the food source of the Aboriginal peoples. Equally Aboriginal peoples imposed on the settlers because they would arrive at the usual season and on discovering that the yams (for example) which they had harvested at this place for many years had now been replaced by a different crop, would harvest the new crop as their own, as it was planted on what had always been their land. The settlers saw months of work in planting and caring for a crop destroyed before they could harvest it.”

Beth understood the view of both sides, unlike one sided narratives – this is not to say that she in any way justified the atrocities, in fact far from it – but her point was that, there was fear on both sides and for good reason: “There was understandable tension. The Aboriginal peoples saw the settlers as invaders (which they were) and they’d attack a settler’s group but the settlers had guns, so frequently the Aboriginal peoples came off second best. But the settlers, in other cases, felt threatened so they planned massacres of Aboriginal people. It was dreadful for the Aboriginal peoples, it was dreadful for the settlers, who were trying to survive in a quite different country from which they had come. Many of course had not chosen to come to Australia but were sent here as punishment. Despite this, they were trying to establish a new life far away from the support of family and friends. I can understand the fear on both sides but it does not make cruelty right”.

I then went back to Bryson’s book and told Beth about Lachlan Macquarie, the governor of Australia back then, who had given shoot at sight orders for any group of Aboriginal people who were more than six in number, even if they weren’t aggressive.

Beth then spoke about Arthur Phillip (first Governor of Australia) and his successor, Vice Admiral John Hunter. “To give Philip his due, I think Hunter too when he went down to Tasmania, they both wrote back to the British government saying that this land is not unoccupied land, it has people living in it and cannot be described as ‘terra nullius’.The British government ignored this advice.

The British government originally only thought Australia was unoccupied because when Cook sailed up the East Coast, he saw virtually no people..Perhaps we can assume that Aboriginal peoples were watching these strange ships sail up the coast but were clever enough to not actually appear, but to remain safely camouflaged. They knew, but they weren’t aggressive. And so they weren’t there trying to defend the place.”

But the thing that I wondered was, why it ended up like that in the first place. Beth thought hard about it, perhaps, partly, going back in time, in her memories, “I’m not quite sure exactly why many people looked down on Aboriginal peoples – perhaps it was partly because many weren’t as well educated – not their own fault. Perhaps people didn’t understand why Aboriginal peoples would want to live as their ancestors had, but which European Australians regarded as primitive conditions. What people do forget is that Aboriginal peoples were pushed away from the little agricultural land that Australia has (to give context , Australia is 4% arable. India is approx 53%) Initially settlers took over the land near the coast, then settlement moved westwards to the area, where I grew up, and beyond.

The pushing of the Aboriginal peoples out of lands they had always occupied had happened generations ago so that Beth’s experience of life growing up, on her farm in Barmedman, a rural town approximately 450 kms west of Sydney, in 1950s and the 1960s did not include contact with Aboriginal peoples: “We had no contact with any Aboriginals peoples because there were none living in the community.. Evidence of former occupation was there – I still have a stone tool, collected from our farm when I lived there as a child.

In school we were taught that the early settlers encountered Aboriginal peoples who were, to our eyes, rather exotic, primitive people who had boomerangs and hunted kangaroos, but there was nothing about Aboriginal peoples living in Australia today. There was nothing about the fact that there was any conflict between the white settlers – that narrative didn’t come into it. And it was almost as though the Aboriginals of the time when Cook was there, had just faded from existence. We were children and we did not think about it.

By the time of the 1967 Referendum Beth was a young woman teaching at Dubbo High School and there were some young Aboriginal children in these classes. Just as today, these children were often struggling educationally by the time they reached secondary school. The impact of disadvantage was apparent.

The 1967 referendum was held to allow (if voted, yes) the federal government to make special laws for Aboriginals peoples and to include them in the national census (It was voted “YES”).

Beth then told me about the time around the 1967 referendum: “I was unaware but others must have known – Aboriginals served in the wars and when they came back home, they weren’t allowed to enter a pub. They weren’t treated as citizens, they weren’t counted in the population. And when I say they weren’t counted in the population, it worked like this – the bureau of statistics actually asked the question: Do you have Aboriginal ancestry? And all the people who said ‘Yes’ to having any Aboriginal ancestry weren’t counted as part of the population of Australia. That is how it worked. So the only people who were included in the official population figures as Australian citizens were people who didn’t have Aboriginal ancestry – Which is extraordinary if you think about it, when we accepted their willingness to serve in the war”

At this point, I did mention that this could be simply a case of the Aboriginal people looking at war service as an employment opportunity, if nothing else. To which Beth replied that although this may have been a factor Aboriginal peoples had been employed in different capacities for many years as part of the Australian workforce. No matter the reason for enlisting all those who did, no matter what their background, took the risk that they might be sacrificing their life for their country.

We then started talking about the stolen generations – how she had, in her own career as a teacher back in the 60s, seen Aboriginal girls who were raised in an institution. I asked her if she could shed some light on how she thought it must have affected them – “It is something that I think the Aboriginals are still feeling the effect of – how do you learn to be a good mother and father, if you’ve had no mother and father to teach you that? How do you learn to be a parent when you’ve had no role model? We learned to be good mums and dads from what our parents showed us. And they had about three generations lost, just like that.”

But what baffled me was how did they got these kids into institutions in the first place – taking a step back, I asked her about how this whole institution thing worked – would they just come in one day and take your kids away? Turns out, that was exactly the case”. Beth explained, “They came to communities and if they saw that there were Aboriginal peoples, they would put the children in a vehicle and drive them away and put them into an institution, which might be hundreds of miles away. The idea was they would go to learn European ways. “Good British White ways”, so that they would learn to do domestic chores and things like that and be useful citizens. So, it is not surprising that many Aboriginal children that came out of that faced different, and more complex problems than other children of their age.”

The institutions, reserves and missions, to which Aboriginal children were forcibly removed, as Beth describes them, were, more often than not, constrained places with strict rules. The Aboriginal kids were not allowed to follow their own customs, speak their own languages or follow their culture. “You weren’t allowed to leave, you had to stay there and in all those constraints – is it any wonder that so many of Aboriginal communities today are dysfunctional. The answer is to not make things for them any tougher – the answer is to listen to Aboriginal people, to try and see what they think are possible solutions and maybe implement some of them.”

“But are you aware”, I couldn’t help but ask, “of any such solutions that you think might help them”. Beth answered this question with a story from 30 years ago. She was appointed as the Manager for a NSW Department of Education Unit, the School Libraries Service, which supported teacher librarians in the over 2000 schools across NSW. Part of her responsibility also included providing advice to the Minister for Education on matters related to school libraries. She believes an important reason for her success in applying for this position was that she had experience in rural and city schools and had strong contacts within the profession. When she took the job, it was made very clear to her that she had to keep those contacts. Because if she did not, she wouldn’t know what the thinking was within the teacher librarian community. So, when the minister asked for advice, she was expected to provide this based on an understanding of the current situation in government schools and an understanding of current developments within the profession. “I was that voice of the lived experience of teacher librarians across the state and that is exactly what the Aboriginal people want: bureaucrats whose advice is based on the real life experience and understanding of the issues because they have listened to the Aboriginal peoples.”. But there is an argument that Beth often hears, she told me, that there are enough Aboriginals politicians in parliament, isn’t that enough already? “My answer to them then is”, she begins assertively, “There have been many doctors in the parliament already but does that mean the AMA (Australian Medical Association) is not needed? That is because the doctors in the parliament are representing the electorate, and not just doctors. Which is why the Aboriginal politicians in the parliament are representing their entire electorate and not just Aboriginals peoples. And these elected Aboriginals in the parliament would be dependent on voting results. Or, they could resign and someone else could come in, who’d be an equal representative of the electorate but not an Aboriginal person and thus may have no idea about the problems of the Aboriginal community. The Aboriginals peoples are only 4% of the total population but to my mind, they are a very important group because they are the original occupants of our country and we have much to learn from them if we listen to them”.

To conclude this, I asked her something which I was not clear about – what did this whole thing, this “voice”, translate to? Like what happens in the parliament if there is a “yes”? How many people become the “voice”? Beth told me that the first thing that this referendum aims to do is to recognise the Aboriginal peoples. The second thing is establishing a voice. She continued, “The constitution does not say how the voice will work, it just guarantees that there will be one. The parliament is the one that decides the specifics. Whoever actually speaks to the parliament, that voice – those people, they will be nominated from various tribes across the country. But once it is there in the constitution as a concept, it can’t be abolished, it becomes a base – it can change over the years but it will be there, the voice can’t just go away.”


To do this write-up was an impromptu decision taken at the Hornsby fountain, when I had the opportunity to speak to Beth for the first time, for a mere five minutes. There’s a lot more into the campaign that supports the voice than I can hope to accomplish with this article. There’s also a campaign that opposes this voice, which I have not even mentioned here. The idea behind this article was not to go into the “whys” of the Yes campaign but to understand what brought us here in the first place.

I spoke to Beth to understand how Australia had changed over the decades and the conversation helped me get deep, first-hand insights of the issues that eventually are leading to the referendum (that is to take place on the 14th of October 2023). I hope some of that insight finds its way into this write-up. I am ever thankful to Beth who committed to spend an entire Sunday afternoon with someone she barely knew, sharing stories and personal anecdotes from her rich experience of life.

Written by aditya kumar

October 12th, 2023 at 9:44 am

Posted in Australia