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  • Writer's pictureJames Cox

Pacific eyes on an Indigenous Voice

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

Each year in Australia we mark the end of the summer holidays by arguing about the damage done by British colonisation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Even the fact that we do this over and over is evidence of unresolved injustice and continued injury. But as do this, we forget that this is more than just a domestic matter. People around the world, and our Pacific neighbours in particular, are watching.

The ensuing cacophony is exhausting and upsetting, especially when resistance to change comes from our national leaders. My personal response is founded in my support for human rights and informed by the leadership of Indigenous people. I think that our failure to reconcile diminishes the whole country. I cannot imagine what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience each year.

I am encouraged that each year more people seem to accept that January 26 is not a day of celebration, but change is slow. Even more encouragingly, this year there is an important difference, a thread of optimism that we can grasp and follow to find our way forward. This thread is the consultation on the Indigenous Voice Co-design process. It is an important milestone in Australian reconciliation as the government – thus far – follows through on its commitment to implement a Voice to Parliament.

The models proposed in the Advisory Group’s report to government are flawed, and so Peacifica supports the suggestions of the From The Heart campaign, in the spirit of the Uluru Statement:

  1. The government should hold a referendum once the model for the Voice has been settled, to enshrine it in the Constitution

  2. Enabling legislation for the Voice must be passed after a referendum has been held

  3. Membership of the National Voice must include previously unheard Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

We encourage everyone to read and offer their own support to the process and to the campaign’s recommendations.

Pacific eyes on Australia

The significance of the Indigenous Voice goes beyond our shores. As Australians we are for the most part unaware of how others see us as we contend with our history. This is not to suggest that we should all behave ourselves, rather it’s the reverse – we need to sort this out. Our problem is is the continued injustice experienced by Indigenous Australians, not the dispute itself. The lack of an Indigenous Voice has real world consequences for Australia.

These consequences play out particularly among Pacific islanders, with whom Australians share ties of history, culture, economics and, significantly, ethnicity. In our 2020 report for the Whitlam Institute, Pacific Perspectives on the World, the researchers were impressed by the quiet depth of feeling on Indigenous issues that emerged from our Melanesian respondents, who are in a position to ‘follow the frothings on the sea’ on an island hopping canoe voyage to Australia. They commonly see Australians as being dominant, remote and sometimes racist. This derived from several factors, notably personal experience, the history of Blackbirding, and the absence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from Pacific relationships and from Australia’s public persona generally. Australia's Pacific Step-up is compromised by the continued injustices experienced by Indigenous Auatralians.

As the research report noted, many Pacific islanders have “a sense of unease as to how white Australia engages with people of colour at home, with a clear indication that this is seen to be significant for how Australia projects itself in the region.” They have a distinct sense of affinity with Indigenous Australians and their view of Australian racism appeared to be derived as much from its domestic actions as those in Pacific countries.

Everybody knows about the Aborigines… but nobody has seen them live, in terms of an Aborigine coming to visit. Very few and far between in terms of that connection. – Solomon Islands participant no 5

This issue underpins the confidence and trust that Pacific islanders have in Australia. As the report notes: “The invisibility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to participants is emblematic of the distance that is seen to exist between Solomon Islands and Australia. …Solomon Islanders want to know an Australia that is multicultural with Indigenous Australians at its heart. They see and value the ethnic and cultural ties that link them to black Australians across the island chains.

“This exemplifies the thirst for mutual knowledge, understanding and respect that was common among participants – they won’t truly know and trust Australia until they know Aboriginal Australia. And the relationship needs to go deeper than government – there should be opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and Solomon Islanders to know each other at all levels.”

There are already affinities there that we should put into a syllabus: Australia there, the Aborigines, South Sea Islanders, Bougainville… So we can say ‘oh yes, Australia is not a white country, it is one of us, it is part of us. So we can come and talk in your institutions…’ – Solomon Islands participant no 11

This desire for connection suggests a valuable role for the Indigenous Voice. There is no telling what might come out of a fully inclusive and representative model, but opportunities for Pacific Islanders and Indigenous Australians to ‘know each other at all levels’ are likely to be part of it and to have more effect than bureaucratic attempts to foster linkages. It is telling that processes for Indigenous advancement like DFAT’s employment, leadership development and contracting initiatives were invisible to the Pacific islander participants in the research.

It is well past time for Australia to recognise the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through an Indigenous Voice to parliament. Those voices, and the faces and communities behind them, will become visible not only here, but also around the world. It’s a new face - and a great opportunity - for all of us.

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