Australia’s referendum on the establishment of a First Nations Voice to Parliament is being held in less than two weeks. Peacifica supports a Yes vote. We support it because it is a step forward for Indigenous Australians, for settler Australians and for a peaceful Pacific region.
There is a great deal of information to be found on why a Yes vote matters for First Nations Australians. Personally I find two points to be particularly persuasive, the first being that giving people a say in making decisions that affect them leads to better outcomes. It’s good development. The second is that there’s some justice in balancing out the Constitution’s race clause with a provision that gives those affected a voice in how that clause is implemented.
There are other equally compelling reasons that encompass all of us, chief among which is that we see in the Statement from the Heart a document that is perhaps the most important contribution to peacebuilding that this country has seen. The Voice gives those who have suffered the most since 1788 a platform from which to speak and to which those in power must listen. Truth telling gives us all the chance to hear, to understand, to forgive and to work together for justice. And a Treaty by its very nature embodies the end of a struggle. The Statement from the Heart can be a healing gift to the nation.
This healing gift has the potential to reach beyond our shores, especially into the Pacific. The Pacific is watching what we do here. The ABC reported on the Pacific Elders Voices speaking out, and the Vanuatu MP Ralph Regenvanu tweeted that “Respect for Australia in the Pacific will be elevated by a positive Yes vote…” Pacific media has been following the debate.
Some in Australia have observed that it’s not the done thing for foreign politicians to comment on the sovereign affairs of other nations. They have a point, but it’s also true that Pacific people have literal skin in this game. Melanesian people from PNG to Fiji have very strong cultural, historical and family ties into Australian Indigenous communities, not only across the Torres Strait but also crisscrossing the Coral Sea in the Blackbirding slavery of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Intermarriage between South Sea Islanders and Aboriginal people was common, adding to the kinship already present.
Last week Noel Pearson said that the referendum will be “the largest mirror we will ever look into as a nation”. Many Pacific people have looked into this mirror for a long time. Peacifica’s 2020 research report Pacific Perspectives on the World identified a significant strand of awareness in Pacific communities of the disadvantage experienced by First Nations Australians. Some research participants observed that the face that Australia presents to the region is an overwhelmingly white one. They noted that Indigenous perspectives were absent from Australian thinking, voice and leadership. In a region where modes of thinking, communicating and listening matter a great deal, this is significant.
Some even saw reflections of Australian racism toward Pacific people in its treatment of its own Indigenous population.
A Yes vote is therefore particularly resonant for Pacific people. An Australia that says to its own people ‘we are creating a platform from which you can speak, and to which we will listen’ is one that is more likely to listen to Pacific voices, as over time we flex and develop our underpowered ear muscles. We’ll get better at listening, and better also at building strong relationships that embrace our differences and build on our strengths. Creating a more peaceful Australia and a more peaceful Pacific.