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After the referendum, moving beyond hurt and anger towards collective action

The referendum has birthed a powerful movement for collective action for justice, truth-telling and healing, according to Nicole Hewlett, a proud Palawa woman and public health researcher at the University of Queensland.

“We were 3.8 percent of the population and now we are 39.5 percent. We are 39.5 percent who are grounded in solidarity and filled with the ancestral fire to address injustice and reimagine an Australia that we can all be proud of,” she writes below.


Nicole Hewlett writes:

I’m not going to downplay it, that referendum result hurt like nothing else. I cycled through deep heartbreak and helplessness at the resounding rejection, resentment towards those who appeared indifferent towards the outcome and bitterness that once again, our peoples’ lives have been reduced to nothing more than pawns in a political game where we don’t just lose, we die.

But mostly, I was fiercely angry at the amplification of the violent and manipulative voices of the minority, and the way in which they try to masquerade as the majority, serving to homogenise and stigmatise non-Indigenous Australians. These feelings were festering and they aren’t who I am or what I dream for Australia.

I disconnected from those feelings.

Instead, I connected to our true nature. That essential truth of human nature which tells us that our wellness as human beings is sustained by a genuine reciprocity of interconnectedness with all life forms.

Many Indigenous peoples around the world understand this intuitively, as organic as breathing, with an intrinsic knowing of the immense wisdom offered through honouring such connections. It took time but the insightful gifts of wisdom came, layer by layer…

Many say that the ‘no vote’ set Australia’s reconciliation efforts back 50 years and that treaty was no longer possible. I disagree. Australia never left the 1970s attitudes, treatment and value of First Nations peoples, the systems just got better at disguising it.

Photo supplied by author.

Revealing truths

At this historic moment, Australia revealed the truth, and the world witnessed it.

The ‘no vote’ finally exposed the denial and the lies that Australia tells itself in terms of being a nation “unaffected by colonisation”, where there is “no racism” and “everyone gets a fair go”.

We cannot heal the psyche of this nation if we do not accept our truths – just as Germany, Rwanda, South Africa and countless other nations have understood so they do not repeat history in any shape or form.

I reflected on what would have happened if we got our “yes”. What would it have been like to live in a country where say, 48 percent said ‘no’ but the ‘yes’ actually passed?

If history is anything to go by, we would not only see the perpetuation of racism but an exacerbation of it. We likely would have seen a radicalisation of those minority ‘no’ voters, outraged and fuelled with even more violent feelings towards First Nations people. This scenario would have done nothing to educate and heal Australia.

Instead, it was the other way around and it was not just our hearts that broke but so did many non-Indigenous peoples’ hearts too. I acknowledge that the ‘no’ result was painful for many non-Indigenous allies, especially since the ‘no’ may have been accompanied by shame and shock around the degree of racism that this referendum surfaced.

This may have been the first time, allies had experienced what it felt like to be a First Nations person in Australia; as Senator Briggs stated, “for the ‘No’ it was a SuperBowl. For me it was a Saturday”.

Sprouting conversations

So, what next? What could potentially unfold after 39.5 percent of the country experienced the helplessness, sadness, and anger at the injustice of it all?

I believe it’s conversation. There is real potential and opportunity for that 39.5 percent of the country who voted ‘Yes’ to have real conversations with friends, family and colleagues about racism, misinformation, and Australia’s legacies of colonisation.

I have already noticed the seeds of these conversations sprout all around me as honest face-to-face, human-to-human connections. In turn, I heard many stories of ‘no voters’ showing grace and openness to these conversations.

Perhaps this softness and willingness to listen is from observing the heartache inflicted from the ‘No’ vote, along with the realisation most First Nations people voted ‘Yes’. Perhaps it comes from wondering why the outcome doesn’t quite feel like “winning” or that we are a more united country, as promised by ‘No’ proponents.

Regardless, we are here now and what an opportunity we have before us. I believe these conversations are the key to education, truth-telling and healing in Australia.

Denial and a lack of education are significant factors that enable racism to prevail. These enablers of racism can be addressed by meaningful conversations that are tailored to the individuals and environments where they are held.

There is no program, policy, law or education in the world more powerful in creating change than the personal conversations. We know this. We may very well be the first generation to effectively reduce racism and its systemic and ongoing harms, but we must continue to talk to each other and understand what it is like to be in the other person’s shoes. It takes courage, compassion and a belief that will lead to sustainable change. That’s what Closing the Gap looks like.

We were 3.8 percent of the population and now we are 39.5 percent. We are 39.5 percent who are grounded in solidarity and filled with the ancestral fire to address injustice and reimagine an Australia that we can all be proud of.

The ‘No’ that voted to deny us a Voice has given us a more powerful one.

• Nicole Hewlett is a proud Palawa woman, a PhD Candidate, and holds two positions at The University of Queensland (UQ), one as a Project Manager in the First Nations Cancer and Research Wellbeing Program and the other as a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder researcher in the General Practice Clinical Unit. Nicole has extensive experience in, and is passionate about, translating culturally responsive frameworks, strengths-based approaches and wellbeing models into a range of different practice settings to create equitable access to knowledge, services and supports among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Taking the long view. Photo supplied by author.

See Croakey’s portal on the Voice, compiling articles, resources and statements