Introduction by Croakey: For the first time since the devastating Voice referendum vote, key Indigenous Yes23 campaigners Rachel Perkins, Dean Parkin, Jade Ritchie, Thomas Mayo and Kara Keys met publicly this week at major events with #Yes23 supporters to discuss the impact and the road ahead.
Croakey journalist Marie McInerney reports below from one meeting. See this Guardian Australia report of the other meeting.
Marie McInerney writes:
Yes23 leaders this week expressed ongoing commitment to the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s calls for Voice, Treaty, Truth, and rallied supporters at emotional virtual town hall events that acknowledged pain and grief from the loss of the Voice referendum.
The 2,000 supporters who attended the events were urged to keep up the unprecedented grassroots momentum built through the Yes campaign, but to not expect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and communities to rush out a new agenda for change, given that the Voice proposal was decades in the making and that many are still managing the grief that its rejection has wrought.
Asked how the story of the Voice campaign would be written, leading Australian filmmaker and Yes campaigner Rachel Perkins, an Arrernte/Kalkadoon woman, spoke first about “bizarre” lies that spread among No voters.
“So I think (the campaign) will be infamous because of the misinformation that was surrounding it, but I think in the long sweep of history it will go down as our great moment of lost opportunity.”
However, as we have seen “in other historical moments of great loss”, out of that great disappointment will rise something “that will be more determined,” said Perkins, the daughter of the late Indigenous leader Charlie Perkins, who led the Freedom Rides across segregated towns in New South Wales in the 1960s.
She was speaking publicly for the first time since the referendum, alongside other prominent Yes leaders Dean Parkin, Thomas Mayor, Jade Ritchie and Kara Keys, at two Yes23 virtual town hall meetings.
Urging supporters to continue to step up on Indigenous issues, Parkin said truth telling was often understood as a formal process that has to be done first to educate non-Indigenous people so they could understand and support Indigenous issues.
In fact, “this referendum, this campaign, was a moment of truth telling…a very brutal example of what truth telling can look like”, he said.
“There may be some sort of formal process that’s established but that doesn’t absolve us from understanding that this is happening as we speak. It’s happening in the conversations that we choose to have or not have, with our families and friends, about these issues that are important to us,” he said.
Asked whether the Uluru Statement would still be the way forward for Indigenous Australians, Perkins said that, like the Barunga Statement and the Yirrkala bark petitions before it, its aspirations for Voice, Treaty, and Truth “still stand and continue to hold the agreed position from Indigenous Australia”.
“Even though we’ve been defeated in this moment, that does not mean that we will let go of those aspirations: they remain strong, and they have remained strong for decades and we will not lose sight of them,” she said.
“So however the Voice is created in the future, whatever the mechanisms for Treaty, state and federal, that come, those aspirations are not lost.”
The two town hall events were hosted by the Yes23 campaign to “celebrate all we achieved, debrief the campaign and discuss what might be next”.
In the invitation to supporters, Parkin, who is from the Quandamooka People of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), said there had been much analysis of the campaign and result in the weeks since the referendum. But none had captured the “power, energy and momentum of the campaign on the ground” by the 60,000 people who signed up to the campaign as energetic volunteers, he said.
“I haven’t seen a piece that properly shares what it was like in local communities across the country — how so many Australians walked together to support recognition and a better future, many campaigning for the first time,” he said.
“Hundreds of thousands of Australians walked with us, making the movement for Indigenous recognition one of the largest in our country’s history. Millions more wrote Yes on 14 October. Together, we brought Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recognition and justice to the forefront of the national conversation,” he said.
MC-ed by Gooreng Gooreng woman and Yes23 spokeswoman Jade Ritchie, the events prompted emotional reflections from campaign leaders and participants about how they felt in the wake of the referendum and what their highlights had been.
Ritchie warned though that the gatherings were not designed to make any decisions about the way forward, but to be part of a reflection process that was being led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Grief, anger, pride
Asked how she felt, three weeks on, Perkins said it helped to attend events like the town halls, “to connect with everyone again”, but her overall response was “comparable to a grief in some ways”.
She had been “pretty gutted there for a while, like everyone”, and “there’s some anger there“ that she is trying to channel into positive activities. But she also felt she was “on the mend and thinking about what’s next”.
Parkin talked about his conflicting emotions, acknowledging that these are still very early days. He felt profound grief about the loss, particularly given the very strong support for the Voice from remote booths in central Australia, the Top End, the Kimberley region and the Torres Strait — the communities that would have benefited most from a Voice and turned out to be its strongest supporters.
“So I think most of the grief that I feel is…that for those that wanted it the most and needed it the most, we weren’t able to help achieve that.”
But alongside that was “an undoubted pride” in what the campaign was able to achieve, particularly to harness 6.2 million Yes votes and create the 60,000-strong volunteer force across 300 Yes community groups, who knocked on more than 400,000 doors, made more than one million phone calls, and organised more than 12,000 events in recent months.
Like Parkin, Ritchie said she had felt she had let people down and was worried post-referendum about going back to work in the Northern Territory without having helped deliver a Yes vote.
Then she walked into a room in Mparntwe/Alice Springs and was greeted as “our little Yes girl” and hugged by one Aunty, who said “you’ll be right, bub” and that she had been “blown away” that 6.2 million Australians had voted for the Voice.
“I chose to hold onto that,” Ritchie said of the affirmation, sharing on the webinar a wordcloud of responses that people attending had submitted.
Many chose words like ‘disheartened’, ‘disappointed’, ‘devastated’, ‘sad’ and ‘heartbroken’ but, standing strongly alongside them, she noted, were ‘determined” and ‘hopeful’.
Highlights big and small
Asked about campaign highlights, Perkins talked about going home to Mparntwe/Alice Springs, where local people, led by local Arrente women, would turn out at the drop of a hat to demonstrate their support. Of being in Sydney for the huge rally, seeing the waves of people walking down Cleveland Street. Handing out leaflets with decent people who were prepared to turn up.
“I was in tears a lot of the time,” she said of the emotion of the campaign.
For Parkin, the highlights included an Aboriginal man in his mid 50s in the Kimberly, who proudly pronounced he had never voted in his life but was enrolling so he could cast a vote for Yes.
Another was the story of a woman who moved from Canberra to the Gold Coast to volunteer for a few months “because she thought more work needed to be done there”.
He was also incredibly moved by the Adelaide Walk for Yes rally, the first of all the rallies that weekend, where the turnout quadrupled initial expectations, and created a “phenomenal, electric atmosphere”.
The coming together of people from all walks of life across Australia to support Yes was one of the highlights for Keys, a Yiman and Gangulu woman.
“I feel like this campaign did actually unify our community,” she said. “I’ve been doing this sort of thing for 20 years plus and I’ve never seen anything like it”.
Speaking about how her son had “copped a bit” from other kids who did not understand the structural impact of racism and colonisation, she was heartened that the campaign had lifted awareness across the community.
“When I started in the campaign, awareness that we experience disadvantage was about 15 percent,” she said. “But the time we got the last (tracking poll) that number was 50.”
This was “an extraordinary achievement” and a sign that “all hope is not lost”.
Bridging the ‘empathy gap’
Apart from hailing tremendous engagement and support from multicultural Australia, Parkin was reluctant to discuss particular demographics who voted No. But he said one of the lessons of the campaign would be to “make sure we reach beyond our own groups” to people who had not yet engaged on Indigenous rights issues.
It was very clear, he said, that despite many years of work on reconciliation and Closing the Gap, there was still very low awareness and understanding from many Australians about the challenges facing Indigenous peoples.
That many Australians did not know or did not know they know Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who make up only three percent of the population, had created “an empathy gap”, he said.
That meant there was a lot of work to be done, particularly by non-Indigenous allies, in putting Indigenous issues higher on the agenda in upcoming elections.
Parkin said he understood the eagerness among Yes supporters to get started on “the next campaign, to right the wrong, to be active and involved”, but he said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now needed time and space to consider what the next steps could and should be.
“I think we should temper our expectations somewhat about how quickly we can just change gear and move into a new agenda,” he said.
“Let’s stay engaged, let’s stay enthused, let’s stay committed, let’s stay ready but also let’s stay patient for what comes next,” he said.
Keys agreed, urging interest and engagement in treaty and truth telling processes taking place in states and territories across Australia and for Yes supporters to connect with Indigenous organisations and action in their own community.
“This is not a message of ‘stand down’…..there’s plenty you can be involved in,” she said.
Suggestions offered in the group chat included gathering support for Zali Steggall’s upcoming ‘Stop the lies’ bill, attending and supporting state and territory Treaty and Truth initiatives, joining local reconciliation groups, and developing Racism Action Plans out of the National Anti-Racism Framework.
Meanwhile, Parkin said, there would be consideration about what role the Yes23 organisation might have in future, and how it might support other Indigenous-led agendas. That process also would not be rushed, but the organisation would continue to be in contact with supporters and act as a connector to local movements, he said.
Farewelling the meeting, Perkins thanked supporters and said it was “the great privilege of our lives to walk alongside you”.
“I will see you all (again) because this isn’t over.”
(See Perkins’ 2023 Charles Perkin Oration, delivered during the Voice campaign).
Declaration: Marie McInerney also attended the event as a Yes campaign supporter.
See Croakey’s archive of stories in the Voice portal