By KIERAN FINNANE
Two prominent Aboriginal men from the Centre, one speaking to a deeply felt No on the Voice, based on his utter distrust of government, the other speaking to a passionate Yes, based on his faith in the possibility of shaping, with other Australians, “a better nation”.
Together, and with responses from other Aboriginal people in the room, they teased out a central Australian perspective on the question: “Do all First Nations people support the Voice?”
This is one of the four questions preoccupying most people in the “town hall” gatherings that the Yes 23 campaign has been organising around the country. It dominated the exchange of views from the floor in the Alice Springs Town Hall, held at the Convention Centre last week.
Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves made a searing case for No, speaking from the front of the room, alongside the Yes 23 panel members.
Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves (file photo)
Rachel Perkins, co-chair of the campaign, knowing his stand, had invited him to take his place there. She set the tone for accepting a diversity of views at the outset: “It is reasonable that people don’t know what this is about, people have got other things to worry about in their lives … Everyone’s views should be respected in this conversation, we’re happy to have conversations about No, Yes or undecided, whatever, we are all here to have a respectful discussion.”
Jampijinpa’s distrust is not just of the government of the day, but of the whole system and the record of its relationship with First Nations.
His face and voice and articulate rage became known to Australians around the country during the trial and acquittal of Constable Zachary Rolfe for the killing 19-year-old Kumunjayi Walker.
The shooting happened in Jampijinpa’s home community of Yuendumu, where, as he said after the acquittal, “the police and government rule over us and treat us as enemies on our own land.”
Justice was not served by the trial and its outcome, he argued: “Justice means getting back yapa control of our community” – yapa meaning Aboriginal person in Warlpiri.
Yet for him the Voice could not deliver that.
For one: “The government will dismiss it. It’s the same thing as ATSIC,” he told the audience of mostly ardent Yes supporters.
He was referring to the Howard Government’s 2005 controversial disbanding of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, one of successive Indigenous ‘voice’ bodies, the most powerful and longest-lasting, to be dissolved by governments over the years.
No, no, interjected facilitator Jon Faine. Unlike ATSIC, this Voice will be in the Constitution, “so it’s there forever, that’s the whole idea.”
This was echoed by Ken Lechleitner, a senior man of Western Aranda and Anmatyerre descent, fluent in those languages as well as Warlpiri and English. He had risen to his feet earlier, speaking in Warlpiri, to counter Jampijinpa’s deep suspicions, saying: “I’m here as well and I represent my people too.”
Ken Lechleitner (file photo)
He had urged Jampijinpa to accept the good faith of supporters of Yes, the majority of whom, of necessity, are non-Indigenous: “They want to support our culture, this is why they are here, this is why they are saying Yes, we want to recognise yapa as the longtime people living in this country.
“They want to work with us, they don’t want to rubbish us, they want to look after us, they want us to also lead the charge. So, this is our journey, this is our once in a lifetime opportunity to get it right, to set a whole new direction with us driving the bus, not being prescribed what to do, we’re being part of the future.”
Jampijinpa was unpersuaded: “We don’t need to go into the Constitution, because we have our own … you know that.”
He was referring to his Jukurrpa – Warlpiri law and custom.
“We don’t want to lose that,” he said. This risk was making him really “really really uncomfortable” about supporting the Voice.
His fear is not unfounded: It reflects not only Aboriginal experience in the long history of colonisation but in the NT Intervention, initiated in 2007 and in many ways ongoing. Among its many impositions of mainstream supremacy, it forced the NT judiciary to turn its back on accommodations with Aboriginal customary law even for the purposes of sentencing and bail applications. This remains the case.
Mr Lechleitner understood exactly where Jampijinpa was coming from: “In 2007, our culture was being wiped out, with the package of laws that were introduced.”
But he sees the present moment differently: “This is an opportunity to have representation in the Constitution, so we can say, hey look, let’s make the two laws work. There’s no chance of having it any other way.”
Jampijinpa just doesn’t believe it: “It’s not going to change because it’s still going be the same, we are talking about the people that are going to be on the Voice. I don’t want that person, I don’t want this person here (pointing to a member of the audience) to tell me my Jukurrpa … because he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know! Right?
“I feel real, real worried about that, really confused, because it’s not the way.”
John Faine at the lectern, Jampijinpa on the microphone, Pat Ansell Dodds, Rachel Perkins.
As the discussion moved on from the exchange between Jampijinpa and Mr Lechleitner, each of them speaking in Warlpiri to one another and shifting almost seamlessly to English for the benefit of most of the audience, Ms Perkins underlined the importance of what had just occurred.
“That’s why Ned’s up here too, because he’s got a different view … So I wanted to make sure that he felt respected to be up here as well and that you can hear the discussion, because these are discussions that are happening in the Aboriginal community, you know. And they’re good respectful discussions as you saw then from two significant men talking about this issue. That’s what it’s all about.”
Without wanting to discount what Jampijinpa had said, she went on to put the case contra, referring to the unanimous support for Yes from the Northern Territory’s land councils, which represent communities across the NT, as well as the support from numerous other land councils interstate.
She also referred to the surveys done by Reconciliation Australia, in their Australian Reconciliation Barometer reports, showing “an overwhelming consensus of support” for a Voice amongst First Nations people. (See the 2022 Barometer here; support for the Voice covered on p 26.)
But “there will always be divergent views,” she said.
Facilitator Faine asked Pat Ansell Dodds for her thoughts. A senior woman of Central Arrernte and Anmatyerre descent, she has been a strong local Yes campaigner.
“I can understand what Ned’s saying,” she said. “We all have different areas and different cultures and to us that’s most important that we never lose that … And when you look around the Country, it’s a voice to us, of our Old People, to tell us that’s our Country, hey Ned?”
He murmured his assent.
“They talk to us, you [non-Indigenous people] don’t understand that, but we feel it, that’s our culture, that’s our Country and it’s never going to change. We learn this from our Old People and we’re not stopping …
Pat Ansell Dodds (file photo)
“Because I can remember living in the bush, out Undoolya where I come from as well. I lived part time there and part time in town with my father, my mother, because I had to go to school. This is back in the ‘50s, but in my head even today I am still out there.
“I went ‘round the world on different conferences but in my head it’s still red dirt, that’s who I am and I know what this man is saying.”
Mr Faine suggested the meeting move on, but Ms Perkins wanted to stay with this exchange a little longer. She asked Owen Cole if he wanted to say anything. He’s a prominent local businessman of Warramungu and Luritja descent.
“Look,” he said, “I appreciate and respect Ned and Pat and Kenny, what you are saying is absolutely correct. Law, culture has got to be protected. But the view I’ll put is that I’ll place my faith in the Voice giving advice to the government to ensure that law and culture is protected rather than in the hands of the bureaucrats and the politicians like it currently is.
“They will need to listen because it’s enshrined in the Constitution. I agree wholeheartedly but will back the Voice, the Aboriginal Voice, above all the other structures that are in place that are delivering the really poor outcomes that we currently face with Indigenous Australia.”
After some commentary by Kerry O’Brien, the veteran broadcaster, about the way divergent views are part and parcel of our democratic system, and asking why we would expect Indigenous people to not also have differing views, a woman standing at the back of the room, raised her hand.
Mr Faine asked her to introduce herself: “I understand you’re a TO.”
“I’m not a TO,” Elaine Peckham said firmly. “I’m a custodian of Mparntwe Alice Springs, there’s a difference in that.”
She went on: “Mr Lechleitner … he was right in what he had to say. Owen, I support Owen wholly on what he said, and Jampijinpa, yes, I’m with you all the way because of the struggle we have been through, with the Intervention …
“ATSIC was taken away and John Howard brought the Intervention in 2007 and that’s where we are today. That’s why a lot of people are confused of whether to vote Yes or No in this referendum.
“We’ve still got our voices out there with the Intervention, we’ve actually put out a book of 16 years of the Intervention, it has not stopped our voices being out there, and I’m one of them.
Elaine Peckham with her sister Doris Stuart, Mparntwe custodians (file photo)
“I’ve lived in Alice, born in Alice, I lived in the days when we were assimilated and still survived and to go back on my mother’s Country and live out there when the land rights came into power.
“Yes, we thought we had a good life going back on our land, and then the Intervention stepped in, so here I am back in Alice, still speaking up on basic human rights, and that’s what I’d like to say.”
So, a powerfully expressed No had been countered by four eloquent Yes’s. On October 14, referendum day, a tally will be what it’s all about, but in that room that night it wasn’t the numbers that mattered. The Aboriginal No and Yes were on the common ground of the Aboriginal relationship with non-Aboriginal Australia, its often bitter history and the need to set that right.
The Voice proposes one way of working towards that. If the referendum fails, that work will remain.
Photo at top: Rachel Perkins addressing the ‘town hall’ gathering, Pat Ansell Dodds to her right, Lawson Broad, Kerry O’Brien to her left • Below: Audience as Ken Lechleitner stands to speak.