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Listen… for a change

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After all the words and noise of a bruising campaign, here perhaps is our one essential lesson to learn, the one thing that can make a difference.

It was a clear, hard, almost brutal NO!  

At least, that’s how it landed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people -- that 3 percent of the Australian population sometimes called ‘First Nations people’. 

For decades, they have been seeking some form of representation in Parliament, a voice, a treaty, recognition of their 60,000 years custodianship of this island continent. Persevering through government consultations, expert committees, a Referendum Council and multiple community forums, 250 delegates came together in 2017 for a ‘First Nations Constitutional Convention’ at Uluru, the centre of the continent. Their ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ called for not just symbolic recognition in the Constitution but a seat at the table, an elected ‘Voice’ to Parliament and government.

The Uluru Statement ended with an invitation for all of us: ‘to walk together in a movement of the Australian people for a better future… a fuller expression of Australia's nationhood’.

In a Referendum on 14 October, over 60 percent of Australian voters turned down that invitation, decisively.  

Why? It seemed a ‘no brainer’, at least to the six million of us who voted YES.  Not only would it enshrine the moral right of recognition in our national ‘birth certificate’ and begin to acknowledge the shameful history of their dispossession, but it would establish a legislated mechanism to give First Nations people agency in government decisions affecting them and their communities.  In the words of the Uluru Statement, it would address ‘the torment of our powerlessness’ in closing the agonising gaps First Nations people face in life expectancy, poor health, unemployment, homelessness, incarceration, domestic violence and addiction…

The injustice revealed in those shocking social indicators is starkly evident each year in a ‘Close the Gap’ report, mandated by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 when he led a national apology to the ‘Stolen Generations’ – children removed from their families under assimilation policies. (This For A New World site documents decades of Initiatives of Change’s support for Stolen Generations people.)  Speaking in Caux alongside prominent Aboriginal academics, Prime Minister Rudd coupled that national apology with a commitment to Close the Gap. But in truth, statistics show that most of the gaps have only widened since.  

Predictably, the defeat of the Referendum released a deluge of analysis, blame, conspiracy theories, grief and self-righteous arrogance. Undoubtedly, power politics drove a divisive debate. Conservative media had a field day, forecasting dire consequences of giving Indigenous people ‘special rights’. Social media was awash with lies and disinformation. And the ugly beast of racism emerged from our ‘White Australia’ past, both in vicious attacks on individuals and in privately whispered ‘soft racism’.  

Beyond all those shameful causes of the defeat, we need to question deep enough: what is it in our national character and understanding that wasn’t ready to trust First Nations people with their invitation to ‘walk together’?  Many in ‘mainstream’ Australia want to see equality, social advancement for First Nations peoples, even believe in ‘reconciliation’ – yet still voted NO.

Some months before the vote, visiting British singer Billie Bragg warned Australians on ABC TV to be wary of referendums which, like the Brexit vote, have ‘a nasty habit of biting you where it hurts’.  Yet, he said, Australia has ‘the opportunity to show the world whether you are still a colonising nation or a nation that looks forward to the future…’  

Prophetic!  In the words of one YES campaigner (my British-born wife!), the Referendum was about ‘replacing the colonial mindset with a consultative mindset… the colonial mindset knows best and doesn’t listen; the consultative mindset listens and hears’.

Once again, we asked First Nations people what they wanted in the Constitution. They told us – and we didn’t listen. We knew best.  

Well, it hasn’t worked for a long time – despite spending billions of dollars.

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One politician did listen.  Seventy years ago, a young aspiring MP, Kim Beazley, came to Caux, the IofC Centre in Switzerland, and was challenged to listen for the voice of God’s Spirit ‘with nothing to prove, nothing to justify, and nothing to gain for yourself’. I wrote about his dramatic turning point and the impact on Australia in my book No Longer Down Under which, along with other documents about Beazley, is posted on For A New World.  

At Caux Beazley found a calling to use his political career ‘towards the rehabilitation of the Aboriginal race’.  That was 1953. One of his first steps was to invite Aboriginal people into the Beazley home. ‘Two things characterise Australia’s race relations in the past: an absence of gentleness and an absence of listening,’ said Beazley. ‘We always knew!’

As Beazley listened – both to Aboriginal people and to his own soul – he found the political means to introduce significant changes: voting rights for First Nations people, land rights, and, as Minister for Education, education for Aboriginal people in their own languages.  And much more – as my book details. 

Over past decades Initiatives of Change has confronted that colonial mindset through listening relationships. It inspired Margaret Tucker to tell her story in If Everyone Cared, the first autobiography from the ‘Stolen Generations’.    

Is this the deeper process needed?  

Senior Australian of the Year in 2021, educator Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr, says Aboriginal people can bring what she calls ‘the gift that Australia is thirsting for’: the message of dadirri, which she describes as ‘inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness… the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us.

‘My people are used to the struggle, and the long waiting. We still wait for the white people to understand us better… We are river people. We cannot hurry the river. We have to move with its current and understand its ways… We are asking our fellow Australians to take time to know us; to be still and to listen to us…  The spirit of dadirri that we have to offer will blossom and grow, not just within ourselves, but in our whole nation.’

After all the words and noise of a bruising campaign, here perhaps is our one essential lesson to learn, the one thing that can make a difference. If we can only listen… for a change. 


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