The voices of three Aboriginal elders were recently heard in an online panel discussion aimed at fostering discussion and a deeper understanding of the upcoming referendum. Hosted by Catholic Social Services Victoria and Catholic Social Services Australia, the three-part series, Indigenous Voice to Parliament: Moments for healing this country, provided an opportunity for hundreds of participants to hear from a variety of speakers as they unpacked the implications for voting yes or no in the upcoming referendum.

In the final webinar, Aboriginal elders Uncle Ron Briggs (Yorta Yorta), Cr Anne Dennis (Gamilaraay) and Esmai Manahan (Yorta Yorta) reflected on their experiences, and on their hopes and concerns for the Voice referendum in 2023.

Uncle Ron Briggs is Senior Aboriginal Cultural Advisor at Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand. He has worked for 25 years in men’s health and co-facilitated a drug and alcohol program within the Victorian justice system. He has also sat on boards of governance for the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service and numerous other committees focussing on the health and wellbeing of Melbourne’s Aboriginal community.

He sees the upcoming referendum as being ‘not only about reconciliation’ but also about unity. Recalling how the vast majority of Australians got behind the 1967 referendum that granted Aboriginal people the right to vote, he said, ‘From an Indigenous point of view, that was a stepping-stone for better life expectancy for our people. But that was just phase one: to be able to be recognised as a human being and not as fauna, and to be able to vote.’

Since then, he says First Nations people have come a long way, coming together to help give all Australians a better sense of ‘the importance of culture when it comes to First Nations people’.

Acknowledging the significant challenges and disadvantages still experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and the ineffectiveness of many previous initiatives aimed at improving outcomes, Uncle Ron pointed to the importance of involving community members in the processes that affect them, and of ensuring ‘culture is embedded within any program you put together to strengthen the healing process for our people. And that can only be done by First Nations people.’

Uncle Ron is heartened by the many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who have ‘come together to walk alongside’ each other in the lead-up to the referendum. ‘We don’t want to separate the people,’ he said. ‘We are concerned about the health and wellbeing of our community, and we need to have the rights to [speak] … about our communities and our people.’

Screenshot Panel

Yorta Yorta elder Esmai Manahan is National Director of Aboriginal Services at MacKillop Family Services.

‘All my life I’ve been immersed in Aboriginal issues,’ she said. ‘My brothers and I were raised in an environment of strong cultural connection to the local (and then very small) Melbourne Fitzroy Aboriginal community … I was involved in the early NAIDOC Week activities, and my earliest jobs were with the Aborigines Advancement League and the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency. I’m blessed to have been involved in community all my life, and I’m grounded by the many experiences.’

Esmai can particularly recall her family’s involvement in the 1967 referendum. ‘Thousands and thousands of Australians supported the need for a referendum and the vote, and well over 90 per cent were in support, and of course it passed.’ Esmai also noted the bipartisan support of political parties for the 1967 referendum, which is lacking in the current discourse.

She sees the call for a Voice as something that ‘builds on the work of our ancestors and our relatives who worked so hard for changes.’

‘I stand firm as an Aboriginal woman, respectfully acknowledging the differences of opinion across the whole of Australia and our communities, but we need change,’ she said. ‘We as a people have waited long enough to be heard.’

The third panellist to share her perspective, Cr Anne Dennis, is a Gamilaraay woman who has worked as a teacher and administrator in education for more than 45 years. She was first elected to the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council in 2011 and is committed to delivering better educational outcomes and social justice for Aboriginal people.

Anne was born on one of two Aboriginal reserves in Walgett, in north-west New South Wales—a small, rural community, with many families living in isolation. Her father was a shearer, and the community relied heavily on cotton chipping. ‘Our communities are changing,’ she said. ‘There’s not much seasonal work around now because it’s all either dry cotton or it’s controlled by chemicals and machinery.’

Having worked for over 45 years in government and administration, she says it’s been difficult to implement long-term, effective programs and policies, particularly for isolated communities, as ‘the goal posts shift’ each time there’s a change of government, and often decisions are made outside of the community.

‘When they talk of a whole-of-government approach to our community, they’ll actually meet in Sydney or they meet in Orange,’ she said. ‘We’re not even at the table when policies and programs are devised to be implemented into our communities.’

In her experience, she said, ‘government systems cannot make the change for us. It needs to be the people who actually direct government. So, the Voice to Parliament is about building the capacity, empowering local Aboriginal people, building those partnerships and walking together to be able to do that.’

Like Esmai and Ron, Anne paid tribute to the many movements and actions of First Nations people who’ve gone before her, laying the foundations for the current process. ‘The support we’ve had makes me hopeful,’ she said. ‘A Voice to Parliament will give Aboriginal communities a way to help inform policy and legal decisions that impact their lives directly.’

In closing the webinar, the chair of CSSA’s board, Francis O’Sullivan, encouraged participants to foster conversations and deepen understanding among family, friends and colleagues. ‘Sometimes people think “others” are better placed to have the conversation, but when it comes to referendum day, there are no others than ourselves,’ he said.

‘This is a moment where our own personal agency is the key. Yes, there’s going to be a lot of information. There’ll be a lot of noise. There’ll be a lot of impassioned arguments, but that doesn’t take away from any of us the fact that it’s our personal agency that needs to be engaged … Frankly, this is our moment. We’re being asked to do something that’s responsive to the now.’

For more information, the National Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Catholic Commission, together with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, has developed the website, bringing together a whole range of Catholic voices and other resources in one place.

This article is an abridged version of a story that originally appeared on the website of Catholic Social Services Victoria.

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