Our moral duty

Apologies to all non-Australians reading this.

Since we now have a date for the Voice referendum, let me tell you a story. It’s something I had, frankly, half-forgotten.

When I worked in research, I once helped organise a conference for about 150 people. I was the admin/organisational contact for the event.

I worked in agriculture, and in inland northern Australia, this meant extensive farming, mostly cattle. We’d brought together many scientists working in this field and had invited a number of others from outside the field.

There were two people at this conference whose names everyone in Australia will recognise.

One was Ita Buttrose, current chair of the ABC. I found her very professional, highly engaging and quite impressive. But this is not about her.

The other one was someone who had come to talk to us about the space in which extensive farming intersects with, both positively and negatively, the indigenous population. Yes, one of our guests was Noel Pearson.

Noel was not as well known then as he is today. The younger version of Noel came across to me as a bit of an angry young man. After his talk, I had a bit of a heated interaction with him.

I said to him something of this nature: I totally support you, but not being of British descent, I find the notion that I am to blame for the appalling situation of indigenous Australians, simply because I’m white, rather presumptuous.

I mean, as people working in extensive farming, we travelled through those communities. I’ve been to Cape York, to Coen and Bamaga. I’ve been to Hermannsburg and a lot of places many Australians would have severe trouble locating on a map.

I don’t claim to know everything about them, far from it, but I’ve been to some of these places and I think the conditions these people live in are disgusting and it’s beyond shameful that a rich country can’t provide any better for its own citizens.

Anyway, I’m sure that I must have come across as offensive and obnoxious to him. These days, we have terms for it. Whitesplaining or something. Still doesn’t make the feeling go away. My argument was: don’t attack those who support you, because they actually, yano, agree with you, even if that agreement comes from a different spot.

Noel, mate, we’re both older. You’ve become a very considerate, quite moderate listener and great leader of your people.

I… never amounted to much, such as happened with women who were led to believe they could be anything they wanted, but were still muscled out because you couldn’t put in 80 hours a week once you had a family. This is another story for another post.

But indigenous Australians are still living under disgusting circumstances in these remote communities. In both country and cities, they’re still put in jail at many times the rate of non-indigenous people.

There is still so much domestic violence in those communities (I also still think of that indigenous woman I met one day in Glebe, her face swollen and bruised, begging for money. I was so stunned and upset that I gave her all my spare change and told her to look after herself. I hope she’s OK).

Something clearly has to change.

You’ve consulted with many groups of your people for a long time, and have come to a majority-supported proposal for an advisory body, a Voice, to parliament. I’m supposed to vote about it next month.

Frankly, I find that offensive.

Offensive because I don’t feel I have the right to decide over your lives. I don’t have the right to reject something that your community proposes. Offensive, because it doesn’t affect me. Offensive because some politicians are using the proposal to sow fear.

You want a greater influence over decisions made by governments that continuously, year after year, have not done anything to improve those disgusting conditions in remote communities, and many more decisions that made things worse.

And I’m like, why the fuck was no one listening anyway? Why do indigenous people live ten years shorter than non-indigenous ones?

And what, except our insane constitution, gives me the right even to have an opinion about this?

It doesn’t affect me.

It might make things better (because they can barely get worse).

COVID has shown that in general, Australians have a great level of trust in their structures of government. And you know what? I trust the parliament to get some advisory body off the ground and get it working. I don’t need to know “details”. They don’t affect me. I use a phone every day and I don’t know “details” about how it works.

I don’t care. Take your voice and do something with it. That should be up to you, and not me.

Noel, I’ll be voting yes.

And I’m sorry for being a (well-meaning) arse.

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