During this year’s Reconciliation Week I asked the group of non-Indigenous students I was teaching “who is responsible for doing Reconciliation work?”.
They all quickly put their hands up and said “us”.
I then asked them “what does this work look like? What can you actually do?”
They all looked a bit blank and admitted they didn’t know what it really meant to “do the work” or what “the work” looks like.
Non-Indigenous people often don’t know how they should address racism and social inequity brought about by colonisation and white privilege. This may be why many Australians are expressing hope the Voice to Parliament is going to solve such problems.
For example, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Linda Burney has said if the Voice to Parliament had been in place, the so-called crime crisis in Alice Springs would have been better addressed.
There have also been claims the Voice will “fix what is broken”.
Indigenous leaders, scholars, activists and community members have spent decades suggesting solutions to inequities in this country, which still haven’t been implemented.
Indigenous people have already offered solutions
Indigenous People, our culture and our communities are not to blame for the inequities we live with. And expecting an Indigenous “Voice” to be a fix-all for inequities brought about by the colonial project is unrealistic and problematic.
As Indigenous academics have pointed out, often issues placed under Closing the Gap targets are lost in the list.
Data from the productivity commission shows only four of the 17 targets under the agreement are on track to be met. A recent report in Queensland found these targets will not be met by the 2031 deadline.
Indigenous leaders, communities and organisations have led research focusing on racism, Indigenous deaths in custody, the Stolen Generations, and the harm caused by the Northern Territory intervention.
The clear recommendations in this work from Indigenous People continue to be largely ignored by mainstream Australia and rarely acted upon by those in power.
What will be different this time?
For more than 100 years our communities have called for appropriate representation in government. The Voice to Parliament could potentially represent the views of Indigenous communities and hopefully assist in informing policy and legal decisions that impact our lives.
But the Voice to Parliament cannot solve the deeply entrenched racism and bigotry in Australian society, media, and institutions.
And expecting it to do so is assigning the role and responsibility of addressing racism to the people experiencing it. This should be the ongoing work of everyone, all of the time, regardless of the upcoming referendum.
Even if we get the Voice, non-Indigenous people still need to ‘do the work’
After I asked my students who is responsible for reconciliation work we discussed the kind of work that needs to be done by all non-Indigenous peoples to address the ongoing damage of colonisation.
This (ongoing) work requires everyone to:
recognise your position in the world. Learn who you are and where you come from. This means recognising your privilege and being mindful of how this informs your attitude, beliefs, behaviour and how you communicate with others. And learn to remain silent while those with less privilege than you speak about their experiences, even if your instinct is to respond defensively
acknowledge oppressive histories and systems that enable you to occupy the land you now live on. Learn the sociopolitical history of Australia, and the Peoples whose land you are occupying
find out how you benefit from colonial structures and ways to utilise your privilege to dismantle the oppression of others. An example of this is to cede the space for Indigenous voices, Peoples and communities to determine what happens in our communities. Do not sit in an Indigenous identified position, or speak on issues that effect us or think you can swoop in and fix us. All people have the right to autonomy and to determine what is right for our own communities
remind your peers that addressing racism and the negative effects of colonisation is the work of everyone, all of the time.
It is not the work or responsibility of the Voice to Parliament, or Indigenous People, to do this work.
We cannot rely on one strategy to “solve” the racial divide in Australia. This is something that requires much work to be done from those with privilege and power.
The issues Indigenous People face need to be addressed now instead of passively waiting to see if we get the Voice to Parliament. This should be occurring with or without an established Voice.
If Australia is waiting for the Voice to be established to have complex and nuanced truth-telling, what will happen if the referendum vote is No?