Reflections on an unsolicited flier (Vote Yes on 14 October)

Today, I received a "vote no" mailer and wanted to share a piece by Ray Barraclough from A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia). This piece reflects on some of the topics discussed in the ongoing campaign regarding the proposed amendment to the Australian Constitution for the upcoming referendum.

We have a sign on our letter box requesting no junk mail be deposited in it. What categorisation then am I to give to a recently unsolicited divisive flyer that proclaims it is opposed to division.

The flyer contains a photograph of two political ‘activists’, one a member of the Liberal Party, the other a member of the Country Liberal Party. The first item on the flyer purports to declare that Australia will be permanently divided by a ‘Yes’ vote for the Voice. They assert that Australian “families, mates and colleagues” could, after 14 October, “become permanently divided” – that is, forever. Eternal division! It sounds like Hell.

But hang on! This must be an attempt at humour. Because, so far as I can gauge, at federal elections held regularly in Australia their two political parties readily and energetically participate in an election that is based on division. Each election entails a counting of votes of electors supporting respectively divided Australian political parties. Indeed, if there not opposing parties but simply one party, the election would be a foregone conclusion every time.

So three questions the unsolicited flyer immediately raised for me are:

* Are the leaders of their two political parties calling for a one-party electorate, as in, say, China?

* Are the political parties the two persons belong to proposing to merge with their opposing parties so that Australia is not divided?

* Is the flyer’s claim just basic hypocrisy? That is: Are their assertions opposing division in Australia simply fostering division in Australia? It seems so. So their assertion is a contradiction.

I suspect the latter. And under the adage that “Hypocrisy is never admitted by those who practise it” I am not waiting about for any truth-telling about the contradiction in their subsequent public statements..

One of the slogans in their campaign is: If you don’t know – vote ‘No’.

The first half of that quote can be read in at least two ways:

EITHER: If you don’t know, reduce your ignorance and become better informed.

OR: If you don’t know, stay ignorant.

Fearmongering and ignorance have been wedded together in a marriage that has had a long, long history in Australia. And the nuptials were there to be read in the unsolicited flier that landed in my letter box. The writers of the flier warn its readers about four things to be feared if Indigenous people are given a Voice.

1. The Voice will divide Australians. [They do not acknowledge in any way that this pamphlet will help fuel the division. That truth was suppressed.]

2. How much will compensation cost? [The referendum issue is not about this issue, but this item is intended to fuel fear, not share truth.]

3. Is it fair to change the national rulebook? [According to Australia’s Constitution provision is made for ALTERATION OF THE CONSTITUTION. So the answer to this ‘No’ question is ‘YES’.

4. Will Australia Day be abolished?  [Again the referendum issue is not about this, but again this item is intended to fuel fear, not share truth.]

Of great concern is the stirring of abusive social networking and messaging that is a feature in the current referendum campaign. Rabid supporters on both sides of the divisiveness have been guilty of this. But there has been added the diseased blight of racism. And the people most harmed by that disease are Australia’s Indigenous people.

We in Australia have a long history of ignoring, or even ridiculing, trauma victims. An obvious example of this is the sad history of those persons traumatised by their experience in warfare situations.

 The thousands of memorials throughout Australia make no mention of trauma. It was seen by civilian power-holders back home as a weakness that never beset any of our bronzed and sainted            

Anzacs. As James Brown notes in his suggestively named book Anzac’s Long Shadow – The Cost of Our National Obsession

Anzac has become our longest eulogy, our secular myth, our national story. A day when our myth-making paints glory and honour so thickly on those in the military that it almost suffocates them.

For those unacquainted with the trauma entailed in warfare, a place to start learning more is to read Major General John Cantwell’s personal account of his journey into those traumatic waters. He narrates his journey in his book Exit Wounds – One Australian’s War on Terror (2012). That trauma continues long years after the initial experience of the traumatic experience/s.

So, too, the trauma that Indigenous people have experienced stems from our history down to the present day. This ongoing existence of trauma was brazenly denied by one of those whose photograph appears on the unsolicited flier. But the researched data, as well as the remembered history, are decidedly contrary to her very limited selective reading of our past and our present.

Just to give two instances: Is there no trauma leavening the statistics that relate to at least two areas of contemporary existence?

a. The incarceration rates for Indigenous people compared to the rates for non-Indigenous occupants of Australia’s prisons.

b. The suicide rates of young Indigenous people compared to the numbers of young non-Indigenous Australians who suicide.

Indigenous families experience traumatic grief, particularly in relation to the latter phenomenon. Is history totally blank, or blind, as regards the historical background to causes for this trauma?

According to the Australian Indigenous Health Info Net’s entry on Trauma, a whole range of experiences can traumatise individuals, extended families and communities. They list the following twelve categories. [1]

“For First Nations communities the trauma of colonisation can stem from:

conflicts, massacres, and frontier violence

dispossession of traditional lands and loss of access to resources

introduced diseases and starvation

destruction of Indigenous forms of governance, leadership, and community organisation

undermining of traditional identity, spirituality, language, and cultural practices

control under ‘protection’ acts, including the lack of autonomy over where one could live, work, or who they could marry

labour exploitation, including stolen wages

forced removal of children from their families, communities, Country, and culture

institutionalisation

breakdown of healthy patterns of individual, family, and community life

deaths in custody

ongoing discrimination and racism.”

David Marr is the author of a recently published book entitled Killing for Country: A Family Story (Black Inc, 2023). It is described as ‘a richly detailed saga of politics and power in the colonial world – of land seized, fortunes made and lost, and the violence let loose as squatters and their allies fought for possession of the country – a war still unresolved in today's Australia’. Marr was shocked to discover that several of his white forebears commanded elements of the brutal Native Police in the bloodiest years on the frontier.     

In a recent interview he noted how the attitudes of white people towards Indigenous people in the latter two-thirds of the nineteenth century were being replicated in the current campaign opposing a Voice to Parliament. He listed as examples from both eras:

* the belittling of humanitarians who contended publicly for a measured assessment of Indigenous communities’ experience of killings and dispossession targeting their existence

* the accusations that the people in the cities expressing this concern were ‘bleeding hearts’ or ‘Exeter Hall’ types [2] who did not know what was going on in the frontier regions.

* the fearmongering in white communities that was usually effective to stir opposition to Indigenous people.

The words from another, and quite different voice than Marr’s, raised in the campaign need to be reflected upon. It was the comment by retired prime minister John Howard that the “No” supporters were to “maintain the rage”. He stated this in a Sky television interview.

His words need to be unpacked a little. For example: Against whom did he want the ‘No’ supporters to rage? Given the issue that he was being interviewed about, namely the referendum on the Voice, presumably the rage was to be directed against Australia’s Indigenous people. They, of course, are the central focus of that referendum.

It is a divisive comment – not a reconciling one. Given the reports of the abuse (and death threats) levelled in the campaign, his words add to the trauma experienced by those against whom the rage is to be directed. His words certainly do not reduce trauma in Indigenous communities.

The noted twentieth century ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr’s observed that “power cloaks itself”. That is, the power-holders set up structures of holding power that are not readily visible, but are designed to keep their power entrenched.

In this country the structures of power-holding were set up by the white male power-holders at the creation of the federated Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. In the years since, within the structures set up in the Australian Constitution, white people have decided Indigenous peoples’ destiny. White Australians make up the majority of Australian voters. Since 1901 they have decided every referendum issue.

When it entails the destiny of Australia’s Indigenous people, that surely and simply can be described as structured racism. Those voting ‘No’ because they profess to be anti-racist need, at least, to acknowledge that structured political reality. It only takes a moment or two to engage in such ‘truth-telling’.

It is also stated by several conservative federal politicians that Indigenous members of parliament will bring reform. But the systemic entrenchment of how power is held and utilised in Australia make this very unlikely. For example, in the systemic arrangement of the membership of the House of Representatives, parliamentarians are to represent the members of their electorate. And currently, at the very least, the majority of members of each electorate are white Australians. So they are first priority.

So also for Senators. Every state that elects senators has a majority of white voters within their borders.[3]

The systems of power established in the conquest and dispossession by the white Imperial invaders have been handed on to their successors. And the sixty-five or so years of the racist ‘White Australia policy’ (cloaked euphemistically as The Immigration Restriction Act) that was enacted as one of the very first acts in the first few months after the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia, have entrenched white majority power for generations to come.

Because of this systemic white power-holding in Australia, Yunupingu’s observation is still pertinent: They do not listen because they do not have to. [4]

The establishment of our website entitled sothatweremember.com.au is intended, in part, to reduce the ignorance that our fellow Australians have about Indigenous history. As well, there is widespread ignorance about the widespread suffering and trauma experienced by Indigenous people through killings, abduction and rape in our history. Sadly, divisive agencies in the campaign, such as the compilers and distributors of the unsolicited flier, are reinforcing that ignorance, not dissolving it.

One would hope otherwise, but this is contemporary Australia.

1. See the Website: AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Protective and risk factors for suicide among Indigenous Australians https://healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au/learn/health-topics/healing/trauma

2. Exeter Hall in England was the favoured meeting place of supporters of the anti-slavery movement.

3. In a referendum, because of the Constitutional gerrymander, the three smallest states, if their white voters vote similarly, can veto any majority across wider Australia.

4. Quoted by Megan Davis, “Voice of Reason: On Recognition and Renewal, Quarterly Essay, Issue 90, 2023, p. 11.

Source: Ray Barraclough A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia) Inc [APCVA].

Reflections on an unsolicited flier (Vote Yes on 14 October) Reflections on an unsolicited flier (Vote Yes on 14 October) Reviewed by Shane St Reynolds on September 29, 2023 Rating: 5

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