A fortnight ago Mary Crooks, a leading advocate for voting Yes in the Voice referendum, told a Melbourne audience of a long email from “an older gentleman” who urged her to back out of the campaign.
In his essay, she said, he argued that the experience of Australia’s Aboriginal people was “simply a defeat of a people by a technologically superior society”. He added that the British claim on Australia was legal and absolute, that trauma can’t be inherited and that the idea of a Voice was racist.
Crooks told him she was in her 50s when she discovered that in western Victoria, where she grew up, more than 7000 Indigenous people were killed in the early 1800s. Her correspondent replied that these were not wars but just skirmishes, payback killings. “Communication stopped at that point,” she said.
She spoke of how a “great Australian silence” about Indigenous peoples had held back Australia’s ability to begin the long process of healing those historic wounds, and how the Voice – “a simple, positive and practical proposal” – could help Australia to be more forward-looking, less conflicted.
I know about this great Australian silence. At school in Tasmania I learned that disease and sadness killed off Indigenous Tasmanians including “the last Tasmanian”, Truganini, in 1876. At university, Australian history started when the British came.
Neither school nor university taught me anything about thousands of years of prior human occupation, or Australia’s frontier wars, or the subsequent lives of Indigenous survivors. So I get where Mary Crooks’s correspondent was coming from. We share an education in foundation history which can be simplified as “might is right”.
Like him, I believed that the languages and customs of original Australians would be swamped by dominant Western culture. I remember arguing, aged about 30, that eventually history would wipe out Aboriginal Australia because Indigenous people did not know how to use the land effectively.
I feel ashamed to admit this. This is the thinking of a coloniser, which is to say, a racist. There is no place in this mindset for the meaning and value of over 60 millennia of human habitation before the British arrived in 1788, comparatively just a blink of an eye ago.
Now it all seems so completely obvious. The cultural implications of living in this landscape over such a span of time are vastly more significant than mere technology.
What we have learned since British settlement about our planet’s climatic and ecological systems is essentially what the people we met then – those “primitives” who lacked guns and fences and all other “civilised” trappings – could have told us when we arrived, if we’d had the sense to listen. That is, you mess with natural systems at your peril.
Many Australians, including former PM John Howard, have this same misconception, practically unchanged since that fatal shore was crossed in 1788, that British or Western ways are a cut above Indigenous ones.
The official referendum booklet arrived in my mail a few days ago. The Yes case puts the reasonable argument that giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people a direct connection to government will improve their wellbeing and opportunities. That’s reason enough to support a Voice to Parliament.
But the booklet skims over a bigger picture. Values that people of the developed world took for granted are being questioned as never before. We are now being called on to pay special attention to our natural environment and what it brings to our lives. Just as the first Australians did for tens of thousands of years.
As some keep saying, climate change and species extinction have always happened. What is new today is the cause of those happenings, human activity. The question of our age is, how can we change human activity to slow and hopefully stop them?
Colonial excesses robbed us of an opportunity to learn from Aboriginal people who knew how to live in and with the natural world. Such an ability is essential for our future wellbeing. Without it our own survival is doubtful.
But there are still people of the First Nations living on their country, and countless more have kept in touch, albeit from a distance, with at least some of the ties that bind. We can still access their timeless wisdom, or what remains of it.
By all means Vote Yes for the sake of our first people. But above all do it for those of us who aren’t Indigenous. All Australians – black, white, all shades – need that Voice, speaking to us from the heart.