Ben Abbatangelo: Labor promotes the Voice but ignores Indigenous demands on housing, poverty, imprisonment

Ben Abbatangelo is a Gunaikurnai and Wotjobaluk writer and journalist who has written for The Saturday Paper, The Guardian and IndigenousX, and also appeared recently on ABC’s Q&A. He spoke to Solidarity about his thoughts on the Voice to Parliament.

Could you talk about where the Voice has come from historically?

The Voice to Parliament proposal was led by a couple of key architects committed to the idea that constitutional recognition is needed to “complete the Commonwealth”, as Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson say, and give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a sense of pride in being Australian.

Shireen Morris [a non-Indigenous lawyer], has published her account of how the idea of a constitutionally enshrined advisory body came to be [in her 2018 book Radical Heart].

It was around 2014 when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister. Morris, Noel Pearson and a select group of constitutional lawyers came together to map out a path forward for how recognition could be achieved. Anne Twomey, Greg Craven, [Liberal MP] Julian Leeser and Damien Freeman were in the room. Noel was the only Black person in the room and, according to Morris, barely said a word throughout.

So this is not something that was born out of our collective aspirations, it is something that has been prescribed to us. And as many people in the community know, it was reverse engineered via a set of dialogues held across the country to give the idea legitimacy.

Importantly, this culminated with the Uluru Statement from the Heart which thrust the Voice forward, really giving it significant legitimacy to know that there were all these signatories, that it happened at Uluru, which takes up a special place in the white imagination.

The “Recognise” campaign that pre-dates the Uluru statement was roundly rejected by the Aboriginal community. But the supposed importance of recognising Aboriginal people in the constitution has come to occupy a central place in how the Voice referendum is being promoted. What is your attitude to the whole idea of recognition?

Recognising what? Recognising us as people? Wow!

Recognition is based on a romanticised idea that this colony is here legally, that it belongs here, that its system of government that is healthy for these lands, for its waters, and the people that were born out of them.

But the fact is, our sovereignty has not been ceded, the land was not vacant. Under First Lore, Australia is an illegal occupation. If another country went somewhere else in the world now and did what Australia is doing to our people, it would be deemed illegal under Australia’s own law and international law. The idea that our sovereign status should be minimised to that of a subservient lobby group is insane. It’s like joining the KKK without any formal protections or assurances.

Recognise was rejected. This is another version of the same thing. The only difference is an advisory body, set up to provide non-binding advice to a government that legally is not compelled to even acknowledge it, engage or respond or act upon anything that it says. Not only is this a culmination of decades of failed strategy, but it’s a waving of the white flag—a surrendering of our inherent rights and minimising our sovereignty down to a toothless advisory group.

If this referendum fails, as I’ve said before, it has to be a regenerative moment. It means that we have to take this era of practical reconciliation, of recognition, to the scrap heap and usher in an era of reckoning through a rights based agenda.

Constitutional recognition is part of this incremental, go slow approach, aligned to this neo-conservative, free-market thinking that Noel Pearson has been a big advocate for. It is very much about Aboriginal people legitimising and participating in the Australian dream.

It’s interesting this idea of “the Australian dream”. The official Yes case circulated by the Australian Electoral Commission didn’t talk about any of the historic, specifically Indigenous demands that have come from the movement—demands for land, sovereignty, Aboriginal control of your affairs. It was all about the seemingly non-threatening issues of health, housing and education.

Yes, it’s dangerous because you have a group of Aboriginal people who are charting this path forward, because they believe this is what’s best for the rest of the continent, but their leadership has no democratic basis, they haven’t been elected from our different nations.

Even on the question of housing, though. You can’t tell me that the Commonwealth or Northern Territory government, where I live, doesn’t know how to build houses.

I was just in Doomadgee a few weeks ago. They suffer acutely from rheumatic heart disease. Indigenous people are 560 times more likely to develop this disease—that’s exclusively linked to poverty.

The situation with poor housing and rheumatic heart disease doesn’t come from governments with benevolent intentions. Leaders in Doomadgee have direct lines to Queensland government ministers, they know exactly what’s going on, they don’t need a Voice to tell them. This comes from dedication, systematic dedication, generation after generation, to push people into a state where they suffer extreme rates of a completely preventable disease.

Dispossession and forced displacement are central reasons why housing is not being built. Healthy, thriving Indigenous communities on contested lands would be an affront to the big players that control our governments, like the resources industry, like the US military which is building up a massive presence in northern Australia.

And with education, they talk about sending kids to school. But they don’t even have teachers in many of the classrooms in Aboriginal communities in the NT. And yet, the blame is still being placed on the kids. So it’s hollow, this whole idea that the Australian dream will be the mechanism that will bring great self-esteem and purpose, and great health outcomes. I look at the Australian dream and the people living it and I see it as empty. It’s shallow, desperate and ugly.

Going down this path won’t bring about the level of change that we deserve and that we need. A lot of our communities are very much in an apocalyptic state. And if you think you can go slow, incrementally reform your way out of it, then I see you as really committing to the continuation of a genocide that is yet to cease.

Can you talk about the role of the Voice as the Albanese government’s signature policy in the context of their broader agenda and how that is playing out on the ground?

It’s a remarkable distraction. Let’s just examine the last 18 months of government under the “winds of change” and stress test the whole premise and promise of this proposal.

You’ve got the Perdaman fertiliser plant approval on the Burrup Peninsula [threatening an extraordinary collection of rock art, some more than 40,000 years old]. We’ve got the fracking of the Beetaloo Basin and the building of the Middle Arm petrochemicals plant in Darwin. We’ve got the commitment to Santos exploiting gas in the Barossa, going against the Tiwi Islanders.

We’ve got kids still being caged right across the country. I live a stone’s throw away from Don Dale where 10-year-olds on remand are still sitting in solitary confinement. They haven’t even faced a judge. We’ve got Attorneys-General that refuse to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 and Aboriginal Legal Services that are running out of funding. The Queensland government suspended the Human Rights Act for a second time, to put more kids in jail.

This is all from state Labor governments who support the Voice. In WA we’ve got children rising up out of neglect in Banksia Hill being called terrorists. We’ve got cultural heritage laws being repealed and the 1972 versions that led to the destruction of Juukan Gorge being reinstituted.

Federally, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody still collects dust—same with the Bringing Them Home report. We’ve got a ration card that Labor has reformed back to its racist roots—the Income Management system they initially designed.

Spit hoods are still allowed, despite a long campaign. We’ve got the “safeguard mechanism” which allows fossil fuel companies to continue to pillage and plunder. The list goes on, right? And all of this goes very much against what Aboriginal people want. Not even the low hanging fruit has been picked.

How do you respond to idea that we need to rally around a Yes vote to counter the racism coming from the mainstream No campaign?

You’ve got Dutton opposing the Voice, with a whole cohort of racist and fascist politicians. But there’s this contrived narrative that this is the only “racist” option in the entire debate.

I can account for how I have ended up on the same side of the ledger as the Gary Johns of the world. But what hasn’t been accounted for is how all these people that are pushing the Yes vote have ended up on the same side as Albanese, Woodside, BHP, Rio Tinto, the Business and Minerals Councils of Australia? That particular cohort are responsible for actually enacting the vision that Gary Johns, Mark Latham, Pauline Hanson and Dutton espouse. They are the ones as a collective that create it.

If “No” is the only racist option, then how does Mark Textor, the populist pollster who learned his craft under Ronald Reagan, who was the go-to man for John Howard, end up not just being part of the Yes23 campaign, but spearheading it as a board member? Textor was responsible for instituting violence, fanning the flames of racism that led to the abolition of ATSIC, the winding back of our rights, the dilution of Native Title.

If “Yes” is a grassroots campaign, how does it attract Tony Nutt, who was the Chief of Staff to John Howard, as a Board member? And Katherine Tanner, who is a Board member and also a BHP Director? How do these people end up on the board of a “grassroots campaign” that is going to deliver—wait for it—“transformative change” for Indigenous people?

Who is funding the Yes campaign? This isn’t a conspiracy, tin-foil hat thing. If there is a genuine commitment to integrity, then where is the money coming from for Yes23? I know Rio Tinto’s given a few million dollars to it, who else has given money?

I think in the lead-up to the referendum this context is important. We need those on the Yes side of the equation to give a good faith account as to how their campaign can not only attract these people, but be led by them. Not only so people are informed in the lead up to the vote, but for after the vote, so we can hopefully make our way back to one another and continue the long fight for change.

For Aboriginal people out there, facing a hard six weeks with this campaign, just remember that the tide will come in and go out, the sun will rise and fall. Don’t get distracted by this too much, as difficult as it is. And remind each other that we will get what we settle for.

My position is that no deal is better than a horrendously lopsided one. We are deserving of authority, agency and independence. We have inherent rights and an exclusive status. None of that exists within an advisory body.


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