Everything is the short answer. Why or how one may ask. In attempting an answer to this question, I have nothing original to offer, but to regurgitate snippets from a tale of extreme injustice that reverberates through generations. A stolen history (of colonization) being reclaimed by some, grudgingly acknowledged by many, and resisted by others.
David Marr in his recently released book Killing for Country: A Family Story tells the story of his great, great grandfather Reginald Uhr who, for six years, was an officer of the Queensland Native Police whose main charge was to hunt and kill indigenous people. After six years of “service”, he was promoted as a magistrate to adjudicate in a legal system that turned a blind eye to the genocidal excesses of the Native Police. Ruthlessness with the aborigines was a marketable resource. And did you know that till the 1850s in Victoria and till 1876 in New South Wales and Queensland, indigenous Australians were barred from giving evidence in court? So, no survivors of massacres could give evidence in court about what the Native Police had done. Marr argues that each of the several inquiries into the appalling killings on the frontier was in fact to the detriment of the first nations’ people, as the bar was permanently lowered when no action was taken.
The story is also told in Rachel Perkins’ The Australian Wars which documents the bloody battles over a hundred years that decimated the indigenous people who resisted the “settlers”, and led to the establishment of the new Australian nation. Firmer numbers will emerge with more research, but there are some 430 documented, though mostly unmarked, sites of massacres between 1788 and 1930 (see Figure). These were not local skirmishes or petty land disputes. As Marcia Langton puts it: “We need to understand why the war was never declared when there were clearly wars, plural, many wars… It’s a myth that aboriginal people did not fight back.” Oral histories and even archaeological evidence have long remained buried in “the great Australian silence”, and intergenerational trauma is just a fancy psychological term for those unaware or dismissive of the brutal past.
Before 1770, the indigenous people were close to a 100% of the population of Australia. In 2021, they are less than 4%. That is the irony of the referendum. After their decimation to a 4% share in population, it is now the 96% non-indigenous population that decide the fate of whether the remaining first nations’ people should have constitutional recognition and a voice. Even those born in India or China, about 5.2% of the population, outnumber the indigenous people and thus have a bigger say in deciding the referendum’s fate. An imperative of historical justice should have been that it is only the indigenous people who are allowed to vote on their constitutional recognition and voice. But one can only believe in the necessity of historical justice if one first accepts the gravity of the historical injustice.
The campaign for the referendum as it unfolded had three broad camps: the “Yes” camp, the “Progressive-No” camp, and finally, for lack of a better descriptor, the “Conservative-No” camp. The Yes camp campaigned that a Yes vote was a stepping stone, a minimal first step towards correcting past wrongs. For the Progressive-No, it was too minimal. The historical injustice and hurt ran too deep, and the proposed fix just didn’t go far enough. The Progressive-No wanted Treaty before Voice. As one of the Progressive-No campaigners put it, “the question should not have been “Yes or No”, but “Treaty or Voice”.
The Conservative-No campaign’s slogan, “If you don’t know, vote no” worked because a large fraction of the 96% don’t know. They have not read or seen (and may not even have heard of) Killing for Country or The Australian Wars. They have not seen or do not want to see the frontier massacre map. Convenient for the Conservative-No campaign, the Progressive-No position further muddied the waters, elevating the doubt whether the non-indigenous Australians should vote Yes when some the indigenous Australians themselves were voting No.
In the end the No vote prevailed. Ironically, both the acceptance and the denial of the brutal legacy of colonization proved decisive in cementing the No vote. Mono-causal explanations of historical events are futile, but the backdrop of the long and dark shadow of the frontier wars is an essential part of the story.
3 December 2023