The No result is not a return to status quo. Far from it. The First Peoples are put firmly back in their place, again: with a few of their middle-class noticeables, feted by the rearguard of White Australia, now preening as the new patrons for the 80% who had wanted a Yes outcome.
As a Chinese Australian, forever- outsider, despite 60 years of uninterrupted residence in what was to be God’s own country, I am stuck with Donald Horne’s take on The Lucky Country: a nation run by second rate leaders who share its luck.
This time it is the failure of leadership and our adversarial winner-take-all political culture that has put our nation backwards.
I came late to the black history of Australia. Henry Reynolds’ The other side of the Frontier (1981) did not really get me into gear. I was still knee deep getting to the place of the Chinese in the mindscape of White Australia.
Then in 2001, whilst researching for my book, I asked a prominent Aboriginal leader in Brisbane what Reconciliation meant. My concerns were not allayed.
How could you have reconciliation without repentance? During my teens the Marist Brothers at the Sacred Heart School in Sibu, Sarawak, were adamant about that.
“Reconciliation”, officially introduced in 1991, was all about respect for and understanding of the First Peoples of this nation. Have empathy and pity? But not a word on restitution for past injustices and institutionalised oppression.
The Chinese in Oz have been perpetual outsiders since the19th century. As a latter day Chinese Australian, I could be persuaded to consider that the legacy of our First Peoples today evokes that of the unbleached landscape of a failed genocide.
Reconciliationneatly avoided admitting the sins of the past. How hypocritical can you get? But the losers, so deplete of numbers and wherewithal, just had to grin and bear it.
The Voice, the result of wide-consultations amongst the First Peoples over years, was a gentle petition when compared, say, with William Cooper’s petition in 1937. In retrospect the Uluru Statement from the Heart could be seen as fraught compromise amongst diverse leaders of the First Peoples, to ask for something that would not upset anyone in power. Noel Pearson in the aftermath of the No outcome lamented that henceforth no more “obsequious” strategies, presumably to placate the white powers, could be useful.
A Yes23 outcome would have opened a new page for our nation to move forward, with dignity, forgiveness, and hope.
It is a tragedy that we did not have the national leadership to grant the dispossessed original inhabitants that gentle Voice. It is the least we could have done for the monstrous crimes the nation had committed over 200 years.
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