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The rejection of the Voice and the risk it poses to the referendum

“It’s f–king laughable,” says Meriki Onus, co-organiser of Melbourne’s Invasion Day rally.

The rally, held on Australia Day, brought tens of thousands to the streets of Melbourne under the banner of Treaty before Voice.

Activist Meriki Onus speaks to the crowd during the Invasion Day rally on January 26.Credit:Darrian Traynor

Days later, Onus is laughing – although she’s not particularly amused – at the suggestion Invasion Day protests were “hijacked” by No campaigners agitating against this year’s referendum on an Indigenous Voice to parliament.

“I’ve been organising these [protests] since 2015, so the idea I hijacked my own event is just laughable,” she says.

She adds, pointedly: “It felt really good that more and more people in this country are standing with us and are prepared to hear the voices of people who don’t get opinion pieces [published] in The Australian or have access to media teams to help them finesse their words.

“It’s really the only time that we have to hear from Aboriginal people who really live on the front line of what the colony does to our people.”

Protesters gather at the intersection of Flinders and Swanston streets to mark Invasion Day.Credit:Justin McManus

Speaker after speaker on Thursday criticised Labor’s referendum, which later this year will ask the Australian people whether they support the constitution being amended to include an Indigenous Voice to parliament.

Polling conducted for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald last week showed support for a Voice had slipped from 53 per cent to 47 per cent, after the decision by the Nationals partyroom to support a No vote and following Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s repeated demands for more details.

Amid all this, there has been increasing debate within Australia’s Indigenous communities over the Voice. In the lead up to Thursday’s rallies in capital cities across the country, critics lined up to accuse protest organisers of hijacking rallies to push a No vote – particularly in Melbourne.

In a column in The Australian, University of Melbourne professor and prominent Aboriginal leader Marcia Langton accused Victorian Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe – Onus’ sister – of rallying “her gaggle of supporters to con Australians into thinking this year’s Survival Day rallies are protests against the voice”.

Noel Pearson delivers his “It’s time for true Constitutional recognition” speech at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra in 2021.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Fellow elder Noel Pearson criticised both Thorpe and Country Liberal Party Senator Jacinta Yangapi Nampijinpa Price last week.

Without repeating those criticisms, Pearson wrote in this masthead that he could not see how reconciliation could survive a No vote on the referendum: “It will be shattered by such a failure, and it would be naive to think otherwise. Reconciliation will die with a failed referendum.”

Marcus Stewart, co-chair of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, said he boycotted Thursday’s rally over concerns about the protest being hijacked by No campaigners.

“It’s unfortunate what’s happened this year, how a small group have tried to hijack it,” he told The Sunday Age.

Marcus Stewart from the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria.Credit:Justin McManus

“It’s heartbreaking that I can’t be there … but I’m not going to be silenced. I’m not going to be bullied. I’m going to speak my opinion, which I’m entitled to. And I’m basically just saying what majority of our mob are thinking but too scared to say.”

Onus, Thorpe and fellow prominent speakers at Melbourne’s Invasion Day rally – long-term activist and elder Gary Foley, and elder and author Ronnie Gorrie – represent a more radical wing of Aboriginal activism.

In an electrifying speech, Foley, who co-founded Canberra’s Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972, told Melbourne protesters they were “in the process of being sold a pup”.

“Beware of Blak bourgeoisie trying to sell you a referendum, trying to sell you a shonky proposition called the Voice,” he said.

Long-term activist Gary Foley addresses the crowd in Melbourne.Credit:Joe Armao

“I want you to think; think before you vote. Make sure that you’re not being manoeuvred into a position of being complicit in the latest of a long line of cosmetic bullshit measures that will achieve nothing in the way of justice [for Aboriginal people].”

Raising the stakes, Thorpe told the crowd Australia had been at war with Aboriginal people since 1788.

“This is a war,” she declared. “A war that was declared on our people over 200 years ago. That war has never ever ended in this country against my people. They are still killing us. They are still stealing our babies. They are killing our men, and they are still raping our women.

“What do we have to celebrate in this country? Do we want to become advisors now? Do we want to become an advisory body to the colonial system? We deserve better than that!”

Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe speaks at the Invasion Day rally.Credit:Alexi J. Rosenfeld

Thorpe cleared the way last Wednesday for a split with her colleagues on the Indigenous Voice to parliament, in a formal deal that gives her free rein to vote against the proposal while her Greens colleagues give it their support.

Thorpe’s detractors believe she is openly running interference on the Voice, with a grassroots campaign now being waged from Victoria – led by elements within the Greens.

While The Sunday Age was unable to reach Thorpe for comment, Onus scoffs at this proposal. She says a network of Black activists across the country set the annual Invasion Day theme, and “Treaty before Voice” was led by Brisbane and Sydney activists.

“I think it’s actually really insulting to our autonomy and self-determination to frame it that way. Aboriginal community and organisers transcend political parties. It’s about sovereignty.”

Melbourne’s Invasion Day rally brought tens of thousands of people together under the banner of Treaty before Voice.Credit:Justin McManus

Across the country on Australia Day, Invasion Day rallies heard from First Nations speakers urging the government to introduce a Treaty before Voice.

In Sydney, Gomeroi man Ian Brown said he had no trust in a Voice to parliament because it would be “another formal process of government not listening to mob”.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has declined to directly criticise Thorpe or her supporters, but has framed them as being outliers of mainstream thought.

“It’s not a radical proposition,” Albanese said on Friday. “So I’m not surprised that some radicals are opposed to it. Because this is a mainstream proposition.”

Aboriginal activist Ronnie Gorrie.Credit:Leah Jing McIntosh

Gorrie is a matriarch and activist who emceed Melbourne’s Invasion Day rally. She maintains the rally wasn’t an endorsement of a Yes or No vote, and says she still hasn’t made up her mind how she’ll vote in the referendum.

“Even though the [rally] theme was Treaty before Voice, it didn’t mean that it was a Yes or a No to the Voice,” she says.

While proponents of the Voice have called on Australians to read the full report on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, Gorrie argues the onus is on them to make a clear case to Aboriginal people.

Meanwhile, she and other activists will keep pushing the case for Treaty.

“Our sovereignty has never been ceded,” Gorrie says.

“We want our land back, and we want Dan Andrews and the Victorian government especially to stop selling off Crown land and give it back to traditional owners, the rightful owners.

“We want them to follow the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. We want them to follow through with all the recommendation from the Bringing Them Home report. And we want reparations.”

If people don’t trust Voice, it’s because they don’t trust governments, Onus says.

“While progressive politics can look really good on paper, we’re not seeing it translate to change in our streets.

“There’s no real reason to trust while we’re having our people getting slaughtered and put in custody by the same governments that want to include us into their constitution. There’s no trust.”

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