The Voice Referendum in Australia: Correcting Past Wrongs
Photo courtesy of CNN
Australia and Sri Lanka share a complex history of colonisation, which has deeply impacted their Indigenous populations. Both countries, members of the Commonwealth of Nations[i], grapple with the repercussions of their colonial pasts. This article explores the historical context of Indigenous peoples in Australia and Sri Lanka, shedding light on their struggles and the ongoing debates surrounding the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum in Australia.
Australia, a federation of six colonies, officially became the Commonwealth of Australia on January 1, 1901, marking its autonomy from the United Kingdom with the Australia Act of 1986 solidifying this independence. Sri Lanka, known as the oldest democracy in Asia, gained independence in 1948 but struggles with issues related to its unitary governance system under an executive presidential structure.
Indigenous peoples[ii] in Australia, with a history spanning over 65,000 years, faced severe challenges during European settlement including disease, violence, forced relocation and cultural erosion. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, colonisation led to the abolition of traditional land ownership systems, sparking the 1848 rebellion. Both countries’ Indigenous populations suffered mass scale atrocities, displacement and cultural suppression under colonial rule.
The impact of colonisation resonates in modern day challenges faced by Indigenous communities including disparities in healthcare, education and justice. The Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum in Australia seeks to address these issues by establishing a constitutionally recognised advisory body. However, the debate surrounding the referendum has been marred by misinformation, disinformation and racially charged narratives reminiscent of similar tactics used in Sri Lanka’s political landscape.
Pre-1815 in Ceylon, the land ownership system was different. The sole land owner was the king of the region or the country. Kings did not transfer land ownership to the people. When Ceylon was colonized, the previous land ownership system was abolished via Crown Lands Ordinance No. 12 of 1840. It disallowed ownership of lands that were used by people from generation to generation, as they did not have documentary evidence to prove land ownership. This was one of the factors that led to the 1848 rebellion. Then the British imposed the Waste Lands Ordinance No 1 of 1897. This applied to forest, chena, waste and any uncultivated lands on the island.
For Indigenous communities in Australia, colonisation meant disease, violence, massacre and loss. In 1770 Captain James Cook landed in Botany Bay. In the 18th century, international law required respect for Indigenous peoples’ rights to land. However, the legal notion of terra nullius (land belonging to no one) was used to justify British settlement acting as if Australia were uninhabited. The notion of terra nullius led to the dispossession of land and economic bases including natural and cultural resources for Indigenous peoples. The notion of terra nullius was abolished in 1992 by a decision of the High Court of Australia that recognised prior Indigenous rights to Australian land.
Unlike in Sri Lanka, they were evicted from their traditional territories and relocated to reserves and missions. They were subjected to massacres and those who survived prevented from practising their customs and traditions. This led them to lose some cultural practices. Under colonial policies and assimilation practices, Indigenous children have been forcibly taken away until the 1970s. According to reports, such practices persist today. Such practices called Stolen Generations broke the spiritual, familial and cultural bonds of children to their families, causing inter-generational trauma and affecting their well-being.
Due to colonialism, the continent also suffered from land and resource management issues. Pre-colonial days, Indigenous peoples used fire stick farming practices to manage their land and ensure sustainable food production. The colonialists cleared the lands of the Indigenous peoples and farmed, yet coming from a cold climate, they had no idea about land, climate and agriculture in Australia. They only resorted to their preconceived ways of landscaping, agriculture and land ownership and continued to impose those ideas on the Indigenous peoples.
Throughout the 1800s, Indigenous leaders fought for control over their own affairs. They resisted colonisation and expropriation. Yet the advanced weaponry the colonisers had inflicted heavy casualties. It is said that about 20,000 Indigenous Australians were killed during the colonisation process.
As has happened in Sri Lanka, despite electoral success or defeat, scars will remain in the minds and hearts of the people. The opposition in Australia like that in Sri Lanka has diverted the real issues away from discussion and dialogue by creating false flags about the Yes campaign. Sri Lanka’s history reflects that in the socio-economic, political and armed suffering it has undergone since the 1980s. The past has and continues to dominate the agenda and shape our lives today. What we can ask is that Australia avoid the sufferings Sri Lankans have experienced repeatedly in our post-independence history.
Like in Sri Lanka there have been many commissions appointed and inquiries made to address the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The National Apology to the Stolen Generations delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 came about as a recommendation from The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal Children from their Families. It highlighted the suffering of Indigenous families under Commonwealth, state and territory Aboriginal protection and welfare laws and policies. The national inquiry led to the Bringing Them Home report that contained 54 recommendations on how to redress the wrongs done to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by race-based laws and policies of successive governments throughout Australia. It was tabled in Parliament in 1997. As in Sri Lanka many of those recommendations are still awaiting implementation.
Australia has never recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as its first inhabitants in the constitution. In 1962 they were finally granted the right to vote in national elections. But calls for greater self-determination go back generations. A petition to King George V calling for “A member of parliament, of our own blood” garnered 1,800 First Nations signatures in the 1930s. However, the document was never delivered to the Crown. Another appeal from traditional owners in Darwin went unanswered.
In Sri Lanka, it was the local middle classes of all ethnicities or nationalities that drove the political agenda. Ceylon moved from the Executive Council and the Legislative Council (1833) to the State Council (1931), to the House of Representatives (1947), to the National State Assembly (1972) and then to the Parliament (1978). These were all colonial constructs or based on colonial constructs. To date most legislation is based on those developed under colonialism.
In Australia, the Indigenous middle class emerged in the seventies under the Gough Whitlam government. The outlook of this middle class was not parallel or congruent with ordinary Indigenous people. It can be considered a feature of developing social structures underpinned by a capitalist economy. In post-capitalist economies like the US, Canada and New Zealand the middle class has entered into compromises and a similar process appears to be taking place in Australia as well.
Australia is unusual among other settler nations in having never made a treaty with Indigenous peoples. Since the 1980s and 1990s, Sami communities from northern Scandinavia have had their own parliaments in Finland, Norway and Sweden. Their rights are recognised in their constitutions. Parliament regulates elected bodies and elected bodies advise lawmakers on how to effectively address the issues affecting Sami communities. The Voice could function similarly.
The Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand was signed in 1840. Dedicated seats for Māori in parliament were created by 1867. Canada’s Indigenous peoples have constitutionally enshrined treaty rights and the right to self-government. In 1982 an elected First Nations Assembly was created so that chiefs representing their communities could liaise directly with federal lawmakers.
In both countries, social media campaigns fuelled by false propaganda have played a detrimental role, perpetuating fear and division among communities. The Indigenous middle class, emerging in the 1970s, faced challenges in aligning their aspirations with the broader Indigenous population, reflecting social complexities within their communities.
Australia’s Indigenous communities, despite facing immense historical injustices, remain resilient, preserving their cultures and traditions. The referendum presents an opportunity to recognise and rectify past wrongs, fostering inclusivity and equality. The establishment of the Makarrata Commission, as proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, exemplifies a step toward reconciliation and parallel sovereignty for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
However, the referendum debate has become entangled with racial tensions, fuelled by misinformation campaigns. The need for a national anti-racism framework, emphasising education and awareness, is vital to combat racism and promote social cohesion.
The Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum in Australia encapsulates the struggles faced by Indigenous populations in the wake of colonisation. The referendum represents a crucial step toward addressing historical injustices and fostering a more inclusive society. Regardless of the referendum’s outcome, the resilience of Indigenous communities will continue to drive progress, shaping a future marked by self-determination, empowerment and social cohesion.
[i] A voluntary association of 56 independent countries, almost all formerly under British rule. Its origins are from the former British Empire.
[ii] The word ‘peoples’ recognises that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have both a collective and individual dimension to their lives. This is affirmed by the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights.