Don't take No for an answer

SEARCH Committee Statement - 21 October 2023

Don’t take No for an answer – the long fight for justice will continue

It has been a hard, hard week after a bitterly hard night. The defeat of the Voice Referendum was a bitter blow for First Nations people and a huge historical tragedy for Australia.

Yet the injustices remain and the wounds of our history still suppurate. They will continue until the nation faces the truth of its history, settles the unfinished business of that history, truly delivers justice for Indigenous peoples, the original and traditional owners and custodians of the land, and in some measure lives up to its claimed national aspiration of ‘a fair go for all’.

We have respected the call of Indigenous Australians who supported the Voice for a Week of Silence. As we emerge from that week, we declare our continuing solidarity with the ongoing struggles of First Nations peoples for justice and equality, for meaningful recognition in the unceded lands from which they were violently dispossessed, and for mechanisms of self-determination that reflect real power in making the decisions that affect their lives and communities. In this moment we will maintain and raise, not abandon or lower, our ambitions for a just and lasting political settlement with First Nations Australians, including treaty-making at national, state, territory and local jurisdictions.

We reaffirm our active commitment to the vision of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its call for Voice, Treaty and Truth. And we reaffirm our determination to support and act in solidarity with First Nations people as they take forward that vision and those goals.

We will promote discussions with SEARCH members, especially our First Nations comrades and those who have been active in the Voice Treaty Truth Working Group, on how to further develop this statement and how we can best take forward those commitments. We invite members to submit contributions to that discussion. We will listen to the views and proposals of the leaders of the Uluru Statement and the Yes23 campaign, and contribute to the discussions of the wider movement.

The Yes23 campaign for a constitutionally-enshrined Voice to Parliament saw the largest, broadest, deepest mass mobilisation of community grassroots activism around such an issue. Already the feeling in and around that movement is that people want to continue the work and the struggle for the goals of the Uluru Statement. All sectors of that movement should work together to maintain the momentum and commitments of that campaign in all its breadth and depth.

This is not the place to analyse in detail the campaign itself and the reasons for the outcome. That should be addressed over time, not least by the campaign itself, in order to learn lessons for taking forward the goals of Uluru. For now, we simply make the following points.

  • The Uluru Statement from the Heart was and is an historic visionary call and a generous invitation from First Nations people to the Australian nation, issued by the most representative gathering of Indigenous people for decades. Its relevance remains.
  • Those Indigenous leaders who drafted, adopted, promoted and campaigned for the goals of Uluru have done their peoples and the nation proud, and have dramatically changed the national conversation and the national agenda.
  • Prime Minister Anthony Albanese showed great integrity in committing to the Uluru Statement and to the holding of a Referendum on the Voice.
  • He maintained his promise to Indigenous peoples even as the going got tough, when so many Prime Ministers and other leaders in earlier times had backed away in the face of lesser pressures from vested interests such as mining companies.
  • Both the Yes23 campaign and the government need to consider the lessons of the campaign and its outcome, not to lay blame but to inform the movement for its future work.
  • Whatever those lessons might be, we sheet home the overwhelming main blame for the Referendum’s result to the Coalition opposition, especially its leader Peter Dutton, and to those who devised and deployed the No campaign in all its ugliness – both public figures and the shadowy campaign drivers in the background, including right-wing think tanks and the Murdoch media.

More generally, the Coalition, the No campaign and the Murdoch media rolled out the playbook of the hard-line Right to defeat the Voice proposal. Left and progressive movements can expect that this playbook will be deployed on the major issues all the way to the next federal election, due in 2025. How to combat these techniques and promote the case for progressive reforms and more far-reaching social change will need to be at the centre of left and progressive strategies.

Finally, in the 2017 Uluru Statement, First Nations people from around the land extended an invitation: “Walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”

We will all keep on walking that long, winding, dusty, corrugated road towards justice, equality and self-determination. 

- SEARCH Committee, 21 October 2023

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