The ‘No’ Voice result showed us we need to prioritise truth-telling in Australia

The Indigenous Voice to Parliament could have been a chance to address issues First Nations people often face, such as domestic and family violence, racism and discrimination, and inequalities in education, health, and the flaws in the justice system. A lot of us saw the Voice as a potential forum where future generations could step up as advocates and drive meaningful change on many issues that impact First Nations communities in the Northern Territory.


  • Shirleen Campbell

    Co-coordinator of Tangentyere Women’s Family Safety Group, Indigenous Knowledge

  • Chay Brown

    Managing Director, Her Story Consulting & Postdoctoral fellow, Australian National University

  • Connie Shaw

    Co-cooridinator of the Tangentyere Youth Safety Group, and Northern Territory Aboriginal domestic, family, and sexual violence advisory group, Indigenous Knowledge

These hopes were dashed by the referendum’s result. “No” was disheartening for many, but left a particularly deep emotional impact on individuals and communities here in the NT. Virtually all remote Aboriginal communities in the NT voted with a profound “Yes”, so the feeling of being unrecognised and unheard was painful. For us, the result was especially heartbreaking and we felt a sense of disillusionment with broader Australia.

The result symbolised a missed opportunity for recognition and understanding. We feel the “No” vote exposed a part of Australia that has a history of being ignorant to issues impacting First Nations people. We wrote of this with the alleged crime wave in Mparntwe Alice Springs and the silence surrounding Blak women being murdered.

Despite this, strong Indigenous-led movements have held a mirror up to the injustices faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These include movements calling for an end to Blak Deaths in Custody, to commit to truth-telling, and to end violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women through dedicated initiatives and plans led by First Nations women.

These movements have faced often extreme backlash, often from people and politicians who out of discomfort would rather erase the history of Australia in preference of something more serving to the nationalist sentiment.

This is why it’s an important time to revisit the Uluru Statement’s call for Truth. Government and policy bodies need to engage with First Nations organisations and communities as this is essential for understanding and addressing the needs of First Nations peoples’ needs and concerns. If Australia wants to walk with us on this journey, the truth must first be told – and it must be heard.

The role of truth-telling

The impact of such a loud “No” on communities in the NT has been significant. Many First Nations community organisations and people responded to the result with a week of silence and mourning, with some turning their social media profile pictures black and refraining from posting.

Some organisations closed their doors to respect a mourning period. Others raised their voices even louder, continuing their advocacy and fight for First Nations justice. For instance, SNAICC – National Voice for Our Children continued its tireless work to advocate for First Nations children and young people.

In the absence of the Voice, First Nations communities and organisations continue to work. While we didn’t get a representative body in federal parliament, government and policy bodies could still do more to collaborate with First Nations voices. A recent example of this is First Nations women’s advocates and organisations pushing the government to commit to a separate national plan to address the high rates of violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children.

This resulted in the government appointing a steering committee of First Nations women to lead these efforts. To change the political landscape in this country so it is more representative and just, this requires deep listening and truth-telling with First Nations organisations and communities.

Many First Nations organisations in the NT continue to drive forward positive change in our communities. This includes organisations such as Galiwin’ku Women’s Space, Central Australian Family Legal Unit, Darwin Aboriginal & Islander Women’s Shelter, and NPY Women’s Council.

Through this work, we are so often reminded it is First Nations women who lead their communities through troubled times, and many go unacknowledged. Our group, The Tangentyere Women’s Family Safety Group, continues to focus on ending family violence and creating visibility for Aboriginal women’s experiences. We do this in our home, Mparntwe Alice Springs.

Truth-telling and deep listening offers a pathway for addressing the issues with and alongside First Nations communities. Most of our elected representatives have spent very little time in Aboriginal communities like ours – this must change. Governments must dedicate more meaningful time to spending time and truly listening to First Nations communities. First Nations justice cannot be done from the concrete of Canberra, it must be done from the red dust of communities.

Truth-telling makes a pathway for two-way learning. Yolŋu use the metaphor of Ganma to explain two-way learning – Ganma is where the salt and fresh water meet and mix, and it is in this environment that unique flora and fauna thrive. Similarly, two-way learning brings people together as equals to listen, share, and bring together the strengths of two worlds.

The current approach of regarding First Nations peoples and communities as blank slates, upon whom knowledge is bestowed and whose capacity is “built”, is the complete opposite of two-way learning, which is a practice of reciprocity and collaboration.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, we need increased collaboration and support between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and communities. To bring this country together requires a commitment to two-way learning, deep listening and a national commitment to truth-telling.

The referendum also showed the strength and resilience of First Nations communities. There are so many upcoming voices who are ready to shape our futures. We look to our own young women’s group, and we know the future is bright. Aboriginal people and communities will guide the way forward and we will determine our own futures.

The Conversation

Shirleen Campbell is an Employee of Tangentyere Council and receives funding from NTG and federal funding for Tangentyere Programs. She is affiliated with Tangentyere Council as an Employee.

Chay Brown is affiliated with Her Story Mparntwe, Alice As One, and Tangentyere Council.

Connie Shaw is an employee of Tangentyere council and receives funding from the NTG and federal funding for Tangentyere programs she is affiliated with Tangentyere council as an employee.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.