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Compassion and reason: First Nations leaders must come from communities

Jesse J. Fleay -

Voice, Treaty, and Truth v. Fear, Anger, and Lies

There is no point asking for the Indigenous Voice Referendum to not get ugly. It did so months ago. As someone on the receiving end of daily abuse online, and in person, I can guarantee that.

In fact, if Rupert Murdoch and his media Empire had an opposing equivalent to Voice, Treaty, and Truth, it would be Fear, Anger, and Lies. This recipe sells, and although it may not plague his dreams, he certainly has impacted negatively on the social debate, which is surely the future of First Nations Australians, not politicians moving an inch through the grime of ugly politics.

The Western Australian Leader of the Opposition saw no value in Aboriginal lives when she threw away her promise of supporting our Voice, to move an inch. All Libby Mettam did in her backflip was create fear which could have set the cause back for our people for generations. People like Mettam failing our people is one thing, but when it comes from First Nations leaders, it cuts deeper.

Comments by Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price at the National Press Club on 14 September are perhaps the worst example of this in my living memory. We are now told by a small, powerful, reactive group of ideologues headed by Senator Price, that 'colonisation was good for us' and that there are 'no intergenerational affects' of this colonisation.

Being brave is the only way forward. Standing by our principles, even when it feels that everyone is against us will matter in these coming days. Because the truth is, there are many compassionate and reasonable Australians who will walk alongside us and who respect our sovereign self-determination. Organising and unifying the community gives us an opportunity to change the narrative. Tens of thousands of Australians took to the streets last month to support the Voice, guided by a love and optimism which will never draw the same crowds among those whose shrill lies are boring the electorate.

According to the ideology of Australian reactionaries like Senator Price, First Nations Australians who struggle with employment, mental health problems, financial strain, chronic conditions, and addictions are like that because they choose to be - that they are the result of a moral failure and nothing more. According to Senator Price, people who need love and support need more hate and to remain invisible. The proof is in her own words:

"If we keep telling Aboriginal people that they are victims, we are effectively removing their agency, and giving them the expectation somebody else is responsible for their lives," the Senator claimed at the National Press Club on 14 September 2023.

In Price's claim, there is arrogance and denial. It is bewildering that someone who would talk about self-agency would deny the very constitutional mechanism that can provide that self-agency, by giving all First Nations people the opportunity to have a voice in their community. But of course, Price's track-record in her own community casts doubt on the validity of anything she claims on behalf of First Nations Australia, with the Central Land Council consistently condemning her words and her behaviour. The Council currently represents, Alice Springs, Kalkaringi, Lajamanu, Tennant Creek, Alparra, Yuendumu, Ti Tree, Atitjere, Papunya, and Mutitjulu.

Senator Price's comments lack compassion and reason. Compassion teaches us to be humble, in order to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. Reason teaches us that beyond our prejudices, we have a higher aspiration to live up to, and only then can we see the world beyond ourselves. If one is to serve in any position of leadership, they need to start by looking beyond themselves.

Only through compassionate and reasonable leaders can our people heal. Voice, Treaty, and Truth are a mechanism of accountability and scrutiny as much as they are a constructive means to change the narrative. Those who serve themselves, climb the ladder, and kick back on the hands clutching the rung below their feet are unworthy to lead us.

Deficit thinking and lateral violence has had its time

Strangely, there are many who echo Price's thoughts through their actions, whatever their ideology might be. Deficit thinking exists within our sector, and in small parts of our communities and sometimes, those people lead us through unfair appointments which lack a mechanism for challenge or scrutiny. But this is deeper than politics. First Nations leaders are not just politicians. They are Chief Executive Officers, University Vice-Chancellors, Heads of Departments, Senators, and Members of Parliament. Many of our people serve in these positions with pride. But what about when we get it wrong?

Senator Price is living proof that not all of our First Nations leaders will always represent us or deliver for our needs. Academic leaders and bureaucrats can let us down. In fact, they have. Truth telling is not all about what was done to us by colonisers and their post-colonial successors. It is also about what we continue to do to one another as First Nations Australians.

Senator Price's words and behaviour are laterally violent - this can occur in marginalised communities where there is external pressure. But there are leaders on the ground serving their community.

Daniel Morrison, Chief Executive Officer of Wungening Aboriginal Corporation, is a good example of leadership through compassion and reason. For almost a decade, Daniel has turned lives around. He has healed his people. He and his team have curved homelessness, treated addiction, and empowered First Nations people to be better fathers—like him—and he has recently led a strong campaign to combat domestic violence and the inadequate response to its malice. Daniel Morrison is an Aboriginal leader. Daniel Morrison should have a Voice.

Since 2017 I have called for a First Nations Voice to Parliament. Voice for consultation, Treaty for consent, and Truth for the direct call for justice in our communities from the ground up. Not necessarily because I see the legal and political logic of it—although I do—but because the overwhelming majority of First Nations community members called for it. They wanted the Voice, and still do, overwhelmingly. It is my duty to deliver these outcomes to my community. And I do not regret a single moment spent over the past six years continuing this call despite resistance, ignorance, and often contempt. I was there on the conference floor at Uluru. I was a co-author and original signatory to that Statement. It is my responsibility to deliver to my community, the Noongar nation, who—if anything—have grown in their support for Voice.

The First Nations National Constitutional Convention was the largest coordinated meeting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our recorded history. While the diversity of the delegates was enough to represent a great spectrum of our people, those delegates also represented their Elders and cultural leaders back on their home country. Every day and every night, I saw people making those phone calls to their families and mob back home. At 27, I learned about self-respect and self-regard for my own people.

Realistically, the technical production of the Statement captured the aspirations of thousands of First Nations Australians. First, at regional dialogues, second, at the National convention where the Statement was debated, produced, and ratified. Delivering a Voice allows us to be more accountable in our own affairs. Moving forward, we need to determine our leadership carefully. Do they serve us, or do they serve themselves? In the words of the great Lowitja O'Donoghue (Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) at the opening of the National Congress of Australia's First People on 8 June 2011:

"Of course, our founding document [The Constitution] was framed in a different era. Many say we cannot judge it by today's standards. Perhaps not but we can bring it into line with those standards. This would be good not only for our own heads and our hearts."

When you cast your vote on 14 October, you are not just voting for you, you are voting for all First Nations people. And for future generations who do not get to have this choice again. Although it should be obvious that I am voting YES, all I ask is that you please consider your choice with compassion and reason.

Jesse J. Fleay

Boorloo Delegate, Uluru Delegate

Jesse Fleay is a Noongar writer and research specialist across major policy areas. His doctoral thesis explores a model for an Australian republic, along with calls to enact a Voice to Parliament for First Nations Australians. He believes in justice, and fairness in society and only works with people committed to First Nations people, and their self-determination. Views expressed are his own.


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