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  • Writer's pictureZena Cumpston

I've been to a parallel world where truth telling reigns, paving the way for healing for people and Country and towards antiracist and decolonial futures.


In our mainstream reality, in October, 2023, the Australian colonial government asked its constituents to vote in a referendum about whether to change the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. It was the first referendum of the 21st century. The referendum did not pass.


Zena Cumpston, a First Nations Barkandji woman with Afghan, Irish and English Ancestry and ancestral and familial belonging to Wilcannia, Menindee and Broken Hill in western New South Wales, visited a parallel world shortly thereafter. These are her reflections of this world.

 

 

The world I visited was created by the events leading up to and immediately following the Voice to Parliament referendum. This world is a result of a groundswell of meaningful

self-reflection as a nation.


Wet season, Adnyamathanha Country, landscape Aboriginal land
Image: Adnyamathanha Country

In the parallel world, "yes voters" did not rest in the comfort of their privilege after the referendum. No one merely lamented the loss, or conceptualised themselves as 'allies' whose job was somehow done.


Non-Indigenous Australians resisted the cognitive dissonance that for too long had stopped them from acknowledging and accepting the unacceptable: that Australia is racist and that all non-Indigenous Australians collectively belong to this community overrun by racist narratives and therefore must collectively take the lead to address harms.  

 

A highly necessary and sustained unpacking, pinpointed wilful ignorance as the root cause of the referendum loss, but also, more widely, as the overriding driver of the systemic disadvantage experienced by Australia’s First Peoples.


The referendum showed us that there are many who cling to the idea that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people enjoy equality. That in fact, we get ‘more’ than other Australians.

It uncovered a prevailing belief that we do not experience socio-economic disadvantage compared to other groups in the areas of health, education and employment.


Too many Australians could not bring themselves to support us because despite the tsunami of hard evidence to the contrary, many simply could not accept the premise behind the voice to parliament: that there is a need for better socio-economic outcomes for First Nations peoples. This overwhelming denial that there is anything to remedy, accepted and proliferated a call to collective ignorance. If there is one thing that exemplifies this malevolent denial it can be seen in this slogan of the no campaign; the moronic, rallying cry: “If you don’t know, vote no.”


Landscape The Black Spur Aboriginal Land
Image: Taungurung and Wurundjeri Country

In the world I visited, those who were shocked by the 'No' landslide, began a process of accepting responsibility. Accepting that their role was not over with the referendum, but in fact, only just beginning. Non-Indigenous Australia grappled with the extent of the malevolence towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples amongst the majority.


In the world I visited, those who were shocked by the 'No' landslide, began a process of accepting responsibility. Accepting that their role was not over with the referendum, but in fact, only just beginning.

How did they not know before the landslide defeat?

Was our suffering as First Peoples somehow understood as intrinsically hardwired into us?


We again posed the question: if racism does not pervade every aspect of our lives, how is it that we are continuously over represented in horrifying statistics?


How is it that we die decades before other Australians or, too often, begging for our lives over intercoms?


As people moved on from the initial shock of this result, to an acceptance of their personal responsibility to act, the need for truth telling was prioritised across all fora as a necessary panacea to the ignorance and racism that drove every aspect of the Voice to Parliament referendum.

 

In this world, non-Indigenous Australians steadfastly refused to accept the idea that ours, the ‘lucky Country’, was not capable of positive change.


In this world, non-Indigenous Australians did not count themselves as being on the right side of history merely because their progressive electorate was a majority yes. They did not think that affixing a corflute on their fence, marching, wearing a 'Yes!' tee-shirt or writing three letters on a ballot paper was enough work to stop the disproportionate suffering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These small and comfortable moves to change were seen for what they are: the bare bare minimum.


Pink Cliffs, Heathcote, Aboriginal Land
Image: Taungurung Country

In my world, the wider Australian community used the examination of this moment in time to understand it was no longer enough to be comfortably and passively, ‘not racist’ anymore. That they each had a role to play to lead a powerful movement to make the Australian community anti racist.

 

The identification of the root problem of racism fuelled by ignorance, led to the prioritisation of truth-telling and education. Historically, non-Indigenous Australia has found ways to absolve itself from the hard work, expecting the First Peoples of these lands to show endless generosity, to hold everyone’s hand, to provide the solution and to lead everyone on the path to the utterly incongruous idea of ‘reconciliation’. The Australian community had pointedly failed to ask: "What did the First People do to wrong us to now be equally responsible for the solution themselves? What do they have to reconcile?"


"What did the First People do to wrong us to now be equally responsible for the solution themselves? What do they have to reconcile?"

The world I visited, centres truth-telling and the education of the nation as a necessary means through which to enact healing for people and for Country. Working groups were formed across every major industry, led by non-Indigenous Australians to centre education amongst their employees.


Reconciliation Action Plans were overwhelmingly identified as a means through which to absolve non-Indigenous people of blame, providing little benefit and long term opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


St Columba Falls, Aboriginal Land
Image: Pyengana Kunnarra Kuna Country

Businesses were encouraged to engage in truth-telling sessions within their local community and our government provided economic support for Elders and community members to lead these sessions and to connect directly with those working and living on their Country.


Films, television shows, documentaries, performances, books, exhibitions and symposiums created by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities received significant funding from government and many wealthy philanthropists to increase opportunities for all Australian people to experience our stories, our culture, our knowledge systems and our histories firsthand.


On Country experiences were prioritised as a means to increase awareness of the needs of Country and custodial responsibility. Also prioritised was the imperative to ensure these truth telling offerings gave reciprocal benefit to the communities making and delivering them through empowering First Nation pedagogies, ensuring proper resourcing and intergenerational learning and cultural revitalisation opportunities.

 

A war room of education specialists from across our nation came together to interrogate the national curriculum. International First Nations experts were invited to provide insights from their own nations' journeys. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander universities were established, led by Elders with a focus on empowering our knowledge systems, our pedagogies, intergenerational learning and, importantly, significantly building the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers and education specialists.


Lake Pamamaroo, Menindee, Aboriginal Land
Image: Barkandji Country

 

This world moves forward with a refusal to accept veiled attempts to excuse or erase violent acts. It does not posit genocidal practices as an accidental outcome stemming from good intentions. This world, where truth telling is centred, does not separate the past from the present. It is a world where histories are no longer the fairy-tale of the invaders, a world where we do not sugar-coat to pander to white fragility.


This world moves forward with a refusal to accept veiled attempts to excuse or erase violent acts.

In this world, as a priority, we teach young and old, across generations, about invasion.

We centre understanding colonialism as a structure, not a point in time, and as very much embedded in every aspect of the present day challenges faced by First Nations peoples.


In this world where truth telling is centred, we do not accept that the health and wellbeing outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the result of their own deficiencies, but that that they are the sum total of the ongoing daily violence of colonisation, marginalisation and, more than anything else, the cancer of racism pulsating and multiplying in every nook and cranny of this, "the lucky country."

 

The centring of truth telling reverberates across all aspects of this world. The intersection of colonisation and climate change is unveiled and slowly, but steadily, the growing respect and care for First Nations people translates to greater self-determination; and greater

self-determination translates to greater say in what happens on Country.


The central importance of cultural water rights begin to be properly conceptualised, understood  and enacted. The unofficial voice to parliament historically enjoyed by mining companies is exposed and eroded.

 

In this world, a significant proportion of the Australian people refused to take no for an answer, leading a sustained push to right this most recent wrong, in order to also begin to meaningfully address those of the past.



 

Zena Cumpston

About the author:

Zena Cumpston is a Barkandji woman with Afghan, Irish and English Ancestry. Her family has ancestral and familial belonging to Wilcannia, Menindee and Broken Hill in western New South Wales. She mostly works as a writer, artist and storyteller. Zena's multidisciplinary practice is centred around protecting and celebrating Country and community. Zena strives to democratise research, creating projects that invite a wide audience and provide platforms and opportunities that empower her community and intergenerational learning opportunities.


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