Transcript: ABC Mildura-Swan Hill Breakfast - 16/10/23

16 October 2023


SUBJECTS: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum; First Nations; Regional and Rural Victoria

DEBRA PEARCE: Australia has said no to the voice. So what happens next? Senator Jana Stewart is with us. Senator, I'm not sure that I can say good morning, but how are you this morning?  

SENATOR JANA STEWART: Oh, thanks so much for having me on. There have certainly been better days for our community. 

My thoughts and I suppose my heart with this is with my community right now who are really hurting. The past couple of days have been really difficult, but I hope Aboriginal my community find some comfort knowing that millions of Australians showed up for them, and had our backs when it was really needed. 

And Victoria did have the highest yes vote anywhere in the country, but what is really clear is that we did have a national conversation about the challenges facing Aboriginal people. I don't think anybody disagrees that where we are right now as a community isn't good enough. 

I think what the decision reflects on the weekend is that Australians have a different view about what can affect change and changing our constitution wasn't one of the things that we've agreed to. 

But the statistics we're underlying the asks from First Nations people - about the life and safety gap, the education gap, the health outcomes - they still persist day after referend and for weeks and months and years after that. It's still an incredibly important conversation that we've had. As a nation, I think it's really put on the radar for lots of people probably for the first time, and so it's great that so many more people are on board and really motivated to see change. 

Just like we've done since the Albanese Labor Government, we'll continue to aspire to a fairer and better nation for everyone, and that includes making sure that First Nations people are where we need to be to, are equal in this nation. 

DEBRA PEARCE: Some of the sentiment is that the voice didn't go far enough. on reflection, do you think that was true? 

SENATOR JANA STEWART: Oh, I think there's going to be so many different views. There have been conversations about what it could or couldn't have done. I think the proposal before the Australian people was simply about recognition and listening, with the intent of achieving better outcomes. 

So, and I know that the Mallee, the community that I certainly love, was the target and the victims of some pretty terrible myths and disinformation. I travelled to the Mallee for the first week of early voting and was having conversations with lots of community members about some of that myths and disinformation and really trying to dispel the myths. 

So I think, there’s lots of, I suppose, conversations and thinking through the who, what, where, when, coulda, shoulda, woulda type situation that will happen for a long time to come, I reckon.  

DEBRA PEARCE: Because looking at that result in the Mallee, just 21. 62 percent of people in our electorate voted yes. Did that surprise you?  

SENATOR JANA STEWART: Well, I think that is a surprising result. And the reason that I think that is because, unlike our urban and metro areas, First Nations people are so much more visible, visibly a part of our communities.  

They are the people that you are cheering on the weekend at the local footy. You're playing netball with them in your netball teams. We are in your places. Our kids are going to school and kindergarten with your kids. And You're more likely, I think, to have relationships and connections with First Nations people in the region because we're smaller communities than you do in the cities. So it's surprising that those people in the regions, even though those friendships are probably, those friendships are there, didn’t support this proposal.  

But for me I think the glass is half full for me is that we've had a, a national conversation really put the outcomes of First Nations people on the map and people haven't said no to getting better outcomes for First Nations people. They said no to changing our constitution. The work to close the gap for First Nations people is absolutely still there and we are absolutely motivated to get that work done. 

DEBRA PEARCE: There were some outliers in the Mallee electorate: 56.1 percent of people in Halls Gap voted yes, 79.1 percent of people in St Arnaud. Any idea what might have been going on in those couple of spots?  

SENATOR JANA STEWART: I'm not sure. I haven't, I haven't looked at the finer details. That's really lovely to hear actually. I'm not sure what happened in those areas. It's worth going back and having a look at actually.  

DEBRA PEARCE: Yeah. We're certainly gonna dig a little bit deeper into those results. What happens next? Do you think that this opens a door for treaty?  

SENATOR JANA STEWART: Well, I'm not sure. I mean, the first thing to say is that states and territories are already on the path to treaty and in fact, Victoria is the most progressive state on the path to treaty. We have the first people's assembly in Victoria, which has been around already for four years, and they've been incredible advocates and voices in the constitutional change conversations. and they were resolute in ensuring that treaty is still on the path here in Victoria.  

And it's interesting because I had a lot of those conversations with people too when I was in Swan Hill saying that we've already got a democratically elected Voice in Victoria for Aboriginal and Torres Victoria. And most people don't actually know that it exists because it has so little impact on the day to day lives of Victorians. And it's there to advocate on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Victoria, and it's done an incredible job over the last couple of years. 

DEBRA PEARCE: As you've said very interestingly, there are a lot of people aren't even aware because it doesn't affect their day to day lives, and yet, and yet with this particular campaign, there were some points made that it would affect our lives greatly. About a month ago, we were talking about a letter sent to farmers and landholders in the Mallee, scaremongering about native title and land reacquisition. Do you think fears around ideas like that had an impact on the referend outcome in Mallee particularly or other rural areas?  

SENATOR JANA STEWART: Yeah, I think so. I mean, fear is an incredible motivator in lots of ways. But it's not necessarily the emotion that we want people to go into the ballot box with, because really there was nothing to fear and everything to gain with the proposal of the voice. 

But I was having lots of those conversations with people when I was at the early voting centre. silly things like people being told that they weren't going to be able to go down to the river to fish, that they were going to have to pay to go down to the river.  

I suppose things like that are too silly for words. I mean, fair enough, if you hear that then of course you start to feel worried about what you're going to lose. That's a very normal response.  

But that was never what this was about, this was simply about giving the most marginalised and vulnerable communities in our nation a say and a voice to our parliament where decisions are made about them. But that really got lost amongst all the myths and disinformation, and that's a real shame. 

That is a real shame, because we are supposed to be the country of the fair go, and at the moment we have fellow Australians who don't experience the country in the same way. We have lots of indicators that demonstrate that fact, that it is not a fair go for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and this was a mechanism to achieve that aspiration for every Australian, to achieve the fair go for every Australian. But that's not where we are today.  

I think in amongst the conversations that are happening in the days and weeks ahead, I'm sure the mis- and disinformation part of the campaign that was run will be a part of that conversation. Because it is to me, you want people going into the polls and being able to make decisions based on facts, based on real evidence. And for some people, that didn't happen. And that's a real shame.  

The coalition had talked about holding a second referend asking just about constitutional recognition. Do you see that happening? Didn't Dutton come out a couple of days later and change his mind on that? I think it's highly unlikely that there'll be a second referend on this. I also think that it's really disrespectful to First Nations people to suggest having a second referend on something that we haven't asked for.  When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were asked about recognition - ‘what type of recognition do you want, would you like to see’- our communities had conversations across the country about recognition that culminated in people coming together at Uluru with 250 delegates from across the nation, Aboriginal people. At that meeting, our leaders discussed recognition, feedback from grassroots people. They discussed recognition and it was very clear at that meeting that our communities had said recognition in and of itself is not enough. Our communities are in such a way that we need to be heard. So we need and want recognition through a voice. That's what this was. But our communities have said recognition, symbolic recognition in and of itself isn't enough. So I think it's incredibly disrespectful to First Nations communities across the country to even propose the idea of a second referend just on recognition. It's not what our communities have asked for. And really it demonstrates, highlights so clearly why the voice was needed. Because we have politicians making up policy on the run all the time, not engaging and not doing the things that our communities have asked for, and that we know are going to lead to real change. 

And that's what the voice was. It was recognition. Recognition, which is really important, but it was through a voice, because we needed practical outcomes for our communities, and that's what was on the table for people.  

After the outcome of the referend result was apparent on Saturday night, Independent Senator Lydia Thorpe said Blackfellas have gone overseas to get away from this because it's been so hurtful. What sort of legacy will the voice campaign leave? Was it worth it?  

I agree, it's been an incredibly bruising and trying time for lots of First Nations people, including me. As those referend results came in on Saturday night, I was with some of my closest and dearest friends and family and was just in tears that it was the outcome. And it has been a tough conversation for First Nations people.  

While it's a good thing that we've had a national conversation about our communities and the challenges that we experience, it's still hard to hear those things. It's hard to talk about a life expectancy gap of seven to eight years, our kids die younger. When our babies are born, just because they are born Aboriginal in this country, they are born with a life expectancy gap of seven to eight years less than their the other kids in this classroom. That is a national shame. We have our young boys are more likely to go to prison than they are to university. Those things are incredibly important to educate Australians about tough to hear that continuously as a surfacing person too. You have conversations about your deficits and not about your strengths because we know that our community is one that has survived over 65, 000 years. Our mob are brilliant and resilient and strong. We've been through tough times before, and our community will continue to rise after this. And we've got millions of Australians who showed up and had our backs through this referendum who will still be there today. I'm more motivated than ever now to continue to fight for better outcomes for First Nations people, and I think that is an incredibly powerful thing that the referendum has done.  

DEBRA PEARCE: Senator Stewart, thank you for joining us this morning. I know it would have been, a hard conversation to have in many ways. 

SENATOR JANA STEWART: Yeah, certainly. But thank you so much for having me. I look forward to being back up in the Mallee again soon.