Preying/Praying on Isolation

The ABC’s “survey” of Woorabinda opinions on “The Voice” was a classic story about the many worlds of Aboriginal life. Congratulations to the reporter Rachel McGhee for the insights and people she interviewed...


But If you want to sew division, and "the no case" must be praying for this, just send a one-off visitor to virtually any of the 350 Aboriginal nations across this country and ask for the leadership to speak on behalf of their community. The real leaders wont dare speak, certainly not to a one-off film or media crew that just turns up , and the voices that will emerge, will be understandably desperate to put a much needed spotlight on this or that issue, because it will most likely be the only time in perhaps a decade, that they will ever get the spotlight.

Ironically at the heart of all of this, are the reasons why “the voice” is the most important positive reform this country will see for Aboriginal people, since Federation and perhaps colonisation. Times the Prime Minister’s travel budget, or find me Australia’s most travelled diplomat and increase their travel allowance by ten, and you will not pay for 1 per cent of the consultation that is needed to visit the great diversity of Aboriginal communities across the country. 350 times by let us say $1000 and you will pay for one visit to each community by one person. So that’s a budget of $350,000 for one person to make one visit to each community. In the remote areas it will cost perhaps $10,000 if you have to hire a charter.

Who has that budget? Well periodically organisations like the ABC do and they fly in a team at great expense and they go on a trawl around the community looking “for talent”. So “the seagulls” fly in and out. They could be welfare housing, education, sports and recreation visitors paid to play a game of touch or basketball, the latest hip hop outfit that has put in for a grant that pays them to do a break dance at the school assembly and then out they go, proud and happy about the great contribution they have made to the community. The tenure of longer stayers like teachers or nurses might be a year and then there are the crazies who stay at great personal expense because the community has adopted them and trusts them. Most cannot or will not speak for a wide range of reasons.

So "the seagulls" prevail with their one-off perceptions and conversations.. and wow they have some good yarns to relate to the rest of the world.

The community is grateful but weary, and people learn to pick the best from the seagulls but it is always with a veil of cynicism certainly there is never a chance to sit down and have a true consultation. The seagulls benefit. Their careers get another tick for their belt of experience. So again and again the wisdom and ideas and wonder of Aboriginal communities flows out the door in a one way street outwards. It appears that the community is benefiting but the airfares rarely flow to those travelling to the outside and if they do.. well gee the Prime Ministers travel budget would be needed for one community leader to do the number of consultations with the hundreds of government and private agencies that are necessary to truly represent their community. This is why information is skewed towards special interest groups be that Commonwealth government crises, mining operations, or one off special interests like for example NASA in North East Arnhem land.

The wonder is that anything at all is heard back from the community. You have to admire the skill of the leaders such as from Woorabinda who cling for all money to something as backward as Joh Bjelke Peterson and Bob Katter’s ruling that the old Aboriginal protectorates called “Deeds of Grant in Trust” could be administered by Aboriginal elected officials. Mayor Josh Weazel justifiably draws attention to the fact that for him, the ironically completely non-existent entity so far as the constitution is concerned, that he presides over, should be a primary focus and that he is unclear how a voice might help him.  And so of couse you get a brilliant tactician like Alwyn Doolan who wonders how precisely the 350 Aboriginal nations that are the true Aboriginal voices can be heard, echoing the only substantive aspect of the “no” case. For how are we going to represent communities so diverse that it costs more than to go to Paris, London or New York to make a one off visit, properly? It will be a huge logistics exercise to do it well but, on the other hand, anything that is called “a voice” will be better than what exists now. An absolute dogs breakfast of opportunism and special interests masquerading as principles.

The irony of course is that “the voice” would be the first time since the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) that a mechanism for providing modest infrastructure and travel and communications  for the grass roots to have a direct communication  back to Canberra has rolled around again.. As the remarkable elders Wallabi Kuudabah and Diane Hill said in the ABC “survey of opinions” grasp the opportunity with both hands. Both are old and wise enough to know that these opportunities do not come often and they invariably change just as they look like they might be going to achieve something. For someone will stand up in Senate estimates and ask: how come this local leader has spent so much on travel? Meanwhile that money will just not be worth it as the old saying goes in remote communities the main beneficiary of the Aboriginal dollar are Qantas, regional airlines, taxi drivers, hotels and travel consultants.

Policy meanwhile spins on a dime.. and just as soon as it is established, a bad moon rises and John Howard and Mark Latham come into a horrible relationship in Canberra and what took years of preparation is undone because some tabloid journalist has uncovered corruption. Who can resist the political hit? This is why the ‘no” case truly does have God on its side and it will truly be a remarkable achievement for the yes vote to get up.

Hopefully non-Aboriginal Australians will begin to understand why enshrining a permanent communication right into the Constitution is so important as a result of this sorry history.

There are hundreds of “dogit” like issues, let along the extraordinary history of a place like Woorabinda where the people of a place called Hope Valley were forcibly transferred in WWII because they were thought to be potential German collaborators through the Lutheran Mission that served them and one day the ABC might fund Heather Ewart to travel back and forward to uncover that story and we might be all for the wiser. But chances are these stories will just leave people confused and certainly many might be of the view that this community does not seem to want or has “mixed opinions” about  “the voice”.

Fly in the ABC into a remote community in many, many communities and you may as well as be visiting a Tibetan monastery during the morning chants. “Could I just interrupt your ceremony that has been continuously performed for thousands of years to ask: “is the voice” important for you? My voice? No the voice in Canberra. What is that?” but invariably Aboriginial people so generous will have a go at answering. And the answer might be, if you’re lucky depending, how burnt out the community is by seagulls, yes lets give it a go. Thus at the backbone are people like Wallabi and Diane in the Woorabinda story.

The leaders of communities who gathered at Alice Spriings to create the communique entitled “statement from the heart” struggle with many of these issues day to day, month to month, year to year. It is a tremendous insult to their depth of experience and understanding that “seagulls” are, as ever, the most prominent traffic that is seen, on “the Aboriginal highways”. Once again the whole exercise seems to benefit city based consultants or experts who have to be educated from scratch again and again. We don’t have time for that to get a successful yes vote up. So in all these reports there is an obligation for the many seasoned voices on these issues to speak up to talk about the tyranny of isolation in regional and remote Australia for Aboriginal people. We so badly need “the voice” to be struggled with, thought about and however modest, implemented by the Federal Parliament. Once and for all the suburbs of Australia need to resound with voices from the remote areas. The voice will benefit all. Vote Yes!


Rachel McGhee, “Voice to Parliament draws mixed opinions in Indigenous Community of Woorabinda”, ABC News, 31/5/2023