‘Nothing to celebrate’: Invasion Day rallies draw thousands but participants divided on voice
Thousands of people attended Invasion Day rallies across Australia on Thursday, where First Nations speakers called for action on deaths in custody, and end to the removal of Aboriginal children and – in many locations – made a case against an Indigenous voice to parliament being enacted before a treaty.
The referendum on a constitutionally enshrined First Nations advisory body, as first proposed in the Uluru statement from the heart, is due to be held later this year and was a prominent topic at Thursday’s events, which are held each year to mourn and protest Indigenous dispossession on what is officially Australia’s national day.
The Greens senator Lidia Thorpe, the most prominent figure on the left of Australian politics who has signalled that she may oppose the voice, addressed the rally in Melbourne brandishing a war stick.
“They are still killing us,” she yelled into the microphone as thousands shouted “shame” back.
“They are still stealing our babies. They are killing our men. And they are still raping our women.”
Thorpe said she would “entertain” the idea of the voice if it does not cede Indigenous sovereignty.
“They need to prove it. I spoke to [the attorney general] Mark Dreyfus, I said you prove [it], we’re still waiting. Labor can say whatever they like, but it still remains … I have not [been] guaranteed our sovereignty will not be ceded.”
Nira illim bulluk man Marcus Stewart wrote in the Guardian on Wednesday he would not be attending this year’s Invasion Day rally because he felt a “handful of wreckers” had hijacked the event “to stage a de-facto launch of the no campaign against an Aboriginal voice to parliament.”
Related: Senior Australian of the year Tom Calma ‘disappointed’ Lidia Thorpe may oppose voice
Sydney’s Invasion Day rally and march were also dominated by speeches on the voice, with attenders saying the strong opposition voiced by organisers was shaping how they will be voting.
Framed by posters saying “vote no to referendum” and “we deserve more than a voice”, the MC of the rally, Lizzie Jarrett, urged attenders constantly throughout the event to vote “no” on the voice, calling it a “white-washed” measure.
“We already had a referendum in ‘67 and it’s done nothing for our rights, we are the voice. When the vote comes, vote no for a voice. Don’t come here and tick a box,” she said.
“Will you support us? If you do, when that referendum comes around, kick it to the ground like Australia,” she told a raucous crowd at Bemore Park in Sydney’s CBD.
Speakers also pointed to the potential body’s inability to veto government decisions, saying it was another way their communities would be ignored.
Protesters seemed to take the message to heart. Thomas Magory said attending the rally today had cemented his “no” vote. He said land rights was the only true way forward.
“They don’t want to be a pawn in a system that has been oppressing them for years and years. They feel they are being turned into a political weapon, they don’t feel heard. And I share their position, especially after hearing them today.”
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But in Alice Springs, elders and community leaders urged the community to come together during a challenging time for many in the town.
Arrernte woman Sabella Kngwaraye Turner welcomed a crowd and spoke about the pain and suffering brought by colonisation and dispossession.
Speaking in Arrernte language, she said the future should not be about “division”; instead, “it’s about us coming together” and healing.
Alice Springs has become a flashpoint in recent weeks, with renewed alcohol restrictions and a surge in antisocial behaviour and crime, including young people, Central Arrernte and Mudburra elder Pat Ansell Dodds said that this was a result of the NT intervention, and pushed for children to learn their culture
“The kids that’s walking out on the streets, they need to go home on a country where they come from, they don’t come from here,” Dodds said.
“You gotta be on your country. Learn your culture, make these kids strong,”
Speaking about the upcoming vote in the referendum for an Indigenous voice to parliament she urged people to vote “yes”.
“You need to vote yes.”
Related:Why I can’t attend an Invasion Day rally that seeks to hijack an Indigenous voice to parliament | Marcus Stewart
“We need to have our own voice to tell our story to Australia, we need that, we are the people that can tell you the proper story of Australia.”
Shania Armstrong, a 20-year-old Pertame woman, attended the event to mark what is a painful day, but also one she hopes to use as a call to action.
“Today’s Invasion Day, it’s not the day to celebrate,” she said. “We’ve come here to get donations for our language revival program because we want to build a bush classroom for all the kids to go out there and learn language.”
She said attitudes are changing, especially among younger generations. “Nowadays people don’t really celebrate it, because they realise it’s nothing to celebrate,” Armstrong said.
In Canberra, several speakers declared strong opposition to the voice, with one referring to it as “crumbs”.
Hundreds of people gathered in Canberra’s city centre for speeches before marching through the capital’s main thoroughfare to the Aboriginal tent embassy at Old Parliament House. Several signs at the rally, titled “Sovereignty Day”, criticised the proposed indigenous advisory body – one reading “fuck your voice”.
“No to the voice – manufactured constitutional consent”, read another.
Nioka Coe-Craigie, daughter of the founders of the tent embassy, claimed constitutional recognition would “silence our voices in this country”.
Another young woman, Leah, was critical of the government’s description of the voice as an advisory body to the commonwealth, claiming that would be “inconsistent with our sovereignty”.
Related:‘My door is open’: Anthony Albanese challenges political foes to contribute to voice legislation
The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, responding to critics of the voice, has stressed it would be a consultative body and would not have decision-making power.
“Why would we accept our political role in this country as an advisory body?” Leah said. “For us to accept a role as a consultative body, not [as] decision-makers. Those are crumbs, what’s on the table being offered to us now.”
Leah described the voice proposal as “uncompelling, so vague”.
“Fuck those crumbs. Fuck that poxy invite to their table. We don’t want a seat at their table. I’d rather see it burn,” she said.
Numerous participants noted the changing public attitudes to the day, and the size of crowds attending rallies.
“You can see politicians know that public attitude is shifting,” another rally participant, Will, said. “Deep down and quietly, they are acknowledging this day and its significance is changing for a lot of people each year.”
He described the voice to parliament as a “commonsense proposal … super reasonable in my view”, but noted the opposition of some Indigenous people.
In Adelaide, the crowd gathered in the sun in Tarntanyangga/Victoria Square, then marched through the main street and back to the square, chanting “always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”.
Adults carried placards protesting genocide and incarceration, while kids waved Aboriginal flags and dogs trotted here and there, led by the Black Death motorcycle club.
The banner leading the rally read “treaty before voice”, but while everyone could agree on “always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”, the treaty before voice idea split them. Many protesters didn’t want to talk about the division. Those who did were universally in favour of the voice referendum going ahead.
“I think there is so much momentum for a voice we should go for that. Once they’ve got a voice, it will be easier to get a treaty,” Stephen Meredith said.
“Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good,” Kim Cheater said, detailing the lengthy process that led to the Uluru statement from the heart.
“With a voice you have a structural process in place that can support agreement, and truth telling.”