Australia’s moment of truth is about us listening to our First Peoples

Lead strategist at DOA, Christian-Paul Stenta makes a heartfelt plea for the forthcoming referendum to give indigenous people a voice in the Australian Constitution.

So we’re heading into a referendum to vote if our First Nations people should have a Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution. This will be a dominant narrative over the next 18 months in Australia. I’m not an Indigenous Australian, however when the Prime Minister announced this important and historical vote, I remembered back to the feeling I had when it was announced there would be a national vote on whether to legalise same-sex marriage in Australia. I’m not suggesting that being a gay man is the same, or at all like, being a First Nations person. Nor should my feelings about the Marriage Equality plebiscite be likened to the feelings a First Nations person might have if this referendum is successful. I only share my experience in the hope that it reminds us of what’s at stake.

As a gay man, I am well versed in what it’s like to live a life navigating the opinions of others. Being born in the early 80s meant that I was figuring out who I was amid a cultural backdrop that was steeped in the fear and prejudice of the AIDS crisis. I’d had my fair share of cuts and bruises along the way, but I distinctly remember a moment in my late teens when I thought for the first time ‘just how good I had it’. I’d largely been spared the horrific experiences of homophobia that others had endured. Those cuts and bruises were far more casual than the violent prejudice others had faced. The well meaning advice to not ‘talk to others about that’ by a priest at my school. Or when I was a youth worker, and told that I should always be careful to make sure no one thought I was a pedophile. And my personal favourite, frequent reminders that I was lucky I wasn’t ‘too obvious’ and that ‘I wouldn’t have guessed you were one’, as though I was some master of disguise.

So when the plebiscite was announced, it wasn’t particularly surprising that I largely fell silent. In an instant, I relived every cut and bruise, every opinion that had been offered. I kept across the debate, but I couldn’t bring myself to meaningfully talk to others about it. After a lifetime of enduring other people’s opinions, I was quietly terrified of what might be revealed if I opened Pandora’s box. It’s one thing to laugh off Barnaby Joyce preaching about the sanctity of marriage; it’s another to find out what your loved ones really think. Yes, they might accept me and want the best for me, but would that be enough to get them to go out and actually cast a vote in support of my community? Could Australia really be trusted to do the right thing? After all, our track record on referendums and plebiscites didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that we’d go so far as to vote for a Fair Go for all. So, despite repeated requests by my partner to call and send messages to family and friends, I did what I could whilst maintaining an emotional wall around me. I just had to get through it.

During those nerve wracking months, I learnt an important lesson about power and influence. When I stayed silent, others spoke up. Brands rose to the occasion. During the debate over 2200 organisations lended their voice, and showed their support for marriage equality. That contribution cannot be underestimated. Fighting on your own is tough, and tiring, and sometimes lonely. It really does take a village. These defining moments require leadership from every part of the community. Government, civil society, business and brands, all working and standing together. It’s these defining social movements that bring attention to the voices and stories that are fighting for a chance to be heard.

I share my experience of what it was like to go through a national conversation because we’re about to embark on an important national conversation about whether our First Peoples’ Voice should be enshrined in our Constitution. Imagine having no voice from 1788 until 1967, where 99% of Australians voted that our First Peoples, the oldest living culture in the world, could vote and be part of the census. This was the 1967 Referendum. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people fought in two World Wars spanning from 1939 to 1945, yet could not vote. They were not considered citizens in their own country and were not to be part of the census. Our First Nations Peoples’ voice means so much more than words; their voices are Traditional Language, Art, Songlines, Dreamtime/Dreaming, their culture which is the very being of who they are. Can the damage of colonisation be undone? No, it simply can not. But a First Peoples’ Voice to Parliament can give our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the voice to determine and provide advice to Parliament on policies, processes and projects that affect their everyday lives and future. The Voice will be the cultural lens that is needed within Parliament. Where decisions can be made by First Nations people, for First Nations people. Let’s do what’s right in 2022, with the memory, intent and experience of 1967.

Just like in 1967, as in 2017, for the people that are impacted by this issue, there’s a lot riding on the rest of us getting this right. This is a moment of truth. It’s a moment that is fundamentally about our First Peoples. It’s about us listening to our First Peoples. They have always maintained and continue to maintain a strong and unwavering voice. The problem has lay with those of us who have settled on these lands since 1788, and our collective inaction and inability to listen. Actions speak a lot louder than words, and it’s through our collective action that we have an opportunity to take an important step forward in righting historical wrongs. We can use our influence to be a force for change.

Why? I won’t speak for First Nations people, but I can complete this chapter of my own story.

The day announcing the results of the Marriage Equality plebiscite finally arrived. At the time, I was working at the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet. A huge amount of effort had been put into creating a safe environment for LGBTIQ+ people working in the Victorian Public Service during the months leading up to this. In keeping with my choice to maintain a low profile, I avoided the thousands of people that had gathered to watch the announcement at the State Library and decided to join some colleagues at a safe space at 1 Treasury. I stood between the department’s Secretary and my Deputy Secretary, watching with trepidation. Despite my attempts to maintain some level of emotional distance in the lead up to this, I was exhausted. I felt numb. When they announced that Australia had voted YES, I had what can only be described as a guttural reaction. I burst into tears. My bosses turned to me and did the only thing one could do in a situation like that. They embraced me. At that moment, Australia had embraced me. I finally felt accepted.

So please, as we head towards this referendum if you’re a brand or business, or just an individual, please get on board. Lend your vote to ensure our First Nations people’s voice is heard.

Christian-Paul Stenta | head of strategy | DOA (Decade Of Action)


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.