The Voice

In just over a week we get to vote to change the constitution. We are fortunate to live under a system of government in which we (generally) can have a say on matters that affect us. The ‘Voice’ will create a mechanism whereby Indigenous Australians’ views are considered in making legislation and government policy.

The purpose of this article is NOT to try to persuade people to vote one way or another, but rather to share my personal journey to arrive at my decision.

Indigenous Australians and their history were never mentioned when I was growing up. I was raised in a tight-knit farming community in the Adelaide Hills for which life centred around the Lutheran church. On my father’s side, I am a fourth-generation German Lutheran. My great-great-grandfather was one of the first non-English speaking settlers to arrive in the colony when he disembarked the ‘Coromandel’ ship at Cygnet Bay on Kangaroo Island in early 1837. Later, he was intricately involved in establishing the German farming settlements of Shonthal and Tabor Valley on the outskirts of Lobethal in the Adelaide Hills. My maternal great-great-grandparents were part of the Primitive Methodist farming settler cohort who transplanted their rural lives from the English western counties of Devon and Somerset. Upon arriving, these west countrymen established large farming enterprises in the Upper Onkaparinga Valley, together with the townships of Mount Torrens and Charleston in the Adelaide Hills. Both family lines faced hardships and setbacks in establishing themselves. However, their descendants have prospered – including me.

My first contact with an Indigenous Australian was playing junior cricket as a young boy. An Aboriginal boy was playing for the opposing team (Lobethal). He was conspicuous because his skin was a different colour to everyone else’s. This was the only thing I noticed. He was treated like everyone else and I didn’t question his presence nor was any explanation given. In hindsight, he was clearly a Stolen Generation child. My next contact was at secondary school. Two aboriginal girls who lived in the nearest town (Mount Torrens) also attended the school. They were also Stolen Generation children. 

As a secondary and tertiary student of Australian history and land settlement, the story of land disposition from First Nations People was never mentioned. I progressed, entered the workforce, and even had jobs that took me into Aboriginal communities for short periods. Still, I remained oblivious to the experience of their forefathers. 

The turning point for me came when, as a 40+ year old, I completed a course at the University of South Australia on the experience of Indigenous Australians after colonisation. Finally, my eyes started to open. One aspect of the course was to look more closely into the cultural reconstruction work that was being undertaken by the Kaurna First Nations people of the Adelaide Plains. Reclaiming what was thought to be a ‘dead language’ was a key community focus. This led to deeper involvement with the community via a fundraising and awareness-raising project to assist the Kaurna Language Program operating out of Adelaide University.

Through this project I got to meet leaders of the community, including a young man called Jack Buckskin. Jack had dedicated his life to bringing the Kaurna language back to life within the community. As I got to learn more about Jack and his background, I learned that his great-great-grandfather was an Aboriginal leader of the Kaurna nation. His name was Mullawirraburka. He was also known as Kertamero, ‘King John’ and ‘Onkaparinga Jack’. Mullawirraburka was about twenty-five years old when the first colonists arrived in 1836.

His Kaurna name, which translated literally to ‘Dry Forest Old Man’ indicated that he was a ritual leader of considerable importance.

According to one settler, ‘King John’ was a ‘finely-built fellow’; another referred to his ‘very powerful frame and commanding appearance’. Articulate and intelligent, he was regarded by settlers and the authorities as one of the chiefs or leading men of the local Aboriginal people. 

After the colonial authorities established the ‘Native School’ on the banks (adjacent to Weir) of the River Torrens in 1838, Mullawirraburka took up semi-permanent residence. He developed close relationships with Christian Teichelmann and Clamor Schürmann who were Lutheran missionaries running the school. Mullawirraburka quickly learned to speak English and was one of several Kaurna men who taught the missionaries the local language. It was this written material that Kaurna community leaders including Uncle Lewis O’Brien and the late Auntie Alice Rigney, along with linguist Rob Amery used as source material when they started work to reconstruct the language in the 1980’s.

Appointed an honorary police constable by the governor in 1838, Mullawirraburka acted as an intermediary between the Kaurna and the settlers and was regarded by the authorities as the spokesman for his people. He seems to have done his best to keep the peace between his people and the colonists. Mullawirraburka died, probably of tuberculosis, on the 2nd of January 1845. By the late 1950’s the Kaurna people had virtually disappeared from the Adelaide Plains. A civilisation that had continued uninterrupted for over 50,000 years (at least in this part of Australia) was shattered. Broken apart in less than 30 years. 

Learning about Jack Buckskin’s heritage had a deep emotional impact. As a young boy early colonial figures almost commanded the status of superheroes. Colonial Light, Governor Hindmarsh, Matthew Flinders, and Governor Grey were names that had been etched into my mind from a young age as being the ‘great men’ who led the civilising of an untamed land. I had also been told about how my early settler German ancestors had come to South Australia to escape religious persecution. I had quite a good understanding of my German Lutheran heritage. I went to a small Lutheran school at Springhead where I was confirmed. I was baptised in the Lobethal Lutheran Church, the first permanent church built by the Lutheran settlers. Family written histories and reunions were aspects of the two Lutheran families that merged with me. The Seidels and the Herrmann’s. I was proud of this heritage. 

Upon learning more about the real history of Australia, something sat very uncomfortably with me. I realised that I could not have a discussion with Jack about family heritage without getting to a point where my family (and the settlers they represented) were responsible for dispossessing Jack’s ancestors of their land and destroying their culture in the process.  

A similar fate befell the Peramangk First Nations people of the Adelaide Hills. By the late 1860’s, all official references to them ceased. They had disappeared from public consciousness. I was almost fifty before I heard any mentions of the Peramangk people. My curiosity was triggered when I saw that Robin Cole, a horticultural researcher, who I had met a decade earlier while working at Primary Industries was running Aboriginal Rock Art Tours in the Eastern Mount Lofty Ranges. My wife and I took the tour which took us to three rock art sites on properties in the Rockleigh area. We also visited the Herbigs tree at Springton. We learned that Robin had recently published a book The Ochre Warriors-Peramangk culture and rock art in the Mount Lofty Ranges. In this publication, over sixty rock art sites between Lyndoch in the north and Strathalbyn in the South are described. 

One site that we visited was located one hundred metres from the road on a property at Rockleigh. I had passed this spot literally hundreds of times over the years. I did this completely oblivious to the existence of the rock-art or the people who put it there. I was aghast. In the preceding nearly fifty years, the existence of the Peramangk and their rich culture was not mentioned once…not once. 

Site near Rockleigh

I did mention to my father, who at the time was still living on the family farm at Charleston that we had visited these sites. He muttered something about knowing one of these. He had not thought it sufficiently significant to share with his children.  

More recently I have delved deeply into key events from when the British first set foot on the land (which would become South Australia) until the colony was fully established late in the 19th century. I have dissected these to understand how the First Nations people came to virtually ‘disappear’ from the Adelaide Hills and Plains in less than a generation. 

In doing this work I was reminded that a critical event in establishing the state occurred when the South Australia (Foundation) Act passed the British parliament on 15 August 1834. The Act gave ‘legal’ means for the British government to settle a province on the lands that would become the new colony. Shortly after, an amendment to the Act struck out reference to the land as being ‘unoccupied’, rather recognising the rights of the ‘Aboriginal Natives’ to live unhindered on land they ‘now actually occupy or enjoy’ within the lands of the Province of South Australia.

The events that followed, from when the first fleets of colonial settlers started arriving through 1838 and which continued for the next thirty years could not be construed in any way to have respected the rights that the Foundation Act accorded to First Nations people. This legal right was ‘to live unhindered on land they now occupy or enjoy’.  This certainly did not happen. Instead they were, at best, pushed aside or at worst, exterminated to make way for the Europeans and the political, legal, economic, religious and social order they transplanted from the northern hemisphere. 

The Voice referendum asks people to vote on a change to the Australian Constitution. The proposed amendment is to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia.  

The amendment, if passed, will also:

    • Create a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice
    • Permit the Voice to make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
    • Give the Parliament the power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures

The origin of The Voice was the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This culminated in 2017 when Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders wrote to the Australian people calling for substantial constitutional change and structural reform. 

The process that produced the statement was not dissimilar to that by which the Convention established by the premiers of the Australian colonies in 1890 produced the final Australian Constitution. Interestingly, the first vote by the electors of each colony to establish the Federation of Australia failed. Amendments were required to the Constitution before it passed the popular vote.  

A contentious issue in drafting the Constitution was women’s suffrage (the right to vote). South Australia was the only colony that had women’s suffrage at the time. The issue was resolved whereby South Australian votes would simply be divided by two. In 1900 the women of Australia did not get to vote in the referendum to establish the Federation. Fortunately, a transitory provision ensured that adult suffrage was quickly enacted across Australia. Unfortunately, Indigenous Australians did not fare so well and would need to wait another 67 years to achieve the same rights. 

My Grandfather was a shearer. As a young man in the 1900’s he did a very un-German Lutheran thing and joined a union. Such was the impact of the injustices he saw meted out to workers of the shearing sheds across the state’s pastoral districts. The union he joined; the Australian Workers Union (AWU) had formed out of the industrial unrest that inflicted the wool industry for most of the 1890’s. The AWU played a pivotal role in the formation of the Australian Labour Party in the decade leading up to the Federation. Delegates from a working-class political leaning were successful in having a section included in the constitution which gave the federal parliament the powers to create laws relating to the prevention and settlement of industrial disputes. This provision gave rise to an industrial relations system that had enshrined at its core the ‘minimum wage’. This measure allowed working people to live with dignity for a century. Many thought this measure was risky and would destroy Australian industry. Quite the opposite, it ensured the social polarisation which typically occurs when a working underclass is created while the wealthy continue to amass even greater fortunes was not part of the Australian story.

Relative to the changes to the political landscape which were to result from enacting the original Australian Constitution, those proposed in the ‘The Voice’ amendments are insignificant and minor. It is an advisory body. Nothing more and nothing less. It has no powers to create laws, it has NO voting rights in the parliament. Rather the Voice will:

    • Give independent advice to the Parliament and Government
    • Be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people based on the wishes of local communities
    • Be representative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, gender-balanced and include youth
    • Be empowering, community-led, inclusive, respectful and culturally informed
    • Be accountable and transparent
    • Work alongside existing organisations and traditional structures
    • Not have a program delivery function
    • Not have a veto power

One hundred and twenty-three years after federation the nations Indigenous people remain structurally ‘powerless’. This has led to severe disparities between them and non-Indigenous Australians.

The Voice in itself will not resolve all the entrenched inequalities. It is simply one step down a road which is an intergenerational journey. Indigenous people have asked for The Voice. These are the same people who were not present at the Conventions table when the Constitution was formulated over one hundred and twenty years ago. In fact, for all intents and purposes at the time ‘politically’ they did not exist. But they did exist, they survived despite exposure to forces that threatened to wipe them out.  

This is an uncomfortable part of Australia’s history which remains largely unresolved. Winston Churchill famously said, ‘The longer you can look back the further you can look forward’. This seems to be some history which needs to be reconciled.

The decision on how to vote is a very personal one. Those Australians identifying as First Nations People represent a diverse cross-section of the population. While non-Indigenous Australians’ personal experiences with Indigenous Australians vary dramatically. Each one of us will formulate our views of the merits of The Voice based on these experiences.

My direct personal contact with First Nations Australians has mostly been limited to those living in urban centres and mid-range settled locations. Over a decade ago as I got to know Jack Buckskin and met other members of the Kaurna community, it became quickly apparent that not far beyond high-functioning community leaders like Jack lay disadvantage and marginalisation. Community members that I met, like the late Steve Goldsmith, relayed accounts of having grown up in the Aboriginal Mission at Port McLeay on the banks of the Lower Murray Lakes. Steve was my age. As a young boy, he was only able to leave the mission after the 1967 referendum when he was recognised as an Australian citizen. 

For me, this is an occasion on which I can make a simple, meaningful and symbolic gesture to acknowledge that I and my ancestor’s assent into the comfortable upper middle classes and the associated trappings has come at the expense of Jack Buckskin along with his peers and their ancestors. It was their lands that were taken, it was their social system that was destroyed, and it is they who are still carrying the scars.


Pieces of Gold a collection of “wisdoms” to help navigate lives complexities and uncertainties COMING SOON.