A community built on racial segregation looks to the future, with or without a Voice

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Built on the land of the Wakka Wakka people, Cherbourg’s modern motto of “many tribes, one community” reflects the varied origins of its 1,700 residents, descendants of people once forced to live there under laws of segregation.

Between 1905 and 1971, more than 2,600 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were forcibly moved from their land to Cherbourg, then known as Barambah, according to the Queensland government.

Some were marched barefoot through the Australian bush by colonial settlers under a law that called for the removal of Indigenous people from their traditional lands to be housed and educated in colonial ways.

Today residents live in neat rows of single story houses, their rent paid to a council that’s determined to turn the former government reserve into a thriving community where people want to live – and it seems to be working.

“We’ve got around 260 people waiting on our waiting list,” said Cherbourg Council CEO Chatur Zala. “There’s a huge demand for social housing because our rent is pretty reasonable.

“The rent in the big cities is so expensive, people can’t afford it.”

Life has changed for people in Cherbourg, but a divide still exists in Australia between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people on a whole range of measures – from infant mortality to employment, suicide and incarceration.

Indigenous people have proposed an idea they say may help close the gap, and on October 14 the entire country will vote on it.

A Yes vote would recognize First Nations people in the constitution and create a body – a Voice to Parliament – to advise the government on issues that affect them. A No vote would mean no change.

So how does Cherbourg, a community created from policies of segregation and assimilation, feel about what’s being billed as an historic step forward for Indigenous reconciliation?

“My community is very, very confused,” said Mayor Elvie Sandow, from her air-conditioned office in the center of Cherbourg. “They’re confused with the Voice, and then the pathway to [a] treaty.”

The mayor said residents will vote because if they don’t, they’ll be fined under Australia’s compulsory voting laws, then she immediately corrects herself.

“Well, they probably won’t vote,” she said. “They’ll just go out and get their name ticked off the [electoral] roll, so that avoids them getting a fine.”

The Voice referendum

A record number of Australians – some 17.67 million of a population of 25.69 million – have registered to vote in the country’s first referendum in almost 25 years, according to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).

Early voting has already started in remote communities, with AEC staff traveling vast distances by 4WDs, helicopters, planes and ferries to reach them.

Campaigners for both sides – Yes and No – have also been traversing the same routes, speaking to locals, organizing rallies and spending millions of dollars on radio, television and online advertising to win their votes.

“I think this is one of the most important events of my life,” said Erin Johnston, who was among thousands of people marching at a recent Yes rally in Brisbane, organized by the charity Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition.

“We have an opportunity to right a big wrong,” Johnston said.

But with two weeks to go before the vote, polls are showing that the referendum is on track to fail, a potential blow for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who made it an election pledge.

The prime minister has stressed that the Voice is not his idea but a “modest request” made by representatives of hundreds of Aboriginal nations who held meetings around the country in 2017.

Together they agreed a one-page statement called the Uluru Statement from the Heart which calls for “a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.”

When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish.

Uluru Statement from the Heart

“We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country,” it said.

A childhood in Cherbourg

Aunty Ruth Hegarty remembers her early days as a child in Cherbourg. There, children did not flourish, they did not walk in two worlds, and their culture was not seen as a gift but something to be erased.

Now 94, Aunty Ruth has written an award-winning book about growing up in the settlement. She was just a baby when her parents moved there from the Mitchell district in southwest Queensland looking for work during the Great Depression.

On arrival, the family was separated into different areas of the settlement. Then they realized they couldn’t leave.

The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld) allowed authorities to remove Indigenous people to government reserves and govern almost every aspect of their lives.

Aunty Ruth was allowed to stay with her mother in the women’s section of a crowded dormitory until she was 4-and-a-half years old.

But after her first day at school, she was told she wouldn’t be living with her mother anymore. “You’re a schoolgirl now,” she was told, before being directed to the girls’ section where she shared beds, baths, towels and meals with other students.

“We were not allowed to cry,” Aunty Ruth wrote. “Crying always resulted in punishment.”

Punishment meant being caned, having their heads shaved, or being locked alone in a wooden cell at the back of the property, she wrote.

Mothers were sent to work as domestic staff for settlers while the men did manual labor, and when she was 14, Ruth was also sent away to earn money. At 22 she applied for permission from the state to marry, and when restrictions eased in the late 1960s, she moved with her husband and six children to Brisbane to start a new life outside the settlement.

Sitting beneath a pergola surrounded by flowers in her garden, Ruth still has the energy of an activist who has spent much of her life working to improve the lives of her people.

She wears an orange Yes badge and says she hopes the referendum will produce change.

“All I want is my constitutional recognition for me and my kids,” she said, leaning forward. “We need a change. We need change.”

Sitting to her right, her daughter Moira Bligh, president of the volunteer Noonga Reconciliation Group, said, “We’ve overcome disadvantage, but unless we’re all at our stage, we won’t stop.”

“I won’t stop,” Aunty Ruth added, “because I think it’s the right thing for us to do.”

The argument against the Voice

Across town on a Wednesday night, an audience of No voters at an event organized by conservative political lobby group Advance gives an indication of why this referendum is so contentious.

Wearing No caps and T-shirts handed out at the door, they cheer loudly as the leaders of the No camp urge them to reject division.

“The Yes campaign focuses on the past. We focus on the now and the future, the making of Australia the envy of the world,” said Nyunggai Warren Mundine, a member of the Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yuin people.

We focus on the now and the future, the making of Australia the envy of the world.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine

Sitting in the back row, carpenter Blair Gilchrist says Indigenous people wouldn’t need a Voice if politicians were doing their jobs properly and spending money where it was needed. He’s not a fan of Albanese’s Labor government.

“Money has got to be scrutinized better. I think that’s probably the main thing. That the money is spent well,” he said.

Successive governments have spent billions of dollars to close the persistent gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in national health and welfare statistics, yet many targets aren’t being met. And on some measures, the gap is widening – including rates of incarceration, suicide and children in care.

The Voice seeks to give non-binding advice to government about what might work to end the disparity – but critics say it’s not needed.

“Infant mortality has dropped, life expectancy has increased, it might not be at the levels we need it, but it’s heading in that direction,” Northern Territory Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, a descendant of the Warlpiri people, told the audience.

The death rate for Indigenous children ages 0-4 was 2.1 times as high as the rate for non-Indigenous between 2015 and 2019, according to government figures. On average, non-Indigenous men live 8.6 years longer than Indigenous men – for women it’s 7.8 years. The gap’s even wider in remote communities, statistics show.

“The Voice, it suggests that Indigenous Australians … are inherently disadvantaged, for no other reason but because of our racial heritage,” Price said. “It’s suggested that every one of us needs special measures and [to be] placed in the constitution. That again is another lie. I mean, look at me and Warren, we’re doing all right, aren’t we?” she said.

Both the Yes and No camps want more accountability – some proof that the billions of dollars spent each year on Indigenous programs are being used to help the most vulnerable. And both want a brighter future for the most disadvantaged Indigenous people, though they disagree about how to get there.

It’s suggested that every one of us needs special measures and [to be] placed in the constitution. That again is another lie.

Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price

Many in the Yes camp say that future needs to start with recognition that, as the world’s oldest continuous civilization, First Nations people occupied the land for 60,000 years before the arrival of British settlers just over 200 years ago.

The official No camp believes nothing separates Australians – from First Nations people to new migrants – and changing the constitution embeds division. For the Yes camp, Indigenous people do hold a special place in the country’s history and their existence must be acknowledged, along with a permanent body that can’t be dissolved on the political whim of future governments.

Other Indigenous people are voting No because it’s not enough – they want treaties negotiated between the land’s traditional owners and those occupying it.

Push for progress

Back in Cherbourg, visitors walk through the old ration shed, where people from hundreds of Aboriginal nations once queued for their weekly allowance of tea, sugar, rice, salt, sago, tapioca, slit peas, porridge, flour and meat.

It’s now a museum, where elders share stories of life in those days.

Zala said Cherbourg Council has made gains in recent years, since Mayor Elvie was elected in 2020. The number of council jobs has doubled to 130, mostly filled by local staff, Zala said.

“The highest employment rate of any Indigenous community,” he boasted.

They’ve opened the first recycling center in an Indigenous community, which handles waste from surrounding areas; and the first Digital Service Center staffed by Indigenous workers, who gain experience and qualifications.

Plans are afoot to expand the water treatment plant beyond upgrades unveiled last year. But most of all, the council is working on ways to provide new homes for the hundreds of people wanting to move there.

It’s a tough task – Cherbourg still operates as a Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) community, meaning it relies on government funding. There’s very little private ownership – almost all homes there are owned and maintained by the council.

For years, the council has encouraged residents to buy the homes their families have lived in for decades, but few financial incentives exist – there’s no market for houses, meaning no capital gains, and some prospective homeowners balk at the cost of private upkeep after so many years of council support, Zala said.

As a lifelong resident, Mayor Elvie knows the issues well. Her mother lived in the Cherbourg dormitory until she was old enough to marry. By the time the future mayor was born in the 1970s, restrictions were being phased out.

She is not afraid of change, but she doesn’t see how a Voice to Parliament in Canberra is going to help address the daily challenges she faces to keep her community employed, housed and educated.

For that reason, she’s going to vote No.

“I don’t make my decision lightly,” she said.”I have had a number of conversations with different mayors and communities and some mayors are for the Yes vote. It’s very divided right up the middle.

“I’m going No because I just feel it’s a duplication. At the end of the day, I am the voice of Cherbourg because I’m the elected mayor for this community.”

I am the voice of Cherbourg because I’m the elected mayor for this community.

Mayor Elvie Sandow

Zala is one of the newer Australians the No camp says would be done a disservice if the country’s Indigenous population was given special recognition in the constitution. Born in Gujarat, India, he moved to Australia in 2006 and has been working to close the gap in Cherbourg since 2011.

“That’s still my motivation every day when I come here. I don’t accept why we have to be different than any other community. I always believed that we don’t want to create a community which is so much behind,” he said.

Of the Voice, he said he’ll be voting Yes.

“At least by voting Yes, you have hope. We don’t know the detail [of] what’s going to happen after the Voice, but it’s best to get it through and see if there might be something good come to the community,” he said. “And I think lots of people are going to do the same.”

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