A resounding No! In a historic referendum last Saturday, fifty-nine (59) percent of Australians thumbed down a proposed constitutional amendment that would have given more rights to Aboriginal Australians. Specifically, the amendment would have established a consultative body of aboriginals and would have therefore given them more voice or more representation in government. But it was not meant to be. The irony of this tragic situation is so palpable as it happens on the month when we celebrate the gifts and contributions of the Indigenous Peoples worldwide.
I cannot imagine the pain and frustration that the Aboriginal groups and their supporters among civil society are experiencing now over this setback. Immediately, their leaders have called for a week of silence. But their friends and sympathizers in media are verbalizing what must be running in their minds right now: How can a 60 thousand year-old race let their fate be decided by strangers who have settled on their lands only two centuries ago? How can one continue living knowing one’s white neighbor does not really approve of one’s existence? What future awaits the 800 thousand remaining aboriginals in Australia? Will they be forever condemned to live in the margins of society?
Despite this defeat, the Australian Aboriginals, considered the oldest, surviving race in the world, have come a long way in their fight for their rights. When the British colonizers came to Australia in the late 1800s, many aboriginals welcomed them with open arms, because no one they said owned the land, except the gods, and humans were mere stewards of creation. It was downhill from there. The British decided to stay on and in the process massacred tribes, displaced many more from their ancestral territories, and enslaved the rest. Even today, people still talk about the “stolen generation” referring to children forcibly separated from their parents and made servants of households or placed into supposedly educational facilities. The oppression of the Aboriginals continued for centuries. In 1901, Australia’s Federal Constitution further marginalized them by excluding them from the purview or responsibility of the Parliament and from the regular census, which therefore rendered them non-citizens. And yet, the Aboriginals started organizing among themselves. This would lead to the historical referendum in 1967, where 90 percent of Australians rejected the aforementioned adverse constitutional provisions. With that, they were finally recognized as citizens, albeit with scant political power. So, they fought on and continued organizing and dreaming. In 2017, aboriginal leaders gathered at a monumental nationwide conference from which they would issue a unilateral statement demanding rightly that they be given more representation in the federal constitution. “In 1967, we were counted; in 2017, we seek to be heard,” was their battle cry. With the aid of a supportive government in Prime Minister Antony Albanese, the stage was finally set for the referendum last Saturday.
A winning vote could have afforded the Aboriginals what was dubbed as “the voice to parliament,” that is, a constitutionally enshrined body of aboriginal representatives that would be consulted by the parliament and the executive branch in matters pertaining to their welfare. But the opposition got the better of the electorate. Adverse politicians spread fear and confusion. And so what could have been a watershed in Australia’s aboriginal history became a missed opportunity. The amendment could have corrected centuries of injustice and laid out the foundations a society that is truly more humane, egalitarian, and democratic. As one Australian Jesuit priest explained to me, the referendum was not merely about a legal issue. What was at stake was the very soul of the country. It was an opportunity for conversion, a rare chance to finally make right its dark, racist past. Sadly, the majority had other plans. And the minority aboriginals are now left in the dark. Or were sent reeling back to their dark, cruel past.
According to the Global Landscapes Forum, there are about 370 million indigenous peoples worldwide, making up 6 percent of global population and constituting 15 percent of the poorest segment. They occupy one-quarter of the earth’s land area and live across 90 countries. In other words, small as they are, they are everywhere and they are here to stay. Closer to home, in the Philippines, the indigenous peoples number about 11 million. And many of them, like their counterparts elsewhere live poor and desperate lives. Despite existing laws, they are also displaced from their ancestral domains. And like the rest, they are voiceless and powerless. Reportedly, from 2016 to 2020, or during Duterte’s presidency, 126 indigenous leaders fell victim to extra-judicial killings. Even today, the red-tagging of these minority groups continues. Sadly though, their plight has remained marginal in the national consciousness, except at Christmastime when several Aeta groups descend the streets of Manila and we are forced to reckon with them.
This recent defeat of “the Voice to parliament” does not augur well for the welfare and the future of indigenous peoples around the globe. It is truly a very ominous setback. And yet how incredible or unbelievable that at a time when so much of the world debate about minority rights and identity politics, the rights of the indigenous peoples remain ignored or neglected? Perhaps because, unlike other minority groups, they live at the margins of society and are powerless and voiceless. Certainly, they are God’s modern-day anawim, the poorest of the poor. Who would champion their cause? Among the Christians, will anyone take heed of Christ’s invitation, “Truly, I tell you, whatever you did, for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me?” In the meantime, do we say to one another: “Happy month of October?”