The other day, Mum shared a story about her grandmother. Irene Burdeu was her name. Born and bred in Essendon, she was one of eight siblings. Her elder brother was Arthur Burdeu, a trade unionist. But what caught my attention was that Arthur shared a close bond with William Cooper, a prominent elder and activist from the Yorta Yorta community.
Bain Attwood’s recent biography on Cooper reveals a close friendship between the two men. Bound by their Christian faith, the losses they experienced in WW1, and their nearby residences in Melbourne’s west, Cooper saw Arthur as a ‘firm friend and counsellor’ and fondly nicknamed him ‘the white blackfella’ — a title that Burdeu wore with immense pride.
In 1936, Cooper introduced Burdeu to the Australian Aborigines’ League, which he and Doug Nicholls had founded a year earlier. Burdeu eventually became president.
Bain Attwood writes: ‘For his part, Burdue believed that Aboriginal people should be in the forefront of the political struggle for change and that the role they played advanced the cause considerably. He also saw the league as a distinctive organisation because it sought to represent matters from the Aboriginal point of view.’
This sentiment was reinforced in the league’s inaugural annual report which confidently proclaimed, ‘This is Our Movement.’
Highlighting differences between the various organisations campaigning for Aboriginal rights in the 1930s, Burdue declared, ‘The league is the Aboriginal voice.’ Working with Cooper, he was steadfast in the belief that Indigenous concerns should be articulated from an Indigenous viewpoint.
And in November 1938, when Jewish businesses, synagogues, houses and schools were destroyed in Berlin, with dozens killed and 30,000 men were arrested and taken to concentration camps during the infamous Kristallnacht, Cooper led a delegation of the Australian Aboriginal League to the German consulate in Melbourne. Their mission was to hand-deliver a letter denouncing the violent attacks on Jewish communities. The National Museum of Australia recognises it as the only protest of its kind in the world at that time.
All this made me think how much some things change, how much some things stay the same.
Tomorrow, as I deliberate on where to cast my vote in the referendum, where to grab a coffee, or which playground to take the kids to, the recent violence in the Middle East casts a shadow. Yet, in our relative safe haven, the pressing debate remains whether to grant Indigenous people a louder voice in matters directly affecting them by enshrining a Voice for First Nations peoples into the constitution.
‘This vote will be remembered as an opportunity for Australians to grapple with the injustices of history, and imagine a more just way forward. My hope is that each person voting will have done just that – and whether they vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’, that they are making their vote bearing in mind what they think will best reconcile our nation’s past and look forward to a more just future.’
However the vote goes, the conversation over the next few weeks will likely involve much discussion and reflection on the process to get to this point. Was there enough broader consultation on the proposal? Should there have been more efforts to gain bipartisan support? Or would any such process have still been overridden by those more interested in scoring political points than engaging in negotiation?
Those questions aren’t for now. At this moment, we need to decide which way we will vote on the question put before us.
In Eureka Street, we’ve published pieces from those who believe that ‘Yes’ is the right way to go, those who are voting yes despite their reservations, and those who are unsure whether a Voice so constricted by parliament offers the best path for Indigenous people seeking more than just recognition. Hopefully each of us has had time to listen to these voices, and others, and to reflect on them.
There are many compelling reasons to consider the Voice, but the argument that most strongly resonates for me is that this is an old discussion. My great-grandmother’s brother devoted his life to establishing an Aboriginal voice nearly a century ago.
The Voice will represent a collection of sovereign Indigenous peoples who have been dispossessed by colonialism. Rather than dividing the country by race as ‘No’ campaigners claim, the Voice recognises what Mabo recognised in 1992 – that Australia was home to Indigenous peoples for thousands of years before colonial settlement.
This recognition leaves us with two options – we can continue to defend the status quo in the face of what will be mounting cries to rectify this historical and present injustice, or we can seek a way to forge new relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as sovereign First Nations people.
The Voice provides a pathway for this second option. It might not be the perfect model, but it is a workable starting point if our goal is to rise above the errors of history and establish a more just foundation for Australian society.
It will only be the starting point. There will be much discussion about how it will be comprised, and how its recommendations will best be integrated into the workings of government. Nor will it resolve other issues like the questions of sovereignty and Treaty. But again, if we’re to work towards those goals, it will be helpful if there’s a national body empowered to speak for First Nations people.
This vote will be remembered as an opportunity for Australians to grapple with the injustices of history, and imagine a more just way forward. My hope is that each person voting will have done just that – and whether they vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’, that they are making their vote bearing in mind what they think will best reconcile our nation’s past and look forward to a more just future.
In the narrative of Indigenous representation, some things change and some things stay the same. Tomorrow is a chance to ensure that, on this long journey, some things change for the better.
David Halliday is editor of Eureka Street
Main image: William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines’ League. Arthur Burdue is the bespectacled man standing on the left. (Boydie Turner Collection)