When Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe walked into Parliament to be sworn in as the party’s first Indigenous senate representative in 2020, it was clear from the start that she wasn’t going to play by anyone’s rules.
Daubed in white ochre, draped in a possum skin cloak, and carrying a message stick symbolising Aboriginal deaths in custody, she held a fist in the air as a symbol of resistance. She looked like she’d freshly arrived from the frontlines of the 70s Black Power movement.
In an attention-grabbing moment earlier this year, she did it again. Referring to herself as “sovereign”, she called the Queen a “coloniser” during her oath of allegiance.
“You’re not a senator if you don’t do it properly,” someone in the room shouted.
She did, later explaining that it was a sacrifice she was willing to make if it meant being able to show up in Parliament for Indigenous people and “question the illegitimate occupation of the colonial system in this country.”
So it should come as no surprise then that Thorpe has some views on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, something that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has made a bit of a centrepiece of his first term in government.
Last month, she described a referendum on the Voice as a “waste of money” and that the money would be better spent supporting Indigenous communities. In order to hold a vote, the government will need Greens’ support to authorise it in the Senate. This is something they’ve threatened to withdraw, based on concerns expressed by Thorpe.
Thorpe was one of seven people who walked out of talks that resulted in the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2019. She argued at the time that constitutional recognition of First Nations people would amount to submission and incorporation of Indigenous people into what she considers the colonial project.
“We do not recognise occupying power or their sovereignty, because it serves to disempower, and takes away our voice,” she said.
She’s a controversial figure, who has made enemies inside and outside Parliament and the Aboriginal community, described by her critics as “shouty, largely uninformed, and ultimately ineffective.”
Now, The Australian has reported that Thorpe has met with Indigenous business leader and advocate, Nyunggai Warren Mundine, as well as a number of crossbenchers in what could well be the start of a ‘no’ campaign to the referendum.
Mundine, who is a former Liberal candidate, has been outspoken about his opposition to the Voice before. In an op-ed for The Daily Telegraph in August, Mundine argues that the Voice campaign is “championed by Australia’s elites, including corporate Australia, media figures and Aboriginal academics”.
“When I speak to Aboriginal people day-to-day I don’t find support, but rather indifference, confusion as to what it’s about or outright opposition”.
The Voice, he argues, is not representative of Indigenous cultures and will not have authority from them. This is partly a problem with treating Indigenous people as a homogeny and partly due to the fact that Parliament already has Indigenous-led bodies that advise it. This one will be no different, he says.
Thorpe, on the other hand, believes that the Voice itself is not a bad thing, but that the process as to how we get there is backwards. The Uluru Statement asks for a Voice to Parliament first, then a truth-telling commission, and then a Treaty with First Nation’s people. Thorpe, and the Greens, want a Treaty first.
Truth Treaty first and foremost. A voice in parliament will do more than a voice to parliament. https://t.co/QHKmeOWo2A
— Senator Lidia Thorpe (@SenatorThorpe) July 5, 2020
“If the PM wants to heal this nation and unify people, he needs to understand that Sovereignty never ceded is more than a slogan. It’s a call to action. It’s time to tell the truth about our Country,” she has said.
The Greens want full implementation of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the passage of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Bill, before a Voice.
“The PM said that Treaty is “ambitious”. After 230 years of colonisation, we need ambition. I challenge the PM to do the work. Any process that could be rushed through the Parliament in six months is unlikely to involve any meaningful transfer of power. Self-determination is a human right,” she argues.
For what was supposed to be a point of consensus amongst Indigenous people, the Voice has its detractors within the Aboriginal community and Thorpe is not the only person to voice concerns. However, others are concerned that her attempts to block the Voice could undo years of hard work and leave Indigenous people worse off.
Speaking on ABC Radio this morning, Mundine gave details on the meeting with Thorpe, saying that the pair had got on “quite well” but that the Greens weren’t ready to back a ‘no’ vote just yet. He also said that he has spoken to Labor and Liberal spokespeople who have also suggested they would be interested in supporting No.
The Greens have since come out to reject the idea that they are working towards a ‘no’ campaign. Speaking to The Guardian, a Greens spokesperson said that the meeting “was to discuss the importance of progressing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
“We did not discuss support for a ‘no’ campaign on Voice. Senator Thorpe and Greens Leader Adam Bandt are currently working with the government to ensure all elements of the Uluṟu statement including Truth, Treaty and Voice are delivered.”
While they might have nipped those stirrings in the bud, it’s clear from what we’ve seen so far that the Voice to Parliament, if it is put to a referendum as Albanese has said he will do in the next few years, will not be as cut and dry as many expect it to be.
The Greens could very well oppose the vote, joining an emerging coalition of conservatives including Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Tony Abbott. If they do, they could well hand a serious weapon against them to Labor.
Update — Thorpe Says She Won’t Be Campaigning Against the Voice
Lidia Thorpe, in response to the coverage on Tuesday suggesting she would be campaigning for a ‘no’ vote, has clarified her position on the issue.
In reference to the meeting with Warren Mundine, Thorpe said: “we did not discuss support for a ‘no’ campaign on voice and I will not be campaigning ‘no’”.
She stated that the report in The Australian was “false and misleading” and that she would be focusing on all three elements of the Uluru Statement.
“I want to ensure that truth and treaty are taken as seriously as voice,” Thorpe said.
“This is what I am focused on. I have no time for negative campaigning that will only hurt those it affects the most – First Nations people. I don’t want to see my people hurt more.”
Professor Tom Calma, co-chair of the Indigenous voice co-design process, responded to the news by saying that the Greens are necessarily adding confusion to the discussion and that the party needed to clarify its position.
“There are many Greens out there who are very supportive of the voice and the advancement of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people,” Calma said.
It’s an issue that the Greens have to look at and their membership needs to do something about it if they don’t agree with it otherwise, they are all tarred with the brush of agreeing with what Lidia is prosecuting.”
Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Linda Burney, is preparing to make a speech tonight in Parliament where she will state that opponents of the Voice will make “false claims” and spread misinformation in the run-up to the vote.
She is set to call the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to create lasting change”
“The voice to parliament will mean that governments of all persuasions will need to consult and listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on the issues that affect them. I want to take this country forward – opponents of the voice want to hold Australia back”.