Sitting on the banks of the Fitzroy River in remote Western Australia, watching a plume of smoke swirling into the air from a distant wildfire, the Aboriginal elder lamented how his parents’ generation worked for sugar, flour and tea, not wages, and his community now relies heavily on welfare after employment programs were withdrawn by the government.
But, “we’ve got something coming,” said Hector Angus Hobbs, 67, who is a member of the Walmajarri tribe. “We’re going to win.”
His unwavering optimism will be tested on Saturday, when the nation votes on a referendum that would give Indigenous Australians a voice in Parliament in the form of an advisory body.
The proposal, polls show, is broadly supported by the country’s Indigenous people, who make up about 4 percent of the nation’s population. Many of them see it as a sign of Australia taking a step to do right by them after centuries of abuse and neglect. Mr. Hobbs and many of his neighbors in the town of Fitzroy Crossing believe it would help with everything from solving everyday issues like repairs for houses, to moving the needle on weighty aspirations like reparations.
In reality, the measure, known as the Voice, is much more modest, making some of these expectations rather lofty.
At the same time, it has given rise to unrealistic fears — like of homeowners being forced to return their land to Indigenous people — that have galvanized opposition to the Voice. And with many Australians perceiving the referendum as racially divisive, polling suggests its defeat is likely.
“We now know where we sit,” said Joe Ross, a community leader in Fitzroy Crossing from the Bunuba tribe, adding that the debate had “shown the real underbelly of this country.”
The coming vote has surfaced uncomfortable, unsettled questions about Australia’s past, present and future. Does it recognize its colonial history as benign or harmful? How does it understand the disadvantages facing Indigenous people? Should the hundreds of Indigenous tribes that first inhabited the continent have the right to decide if and how to meld their traditions and cultures into modern society, or just be encouraged to assimilate?
The Voice was first conceived by Indigenous leaders as a response to entrenched and growing Indigenous disadvantage. Life expectancy in the community is eight years below the general population, while rates of suicide and incarceration are far higher than the national average. The issues are most severe in remote communities, where some Aboriginal people live in order to maintain their connection to their traditional lands.
Experts and Indigenous leaders say that by and large Australians are aware of this disadvantage but generally do not understand it. Many in the country, they said, see these problems as failures of Indigenous people and communities, rather than of the systems that govern them.
It is something that Australians feel a sense of collective but unexamined shame over, said Julianne Schultz, the author of “The Idea of Australia” and a professor at Griffith University.
“The genesis for the shame is when people look at it and think ‘We’ve got some responsibility for why this has happened — but we can’t quite figure it out,’” she said. “And how do you hide that? Well, you blame the victim.”
But the Voice, which would also include constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, has been criticized as toothless because it would have no power to create or veto government decisions or policies. One Aboriginal leader who helped develop the proposal said he was “amazed most Indigenous people are settling for it.”
“I helped design it as something so modest that no reasonable non-Indigenous Australian could reject it,” the Aboriginal leader, Noel Pearson, said this week. “More fool me.”
Part of why people in Fitzroy Crossing had such high hopes for the Voice was because many remember how much better things were under a previous policy. From 1990 to 2005, an elected body, the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Commission, gave advice to the government and ran programs and services for Indigenous communities.
“Aboriginal people had their own governments,” recalled Emily Carter, the chief executive of the local women’s resource center, who is from the Gooniyandi tribe. “They were able to look after their own finances. They made rules about what work people did in their communities.”
That body was abolished by a prime minister who said that the future of Indigenous people “lies in being part of the mainstream of this country,” setting the tone for the next two decades of policy.
Since then, residents say, that autonomy has been taken away, community-controlled employment programs have been replaced with what is effectively a welfare alternative, and services have been withdrawn.
Indigenous leaders argue this system, under which policies are decided, enacted and withdrawn in their communities at what they see as whims of governments and ideologies, continues the disempowerment and trauma that Indigenous communities have experienced since colonization. That sense of powerlessness shows up in the form of social harms like suicide, domestic violence, and addiction to drugs and alcohol, they say.
“What has led to our disadvantage has been our exclusion in the development of the nation state,” said June Oscar, who is the Australian Human Rights Commission’s head for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice program, and who lives near Fitzroy Crossing.
In Fitzroy Crossing, a town surrounded by over 30 small Aboriginal settlements, the historical impact of colonization feels immediate. Aboriginal people in the region were hunted and killed by settlers well into the 1900s. For protection, many fled to stations, or ranches, where they were protected by the government, but also stripped of their culture.
There, they worked, usually for little or no pay, and were often forbidden to speak their native languages.
“Our people built stations, worked hard — only for flour, tea, sugar,” said Mr. Hobbs, the Walmajarri elder.
In the 1960s, amid a push for Aboriginal workers to be paid the same as white ones, many were kicked off the stations by owners who didn’t want the extra cost. They settled in and around Fitzroy Crossing, creating the beginnings of the town that exists today.
On a recent weekday, as the temperature rose to over 100 degrees, Eva Nargoodah, 65, sitting outside her home in the small community of Jimbalakudunj, about 60 miles from Fitzroy Crossing, explained how sometimes, the high level of chlorine in the water supply caused the residents to experience rashes, watery eyes and sore throats. Other times, it was filled with so much salt, it formed a thick layer on top.
She said she had been waiting for years for repairs to her home, including filling in holes through which snakes can crawl in. Such maintenance used to be handled by the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Commission, but now the process is much slower. And she spoke of her father, who had been part of the Stolen Generation: Indigenous people forcibly removed from their families and culture in an effort to assimilate them into Western society.
“They need to give us something back,” she said. If the Voice referendum passed, she was optimistic that “we’ve got the power.”