There was no plan B. So what’s next after the Voice referendum defeat?

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For many Australians, the Voice referendum has already disappeared in the rearview mirror. Another notch on the tally of failed attempts at constitutional change to be pored over by historians, policy wonks and political strategists for years to come as voters largely press on with their daily lives, many preoccupied with cost-of-living pressures.

But a fortnight after the vote, the aftershock of crushing defeat continues to shake the foundations of Indigenous Australia.

At a Senate estimates hearing last week, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner June Oscar stressed the “real and palpable pain” rippling through communities following the result.

A group of Indigenous leaders and organisations convened their first meeting last week to discuss next steps after the Voice referendum defeat. Credit: Getty

“I’ve heard reports of our children facing racism at school because of the outcome, that their peers have interpreted No as a rejection of them. This is not acceptable and so far from the truth,” she said.

Other senior Indigenous figures, among them prominent Voice advocate Marcia Langton, believe that reconciliation is now dead, so damaged is the relationship between black and white Australia.

Amid this fog of heartache and uncertainty, Voice architect Noel Pearson’s grim assertion in the campaign’s dying days has come to pass.

“There is no plan B,” Pearson told Melbourne’s 3AW on October 3.

But efforts to find one began last week, as a group of about 50 Indigenous leaders and organisations from across the country met in Canberra or dialled in to the day-long discussion aimed at navigating a pathway forward.

Sean Gordon, who co-led the Liberals for Yes outfit, attended the discussions and is one of the few senior Indigenous Voice campaigners to speak publicly after a week of self-imposed silence lifted last Sunday.

“People are dealing with this [loss] in different ways. My approach is we have got to get back to business because communities are still suffering. If we sit around twiddling our thumbs, nothing gets done,” he says.

“It was the first meeting and everyone’s coming to the table with ideas and different views as to what they think is going to work.”

Gordon supports an expansion of the “tried and tested” Empowered Communities model pioneered by Pearson in Cape York during the Abbott government era.

Sean Gordon, who co-led the Liberals for Yes outfit, is one of the few Indigenous leaders to speak publicly about next steps to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians after the referendum defeat. Credit: Peter Stoop

Gordon chaired the Empowered Communities organisation from 2013 to 2019. The model operates in 10 regions across the country on an opt-in basis – from north-east Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory to inner Sydney’s La Perouse and Redfern communities and in Western Australia’s Kimberley region. It is underpinned by a partnership arrangement between Indigenous communities and the government with the aim of giving First Nations people agency in setting their own priorities for their regions.

The meeting followed an unsigned statement, issued last Sunday from a group of Indigenous Yes campaign leaders, which accused a majority of Australians of committing a “shameful act” by voting No in the referendum, condemned the outcome as  “appalling and mean-spirited”, claimed lies were the No campaign’s “primary feature”.

It also set out an ambition to continue pursuing ways to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, but without constitutional or legislative backing, “to take up the cause of justice for our people”.

Gordon says he was among the group involved in drafting the statement, and defended the absence of signatories on the document, saying it was designed to broadly represent “how Indigenous people felt”.

However, without signatories the authority of the document and the depth of support for it is unclear. As revealed by this masthead, a number of Indigenous leaders, including Oscar, Mick Gooda and Pat Turner, declined to endorse an earlier draft version of the statement after being concerned by the tone and some of its content.

The earlier version criticised No campaigners Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Senator Kerrynne Liddle and Nyunggai Warren Mundine, as well as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for his “attempted exculpation of those who voted No”.

Liddle and Price excoriated the statement as cowardly, saying the referendum was a rejection of the Voice and not a rejection of recognition, or the significance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture in Australia’s history.

For his part, prominent Yes23 campaigner Thomas Mayo says he will continue to advocate for the creation of representative structures, saying it was imperative to respond to the high Yes vote in remote polling booths in Indigenous communities in the NT.

“There remains a dire need to establish representative bodies at all levels of decision-making so that Indigenous people can self-determine who speaks on their behalf,” Mayo says.

“The failed referendum was a rejection of a Voice being in the Constitution. That should not be confused with a mandate to regress or to not make progress at all.”

Privately some Yes campaigners were uncomfortable with the collective decision to take a vow of silence for a week to mourn the outcome, creating a leadership vacuum while Indigenous communities reeled in the aftermath of the result and Voice critics filled the void with their interpretations of the No vote.

Writing in The Australian newspaper, former prime minister Tony Abbott claimed that in order for the No result to be respected, expressions of Indigenous identity such as flying the Aboriginal flag alongside the Australian flag and acknowledgments of Country should be scaled back or abandoned.

Separately, in an interview with Guardian Australia, former prime minister Paul Keating accused Abbott and others of “outrageously and wilfully misinterpreting” the referendum result, while offering his own post-mortem that the No vote “has ruined the game for the treaty” and said Indigenous Australians were always “fighting the wrong fight” with a Voice to parliament.

The resounding No vote has hampered progress on treaties in two states. The future of a treaty in Queensland now appears contingent on who wins next year’s state election, after Liberal National party leader David Crisafulli backflipped on his party’s support for legislation five months after voting for it.

There are signs appetite for reform has also cooled in NSW, after Premier Chris Minns confirmed no timeline existed for promised consultation on a treaty with the state’s Indigenous population, and warned there were no easy answers following the referendum loss.

Federally, Labor has demonstrated an eagerness to move on swiftly from dissecting the defeat to refocusing the national discussion on other issues. In the US for an official state visit last week, Albanese sidestepped questions from the travelling Australian media about the Voice, although later revealed he had been asked about the referendum’s defeat by the Biden administration.

US President Joe Biden asked Prime Minister Anthony Albanese about the Voice referendum.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Weeks before the trip, Labor cancelled a scheduled sitting of the parliament intended for last week which would have seen the government pursued in question time over the Voice fallout and the condemnation by Indigenous leaders of the “shameful act” of No voters.

Meanwhile, Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney has kept a low profile over the past fortnight, giving just three interviews.

On the ABC’s Speaking Out podcast on Friday, she was reluctant to pick through the entrails of the defeat.

“I’m not sure there’s any value in saying who was right and who was wrong. The outcome’s clear. And the important thing now is to work out the way to go forward. And that’s what we’re planning to do,” Burney said.

But she gave no indication Labor had a plan to chart a path out of the abyss, saying instead that she and the government would embark on a process of “deep listening”.

“There also needs to be an understanding of what Aboriginal organisations are saying, what Aboriginal leaders are saying. But the other thing that I’ve decided, is not to be rushed. I mean this is a big setback for us. There’s no two ways about it,” she said.

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