The Invasion Day protests held in major urban centres across the continent on 26 January saw a determined rejection of the Albanese government-led proposal for a referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament to be enshrined in the Australian Constitution.
This was at odds with the mainstream media portrayal of the debate around the Voice, a First Nations body charged with advising parliament, as it depicts the main opposition coming from right-wing politicians opposing it as a body that will hold too much power.
But the reality is far different. As grassroots First Nations activists pointed out at the Sydney Invasion Day protest, rather than having too much power, the Voice will be devoid of it in its advisory capacity, as it will have no veto powers and will rely on the goodwill of parliament to achieve reform.
Indeed, the government is attempting to stamp out this counterargument to the Voice, and the media seems complicit, as much of the reporting on Invasion rallies self-censored mention of referendum criticism and rather depicted events as focused on changing the date.
First Nations unite
The Invasion Day rally in Sydney’s Belmore Park went for hours, and it was clear as one speaker was followed by another that they were all united in opposition to the Voice to Parliament, which they underscored is hardly the first such Indigenous advisory body established by government.
Aborigional and Torres Strait Islander activists across the nation were further calling in unison for treaty over voice, as treaties are agreements between two sovereign entities entering into an arrangement in regard to land and water rights.
But according to Black Peoples Union president Kieran Stewart-Assheton, the route that First Nations should be taking forward is not to treaty with the Australian government, but rather they should treaty with each other.
“If we are going to treaty with anyone, we need to treaty with ourselves,” Stewart-Assheton told rallygoers on 26 January. “We must come together as one force capable of taking revolutionary action to forge our own path.”
“Only by taking control of our own future, can we truly heal from the trauma of colonisation.”
The Black Peoples Union
The Black Peoples Union is for First Nations people, whether employed, unemployed, incarcerated, on Country, off Country, remote or urban, and it fights for sovereignty, freedom and self-determination, which is to be established via a real treaty between all Indigenous people.
As Yuin man Stewart-Assheton explains, the Black Peoples Union is about uniting in a collective voice, so that demands can be met. And it’s membership currently spreads across the eastern states, while it’s receiving applications from other jurisdictions.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Black Peoples Union president Kieran Stewart-Assheton about the continuing colonial project, why the Voice isn’t the way forward, and his vision of First Nations progressing together in a self-determinant manner.
You spoke at the Sydney Invasion Day protest in Belmore Park. As you did, you outlined aspects of the colonial project in the past, and you also made clear that it’s alive and well at present.
Can you outline how some of the features that contributed to the process of colonisation in the past are still occurring?
I’ll lay it out bluntly. They’ve gone from wiping out whole tribes indiscriminately through wholesale massacres, biological impediments and chemical warfare, to locking us up and killing us in custody at ever-growing rates, which are already the world’s highest.
They’re also giving us the tools and conditions to kill ourselves in our own homes, by orchestrating social conditions that spur alcohol abuse, the world’s highest suicide rates and some of the worst health outcomes.
On top of this, they’re still poisoning us directly. My home at Wreck Bay, down in Yuin Country, had its water supply and natural food sources contaminated with PFAS, which is causing massive spikes in cancer, sterility and birth defects in our community.
This is not an isolated incident. Right across the continent, communities are having their food and water supplies contaminated.
They’ve gone from being outspoken about their desires to steal our children to quietly stealing even greater amounts of them today, which is accelerating the Stolen Generations agenda.
They’ve gone from attacking our culture through laws and legislation, which made it taboo to practise it, to their attempts at perverting what culture we have left with tokenism, as we perform like trained monkeys for a white audience.
All the while they routinely bulldoze and blast more of our sacred sites. They have gone from dispossessing us from our lands with declarations enforced by rifles and shackles to dispossessing us of our land with legislation enforced by handcuffs and pistols.
They have gone from forcing us into labour through slavery programs, which were heralded by the same slavers who were driven out of the US back in 1865, to today, forcing us into labour through prison labour programs, the CDEP, work-for-the-dole, and a couple of stunts, like the one Woolworths pulls, where they employ Indigenous workers on unpaid trial for weeks or months at a time, under false promises of pay and employment at the end, which never come to fruition.
Ultimately, the fighting and skirmish of the Frontier Wars might officially be over, but, make no mistake, the war for this continent continues every day, along with the attacks against its rightful caretakers. They’ve just changed the mode of battle to move with the times.
The key issue discussed at this year’s Invasion Day protests was the Voice. Much of the media portrayal of the Voice debate presents the proposal as a given, except where the Coalition is concerned.
However, the nationwide grassroots First Nations protests of last week painted a very different picture. What’s your take on what’s happening with the Indigenous voice to parliament?
We believe that the Voice will not only achieve no progress for us, but it will actually set us back.
The Voice to Parliament is currently proposed in such a way where we can be sure that the government gets the final influence over who will actually be the members of it.
The result of this is that the government is going to push through Indigenous voices that align and agree with what the government is saying and as a result they will echo the interests of the government and its corporate donors.
For the average mainstream Australian, taking the Voice approach to issues will create the illusion of general consent across the broader Indigenous population and paint any of us that oppose the sentiments and interests that the Voice backs, as radical outcasts in the eyes of the mainstream.
We are already seeing the mainstream media and government puppets framing it this way, in reference to a lot of people who were speaking out at the Invasion Day rallies.
We are all being portrayed as an ultra-radical minority, who are clinging to some lost past.
Further to this, we have seen time and time again, with every concession that we win, that reactionary racists and right-wing Australia kicks up a storm.
They do this while also using those concessions as an excuse to dismiss any course we have for further progress, all the while lording the most tokenistic and minor gains over us, as if they were our failures.
We see already how many conservatives are in opposition to the Voice. If it goes through, it will be another hindrance in our path, and another excuse for the worst elements in society to try and obstruct our progress.
We’ve had plenty of voices before. This won’t be the first Indigenous advisory board government has created. They have created plenty in my short life alone.
Every time they’ve created one, they have set it up to fail from the beginning. They have restricted its authority. They have planted their own actors within it. And they have shut them down when it suits them.
Every one of them have been shown to be ineffective, yet the government is so good with its propaganda that sadly many people think this is the first of its kind, and some radical progressive gesture. But, ultimately, it’s not and it couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Voice is just another tokenistic Indigenous advisory board. And aside from that, we’ve had plenty of other advisory boards that are non-Indigenous.
We’ve had royal commissions and all of those get blatantly ignored as well, and that’s not just royal commissions regarding Indigenous affairs, but there have been plenty of recommendations from other royal commissions throughout Australian history that are being completely ignored by government.
Ultimately, we don’t need another piece of evidence to show that the system is inherently unable to fix its issues and that it should be overthrown.
Now is not the time to seek confirmation of what we already know tenfold. Now is the time to take action.
You spoke at the rally as the president of the Black Peoples Union. Can you talk about what the union stands for and what it sets out to achieve?
The Black Peoples Union is a union of First Nations people by First Nations people for First Nations people.
We believe that we have retained our sovereignty since invasion and that we still have the right to be self-determining people with inalienable rights to use and access our lands and waters.
This includes ownership over all our natural resources and to be exempt from any and all limitations the illegitimate state attempts to bind us with.
Our agenda is to unite the Indigenous people of this continent.
As one, we will have the collective strength and power to enforce our sovereignty and to act as self-determining people, managing our own social, political and economic affairs and forging our own future.
During your speech, you ruled out the Voice and indeed, you ruled out treaty-making with the Australian government. Rather you suggest that First Nations would be better off making treaties with each other.
Can you talk on why that’s the case? What would treaty-making between nations achieve?
When we look at every other nation colonised by the powers of Europe that have signed a treaty between the imperialists and the Indigenous people of the land, we see the same pattern repeated over and over.
We see massive disproportion between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people in every social measure, whether that be justice, education, employment, housing, homelessness, poverty and health.
Treaties haven’t reconciled these factors in other nations. Treaties have ensured that Indigenous people of those nations have inequality with their non-Indigenous counterparts.
When we look at the physical landscapes in those nations, we see these treaties being routinely violated, we see the destruction of sacred sites, the polluting of lands and waters and the theft of natural resources, all in violation of these treaties.
When we look at Australia’s track record with treaties, what do we see? We see them routinely violating human rights treaties that they are signatories to.
They won’t even uphold a treaty they’ve signed with other recognised nations, so why would they uphold the treaty that they’ve signed with the people whose land they’re illegally occupying?
Further to this, the BPU refuses to engage with any process that might seek to legitimise the illegitimate state of Australia, and that’s exactly what a treaty with the entity claiming to be the government of this continent would do.
It would provide the express consent from us, the rightful owners of this land, to the Australian government and establish them as a ruling body of these lands.
So, the BPU calls for a treaty between Indigenous nations, so that we can unite as one force capable of taking the actions and making the demands necessary in order to ensure that our sovereignty reigns for another 235 years and so we can act in a fully self-determinant manner immune to the constraints that others might try to subdue us with.
Over the last week, as the Voice took a prominent place in the national discourse, the prime minister Anthony Albanese pledged to deploy more police in and around Alice Springs and to renew alcohol bans in Aboriginal communities.
What do you think about this move on the one hand and the promises of the Voice on the other?
This is the kind of scenario that highlights exactly why a Voice to Parliament is nothing more than a farce and a scam.
Indigenous people have been strongly opposed to the Northern Territory Intervention since it began in 2007.
We’ve had tens of thousands of our voices screaming in opposition to the Intervention, but we are going on 16 years now since the Australian government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act, so it could enact apartheid-like segregation laws in the NT, enforced by military troops.
And for what? So, they could streamline their access to our natural resources in the Northern Territory.
You can go and look at some of the biggest corporate sponsors and backers of the Uluru Statement and the Voice to Parliament.
They are mining, logging and agribusiness conglomerates and investors, all of whom would have the most to lose from our sovereignty and self-determination and the most to gain from our subservience and oppression.
Non-Indigenous Australians, as well, should be just as angry about the waste of what will amount to hundreds of millions of dollars afforded by the taxpayer for a tokenistic gesture that will do nothing whatsoever for anyone except the elites at the top, who will profit from it.
And lastly, Kieran, recent years have seen a greater focus on First Nations rights and there seems to be a sense that change is upon us, while at the same time, the government is now pushing the Voice as the way ahead.
You ended your speech on Invasion Day, calling on First Nations to move forward together in a self-determining manner. Can you elaborate further on what this means for the Black Peoples Union?
We’ve had generations of old people begging, pleading and trying to reason with the Australian government and still being denied the scraps off the table.
We are sick of begging and pleading with an entity that has no conscience or morals. We are sick of trying to reason with the unreasonable. And we are sick of being excluded from our place at the table, when we are the ones who rightfully own the table.
We aren’t asking any longer, and if the government refuses to meet us halfway, to work with us and to compromise with us, we are going to take back the whole table.
We are going to form a revolutionary force capable of deciding our own political, social and economic agenda, and we will bulldoze anyone who gets in the way, just like they’ve done to us for the past 235 years.
We are taking back our land and taking back our future, and god, himself, can’t stop us.