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Speaking out: Gary Foley lends his voice to the Indigenous community opposing the Voice

ByCade Lucas

The Author

Cade Lucas is a writer, broadcaster and a staff writer for Umbrella News. He’s also a commentator for the @WesternRegionFL and @NPL.TV, and a contributor to Growing Up in Country Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this report may contain images of deceased persons.

“It’s fucking irrelevant. Completely fucking irrelevant.”

Gary Foley has never been one to mince words.

I’ve come to interview the legendary Indigenous activist and historian to get his opinion on the Voice, the proposed referendum to have a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the constitution.

He doesn’t leave me wondering.

Gary Foley speaks at a Black Moratorium rally at the University of Sydney in July 1972. (Image: State Library of New South Wales) 

“The only thing that this referendum will do, if in the unlikely case, it succeeds, is make white people feel good,”

he says while sitting at the Fairfield Boathouse overlooking the Yarra.

In case that wasn’t clear enough, he then proceeds to label a Voice to Parliament ‘window dressing’; ‘a diversion’; ‘bullshit’ and lacking in detail:

“I think the Aboriginal communities, like the rest of the Australian community, haven’t got a clue as to what it’s all about.”

A sharp tongue, an even sharper mind and an uncompromising vision have made Professor Foley one of the most significant Indigenous voices of the past half-century. However, it’s a voice that has largely been absent from the Voice campaign, with proteges like Greens Senator for Victoria, Lidia Thorpe, leading the charge in calling for a treaty and truth-telling to be given priority over a First Nations Assembly.

But with the referendum scheduled for later this year and the campaign heating up, Foley is now entering the fray, adding his considerable heft to Indigenous opposition; opposition that views the Voice as a tokenistic gesture that won’t solve real problems; opposition that regards it as an impediment to treaty and self-determination; opposition which arguably poses a greater threat to the ‘Yes’ case than those on the right arguing ‘No’.

This is a black-and-white photograph of activists at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of (Old) Parliament House in Canberra in 1974. The photograph shows placards placed against a canvas tent and a few men standing in front of the tent. One man is waving an Aboriginal flag
(Activists at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of (Old) Parliament House in Canberra in 1974. Image: National Archives of Australia)

Foley’s problems with the Voice are manifold but start with it being just another advisory body that will likely be ignored.

“We’ve been here before,” he says, reeling off the numerous organisations and acronyms that have existed since the early 70s before reaching a crescendo with the last one, ATSIC:

“What Aboriginal people called Aborigines Talking Shit In Canberra”, he chuckles.

While regarding these previous bodies as ineffectual, Professor Foley says holding a referendum, so this new one can be written into the constitution is especially cynical.

“The government’s pursuing it because it’s one of the best sorts of diversions you can have from the real facts and issues. And the real issues are white racism in Australia. The reason why Aboriginal people are amongst the most imprisoned on the planet was spelt out 25-30 years ago in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in Custody findings. That Royal Commission said explicitly that the primary reason why so many Aboriginal people are imprisoned today was because of the deeply embedded, deeply entrenched racism that pervades the criminal justice system from the High Court to the local copper. And so nobody ever talks about that. Nobody’s interested in addressing that, and that’s one of the reasons why Australians remain so resistant to facing up to the truth of its own history”.

Enacting the recommendations of the 1987 Royal Commission in Aboriginal Deaths in Custody is one of the conditions Thorpe and her supporters are demanding in return for their support.

Foley’s opposition, though, is absolute, believing the referendum to not only be a distraction but a dangerous one at that.

“We shouldn’t be fucking around with a referendum. A referendum No vote would set us back another 50 years, just like the last one. We’re 50 years down the track from the 67 referendum and we’re walking through the same mistakes again.”


Wasn’t 1967 about Indigenous people gaining the right to vote? Wasn’t that a good thing, I interject, before remembering that these days Foley is a Professor of History at Victoria University.

“No, that had nothing to do with it’, he says, pointing out that the 1967 Referendum allowed the Commonwealth to take responsibility for Indigenous people away from the states, resulting in an exodus of Aboriginal people from their traditional lands and into inner-cities.

 ‘As a professor of history, I can tell you that the ‘67 referendum achieved sweet fuck all.”

He sees the misunderstanding of 1967 and other landmark events as further proof of why the referendum is a bad idea.

“Most Australians seem to have been conditioned to the idea that the ‘67 referendum was a great thing for Aboriginal people in the same way they’ve been conditioned into thinking that the Mabo decision and the Native Title Act were great advances for Aboriginal people, all of which is complete nonsense.

How then are the majority of Australian people going to be in a position to make an informed decision about how they should vote in this referendum?”

For Foley, the real motive for Native Title was as a fallback option to prevent Aboriginal sovereignty and to protect Australian institutions following the Mabo decision. Having decided that Australia was not Terra Nullius or ’land belonging to nobody’ before white settlement, Foley says the High Court had effectively ruled that institutions created since, including the court itself, were illegitimate. Their answer was to cite an arcane British law that later became the Native Title Act.

“They (the High Court) plucked this thing out of British law, which Aboriginal law preceded by tens of thousands of years, this British law which had only been created a few 100 years ago, they pluck this thing called native title, which is the most inferior form of land tenure under British law – it’s completely pointless , as the Yorta-Yorta found out. The Yorta Yorta got done over by the Native Title Act, which had been created by Hawke and Keating.”

Along with its role in denying Indigenous people full land rights, Native Title is seen by Foley as instrumental in the break-up of the national land rights movement that first brought him to prominence and led to  creation of the Aboriginal Legal Service and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of Old Parliament House in Canberra.

“Self Determination is something that you create for yourself and take, that’s what the national, the Pan Aboriginal, movement we created in the early 70’s, that’s why it was so strong, that’s why it changed the course of our Australian history at the Aboriginal embassy,  that’s how we brought an end to the era of the official policy of assimilation. Governments didn’t back off that because they thought it was the right thing to do. They backed off because we forced them to,” says Foley.

A protest sign used at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, 1972. (Image: National Museum of Australia)

“You’re bringing in a Native Title Act, which suddenly tells Aboriginal people you’ve got to, you know, be such and such. Back in the 70s, we all knew which mob we came from and all that but we also identified as something bigger, a national network, and that was what gave us the power.

The thing that removed the power that we once had was this Native Title Act, making people think that they needed to relate to only to your own mob and get into competition with some other mob. It divided us.”

Also known as the Black Power or self-determination movement, the national movement from 1968 to 1972 is still regarded by Professor Foley as the greatest period of Indigenous advancement in the 20th Century. He says a return to a national movement in pursuit of self-determination and a treaty is what’s required, not referendums to amend the constitution.

So what’s his ideal outcome?

“The ideal would be the implementation of the 1930s Communist Party policy on Aborigines, which was to hand half of Australia back to the Aboriginal people to allow them to have their own navy, police force, army, to have their own economic and political independence and they would be enabled to form diplomatic relations with neighbouring nations like Australia.”

While this might sound far-fetched to some, in those opposing the Voice and in groups like Warriors for Aboriginal Resistance, Foley senses that a national movement for self-determination and treaty could be brewing.

In the meantime, the referendum looks set to go ahead. I ask if it were held this weekend, what would he recommend?

“I’d say to people, vote No”.

“Even though you said a No vote would be a terrible outcome for Aboriginal people?” I counter.

“I mean, if they have a referendum that in itself is terrible for Aboriginal people. So you know, it will create enormous damage whether the vote gets up or doesn’t. I mean, the whole exercise is ill-conceived and it’s essentially one of the reasons why most Aboriginal people know nothing about it like the rest of Australia knows nothing about what the specific proposition is because it’s largely the creation of a bunch of elite Aboriginal people,” declares Foley.

A powerful Indigenous voice against the Voice.



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