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Living with the death of the referendum

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It’s been four months since the results of last year’s referendum became known. On Saturday night on 14 October, its death was formally announced. Some had foreseen that it had been carrying a terminal illness and were not surprised by the final result. They had expressed their doubts as to its viability for months. Others had sought its demise from the very beginning.  And then there were many who were not sure what would be gained if it was allowed to live and with caution voted ‘no’. 

Then there were those who voted ‘yes’. They had hoped for a late revival, despite all the signs of its slow and painful dying. They were not the majority, but they were a significant number of Australians and they included many First Nations people. They had invested their hope that the referendum would be the ‘yes’ of a new birth and the beginning of a new chapter in our country’s history. This was to be an important step of recognition of our First Nations people in our nation’s founding Constitution. 

Many of my First Nations friends, along with others, responded to the result of referendum in ways similar to hearing of the death of someone they loved. Some went quiet, others removed themselves from engaging in social media.  Some were angry, many felt hurt.  There were many expressions of sadness and grief. There was that deep silence that comes with mourning.

In the weeks following the result, there were more examples cultural 'sorry business'. Someone in central Australia called the referendum Kumunjayi 23, using the local cultural protocol which does not say aloud the name of the recently deceased but refers to them as kumunjayi. This ‘referendum’ may have died but, through their own cultural lens, they sought it to be respected, remembered and not forgotten.

While the majority of Australians don’t use this way of referring to and respecting the dead, many have become familiar with the story of Kumunjayi Walker, a Warlpiri young man, who was shot in a remote Northern Territory community in 2019 by a policeman trying to arrest him. Kumunjayi was not his first or given name but it is the word, or a similar sounding word, that Aboriginal people in many communities in central Australia use to replace a person’s name when they die, especially someone close to them. It is an immediate reaction which might be accompanied by various activities such as smoking out the house where they lived, sweeping away footprints and distributing any of the deceased’s property.  These actions are intentional.  They do not wish to call back the spirit of the deceased to upset or worry those who are alive.  They wish to let it go back to its place of origin and rest in peace.  But they don’t want to forget the person either, their personal relationship and the special moments they shared together.

And what of us, whose ancestors came after January 25, 1788?  How did we cope along with those many First Nations people who experienced a deep feeling that something of great importance had died as a result of the referendum? 

We all face death in a variety of ways. The older we are, the more we see it around us and signs of its coming within us. It is an essential part of our being human. While we know that nothing lives forever in this life, we can spend our lives avoiding, thinking or talking much about it. And when we do have to face its reality, especially the death of close family and friends, we can respond to the shock, pain and loss in all sorts of ways including sadness and tears. At times, even, with anger and resentment. 


'Can we now, months later, allow this referendum to die but also allow key elements of its life and hope remain alive?'


Sometimes, the experience of loss lies unreconciled deep within us until something touches that wound. We can find ourselves surprised by our emotional reaction and awareness of what we have carried, sometimes for years, deep in our very soul. At other times, memories arise which bless our connection with the past and those whom we have lost. Death can come with its own blunt finality but we can choose to not let it have the last say. We can continue to hold the past in our present, the tension of loss with presence.

Can we now, months later, allow this referendum to die but also allow key elements of its life and hope remain alive? Isn’t that what we all do, in our own ways, when someone close to us dies?  We want to hold onto them.  We don’t want to let them go.  We know we need to let go but we also want to allow ourselves to hold onto what we experienced as good and true in the relationship we shared.  How do we keep alive something we deeply treasured in that journey of the referendum but also face the reality of its death?

When the time comes when look again at our Constitution and the place of First Nations people in it, memories from this past failed attempt will surface. For some Australians it will be something very new to consider. Nearly 30 percent of Australians were born overseas.  For them, and many others, the Constitution can remain an unknown and irrelevant document. They can find it difficult to understand the history and memory of colonisation in this country by First Nations people.

Some will remember the failures of 2023, and returning to them will resurface deep memories of pain and loss. It will caution our leaders to work more closely together and find common ground. It will speak to those values that unite rather than divide.  Values that offer hope rather than despair to many First Nations people, especially those living on the fringes of our society. It will speak to the ancient history of this land and invite all Australians to generously enter into that sacred life and its mystery.

At the same time, it will remind those who are older and who will remember Kumunjayi 23 what needed to be allowed to die. They might include all those negative and sometimes racist comments that polarised and divided. Personal attacks on key Aboriginal leaders. The use of party politics, confusing legal language and much ignorance about how many First Nations people live, far from the major cities where most Australians and recent migrants live.

Any future attempt could resurrect some of those deeper longings for a more united Australia that many who voted Yes and No sought but could not find in 2023. Referring to that failed and fatal attempt as Kumunjayi 23 might actually help us remember what we continue to believe is important but also let go of what needs now to be allowed to die.




Brian McCoy SJ is a Jesuit priest who lived amongst Indigenous people in Australia and overseas for more than fifty years.  Apart from long contact with Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across much of north Australia he has also spent time with the Maori in New Zealand, the Anishinabe people in Canada and the Lakota Sioux in America. He completed a Doctorate (University of Melbourne) on the health of Aboriginal men, later published as Holding Men: Kanyirninpa and the Health of Aboriginal Men.

Main image:  Campaign Director of Yes 23 Dean Parkin hugs Aunty Shirley Lomas. (Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Brian McCoy, Indigenous, Referendum, Voice



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Written with genuine concern and constructive purpose reflective of one who has given much of his life working with and for our nation's Aboriginal peoples, Brian. May your labours and those of your Jesuit confreres bear much fruit in the process of reconciliation.

John RD | 17 February 2024  

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