This is Bess Nungarrayi Price’s foreword to the new book The Spirit Behind the Voice: The Religious Dimension of the “Voice” Proposal, edited by Gabriël Moens and Augusto Zimmermann and published by Connor Court, retailing for $29.95. Stephen Chavura, Senior Lecturer in History at Campion College in Sydney, says of this book:
“One could be forgiven for thinking that the only Christian response to the Voice to Parliament is Yes, if we went by the pronouncements of prominent churchmen and theologians. But I think these prominent churchmen and theologians are misguided on this issue. It is my conviction that when all things are considered, Christians should vote No to this divisive constitutional change. This book is a unique contribution to the debate in that it takes the question of the Voice to Parliament very seriously from a Christian, Jewish and secular point of view. I urge everyone who is pondering how to vote on this momentous question to carefully read this book and give serious consideration to voting No.”
Bess Price, a former Member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly who held several ministries in the Giles government, is a senior teacher at Yipirinya School in Alice Springs. She was made a Member of the Order of Australia in January for “significant service to the Parliament of the Northern Territory, and to the Indigenous community”.
My father was born in 1914 in Southern Warlpiri country. He saw kardiya (white men) for the first time when he was around twelve years old. My mother, born in 1929, was an infant when she first saw them. When he was fourteen Dad had to run far to the west with other refugees to avoid the killing that began on Coniston Station after the murder of a kardiya by one of our people, Kamalyarrpa Japanangka. Between seventy and a hundred Warlpiri, Anmatyerre and Kaytetye men, women and children were killed by the avenging police party which included Aboriginal men. When the respected and trusted Lutheran missionary Friedrich Albrecht caught up with the refugees they told him that they would have handed over the killer if they’d been asked to. Kamalyarrpa survived until 1959. All who had died in his place were innocent.
This column appears in September’s Quadrant.
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Once the killing had stopped Dad was happy to work for kardiya on the stations. He convinced his own father that the troubles were over and the kardiya could then be trusted. He understood that not all kardiya were dangerous and bad. Then in 1942 he was arrested by a policeman who had been led to him and his relatives by an Aboriginal tracker. They, and several others, were chained and walked naked and barefoot behind camels, to what was to become the Stuart Highway, then trucked to Alice Springs to be locked up. He thought he had been arrested for spearing goats on Mount Doreen Station but actually he and the others were being recruited to labour for the Army for five shillings a week when a skilled kardiya labourer could earn twenty times as much. He worked for the Army until the end of the war. He was always proud that he had helped to build much of the infrastructure of Alice Springs. He then settled at Yuendumu, set up in 1946, and married my mother.
There he met, worked for and befriended the Baptist minister Tom Fleming. Tom was a small and compassionate man but tough-minded and determined. He had survived imprisonment in Changi and prison camps on Borneo. He didn’t set out to destroy our culture but to add to it. He risked his life to stop violence, striding between groups of armed Warlpiri men preparing to attack each other and shaming them into putting down their weapons and walking away. He saved lives. Dad taught Tom to speak Warlpiri and, with many other men his age, helped to build the church at Yuendumu as well as a men’s museum to house traditional sacred objects. He was a leading law man by then, and many of the younger men at Yuendumu have told me that he taught and supported them through their initiation.
He and many other ritual leaders, both men and women, also called themselves Christian. In the 1980s a strange new ritual was brought to our community from the north-west. It involved forcing men and women to sit for hours in the sun, then to be locked up at night and to be relieved of their money and valuables. My parents would have none of it. It was not traditional and they thought it strange and oppressive. They retreated to the church and asked the missionary to protect them from it. They believed that we could be both—Christian and Warlpiri—loyal to our traditions, the ones worth keeping, but replacing those not worth keeping with the teachings of Christ. They were trying to give our old ways a New Testament, a better way of living, while keeping our identity.
Things have changed since then. Naturally those who control the national debate are those people of indigenous descent who speak English and are well educated kardiya way. They have access to the media and politicians and are the loudest in their criticism of governments and kardiya in general. They criticise the old missionaries, but they don’t live by the Old Law and never have. They romanticise it, creating what I call a Disneyland version. They never talk about the down side, the acceptance of violence as a way to settle conflicts, the misogyny and acceptance of violence against women, the forcing of young girls into marriage with old men, the belief in sorcery. These old ways still cause a lot of problems, like continued violence against women, family feuding and the humbugging that forces so many to give their money to addicted kin for grog and gambling. All of these things come from the culture we were taught as children. The so-called First Nations Leaders tell us that all of these things are caused by kardiya, by racism and colonisation. They have made everything worse but all of these problems come from our own culture. The “leaders” call any kardiya racist if they say this and they put great effort into “cancelling” Aboriginal people like me who want the truth to be known.
In 2009 I was appointed as the inaugural chair of the Northern Territory government’s Indigenous Affairs Advisory Council by then Deputy Chief Minister Marion Scrymgour. She resigned from the government the same day. Our council then reported to Minister Alison Anderson who soon after resigned as well. We then reported to Minister Malarndirri McCarthy. Our council was widely representative men and women from all over the Northern Territory, from both the urban, English-speaking and remote traditional-language-speaking Aboriginal population. Although we reported to three Aboriginal women Labor Ministers I came to feel that we were being effectively ignored by the Labor government. All of our efforts seemed to be in vain.
It was that experience that led me to join the Country Liberal Party to be elected to represent the huge electorate of Stuart and to serve as a minister, the only woman in cabinet at the time, in our nation’s first government to be led by an indigenous Australian, Adam Giles. I took the place of Alison Anderson in the cabinet after she had resigned from that government as well. She then went on to be paid by Labor to campaign against me and my daughter in subsequent elections. Marion Scrymgour is now the member for the federal seat of Lingiari and Malarndirri McCarthy is now Labor Senator for the Northern Territory. Both vigorously campaign for the Voice to Parliament. My joining the Country Liberal Party has made me anathema to the Labor Party since. They think they own us, and they can’t tolerate our dissenting from their narrative. And they don’t forget.
My family was denied royalties that we were entitled to by the Central Land Council. My father’s role as a senior traditional owner for the country and Dreamings involved were simply denied. When we made a formal complaint we were denied the most basic natural justice. We have witnessed violence at Central Land Council convened meetings. They don’t hesitate to use intimidation and manipulation to achieve their goals. We are at their mercy. I was told to my face by a white Central Land Council staff member, “I am a lawyer. I can tell you that you can’t win.” But I have not given up.
Too many Aboriginal organisations are run as family fiefdoms with jobs and benefits distributed on the basis of kinship or political loyalties rather than need. A close relative of mine was told that, despite being qualified for a job with one of them, he would not be offered one because he was related to me. Labor governments are no better. I applied for a job with the Health Department that I am eminently qualified for. It is work that I have done voluntarily for decades. The Aboriginal manager of the unit concerned told me that she wanted me on board but there were “problems upstairs”. I applied in November of 2021. I have still not received a formal acknowledgment of that application. A woman known to me was given the job within two weeks of applying. Their nefarious “culturally appropriate” practices would be enshrined in our Constitution if the Voice was passed by the voters.
The Voice advocates are polite and well-mannered in the light of day but many are offensive and aggressive in the shadows. My daughter, Senator Nampijinpa Price, and I have been threatened with death several times. In the Northern Territory we women are used to that. We are routinely vilified in obscene, racist and misogynist terms simply because we disagree with the Left’s narrative. GetUp sends young Aboriginal women, mostly from Down South, to campaign against us in elections in favour of kardiya who have done nothing for us. We have been ignored or defamed by the mainstream media. I was awarded an Australia Medal on Australia Day this year. I was contacted by commercial media from all over the country but I have not been contacted once by the ABC, even in my own town of Alice Springs. The Green/Left wish we didn’t exist. We have a different point of view that they don’t want to be heard.
I am deeply disappointed by the churches who have accepted this aggressive wokeness and allowed themselves to become naive virtue-signallers rather than moral guardians and teachers. My people are crying out for moral guidance. Instead, they are being told that their culture, however the Left of politics define it, is always right. Our culture should be critically analysed and improved like any other. We are not all just “victims” who can’t help ourselves in a culture that is faultless. Kardiya are told to do away with their traditional religion. The old missionaries are condemned. Yet we in the Northern Territory can tell as soon as an older Aboriginal person from a remote community speaks that they were taught by missionaries. They were taught to properly speak, read and write English, while also speaking, reading and writing their own first languages. It was missionaries who first started teaching in both languages, in the case of Ntaria/Hermannsburg, a century before governments. Now our kids are not taught to speak English properly let alone read and write it, in the name of preserving a culture and languages that are fast disappearing anyway. That is why they don’t want to go to school. Governments need to learn from the missionaries, not from their enemies.
The Voice is being promoted by those who are living off our peoples’ miseries. They are the educated, confident ones who constantly blame kardiya for our problems and do all they can to keep voices like mine unheard. They are not interested in truth-telling, they are interested in imposing their own narrative as the new Gospel. Now anybody can claim to be “First Nations” without challenge. My husband of forty-four years, the father of my daughter, and tens of thousands of other Australians of all ethnicities who have had children with Aboriginal people, would not be able to vote for a Voice representative or stand for election because they don’t “identify”. They would have no say in what is good for the welfare of their loved ones and their descendants. Yet anybody who ticks a box on a government form proclaiming themselves, unchallenged, as “indigenous” will be able to. If the Voice gets up, people who have no relevant experience, no knowledge of traditional culture or history and, for too many, no actual descent from our old people, will be able to advise government on what is good and right for our family and our descendants.
I will be voting No and I urge all Australians with a conscience, whatever their religion, to do the same. I am sick of burying our children, seeing education denied to them, seeing them incarcerated, living in dire poverty and taken from families that don’t know how to care for them. We want real solutions and decision-makers willing to listen to all of us, whatever our politics and the languages we speak. We need open ears, not a constitutionally embedded, bureaucratised, highly selective Voice set up and run by those who have controlled the narrative and the funds for decades while everything got worse for us.