The National party’s decision to oppose to an Indigenous voice to parliament has been condemned by a prominent Deniliquin Aboriginal leader as “a slap in the face to black people”.
Laura Hand-Ross, a Wamba Wamba and Mutthi Mutthi woman and the chair of the Deniliquin Local Aboriginal Land Council, said the Nationals’ stance was an insult and had caused disquiet in the local community.
“It’s a slap in the face to black people really because it really sends a message that we are not worth their vote,” said Hand-Ross, who is also a founding member of the Yarkuwa Indigenous Knowledge Centre.
“It’s an insult really.”
Her comments come after the New South Wales Nationals leader and state’s deputy premier, Paul Toole, told Guardian Australia that the party’s opposition to the voice was “a federal parliament decision”.
“The National party, in the state, have been more open-minded to talk to our communities to understand what directly their concerns might be or what they see as the main issues for any referendum going forward,” Toole said.
“We will ensure, which we always do in the state, to represent those views.”
Toole refused to be drawn on whether the NSW Nationals supported the voice.
Supporters argue that constitutional recognition through a voice to parliament would enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a seat at the table to provide advice to the parliament on policies and projects that affect their lives.
As an Aboriginal mother who is a part of the LGBTQ+ community, Hand-Ross said she knows the “lived experience around the obstacles that marginalised people face”.
“[The Nationals] are just giving blanket statements about not supporting a voice to parliament,” she said. “We don’t necessarily need them to say ‘we’re going to support it’. But an outright ‘no’ – that’s pretty harsh.”
On Saturday, the Edward River council mayor, Peta Betts, was preselected as the NSW Nationals candidate for the seat of Murray in the 2023 state election. In NSW, the percentage of First Nations people is above the national average.
Hand-Ross said she will speak directly to Betts, as an independent voter and member of the Indigenous community.
“She certainly needs to get a sense of the mood from the Aboriginal community” she said.
Murray was a stronghold for the NSW Nationals until 2019, when incumbent Austin Evans lost to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers (SFF) party’s candidate Helen Dalton.
Dalton, who is now an independent after leaving the SFF this year, agreed voters have a right to know where their local members stand on the voice and said she was “not opposed”.
“It has been done successfully in other countries so surely we can do it here in Australia,” she said. “We have a long way to go to close the gap and I will certainly be giving this serious consideration.”
Hand-Ross, a health leader who has worked in clinical and managerial roles for Murrumbidgee Local Health District, said opposition to an Indigenous voice to parliament could worsen the discrimination, racism and inequality that Aboriginal people face.
“Unresolved trauma, grief and loss, disconnection from Country, language, and culture all play an inherent part in the wellness of our people,” she said. “That blanket rejection of the voice to parliament … is going to feed that unwellness in the community.”
The Country Liberal senator Jacinta Price, a Warlpiri woman who sits in the Nationals party room in federal parliament, spoke alongside Nationals leader David Littleproud last week as the party opposed the voice. She said the voice proposal would “divide us along lines of race”.
But Hand-Ross said Price does not speak for her or the people she considers her Elders – and “she never will”.
“She’s not from here. She doesn’t know my people.”
Betts was contacted by the Guardian Australia for a response on her position on the voice.