A key campaigner for the yes vote says the National party is “out of touch” with regional Australia after the party announced it would not support a referendum on the Indigenous voice to parliament.
The Torres Strait Islander man Thomas Mayor spent 18 months travelling around Australia speaking to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people about the Uluru statement and the proposal for a voice, addressing large crowds in cities and small groups in country halls.
“The Nationals are really out of touch with the people that they purport to represent,” he said. “I have travelled to many rural areas, not just Indigenous communities but speaking in country halls in small towns, farming towns, and the simple fact is when you explain this to people in a way that is clear and simple people are not threatened by it. They agree with it.”
The Nationals leader, David Littleproud, announced on Monday that his party would not support the referendum because “we don’t believe this will genuinely close the gap”.
Littleproud said Australians should “hear those voices from regional, rural and remote Australia, not just those that might be in Redfern”.
Mayor said it was disingenuous to suggest that support for the referendum was concentrated among First Nations people living in cities.
The Uluru statement was signed at Mutitjulu on Anangu country in the Northern Territory. It has the support of all Aboriginal land councils and Aboriginal community-controlled health services, all of which work in regional and remote areas. Most of the signatures on the statement – and there are hundreds – are of First Nations people who live in and represent regional and remote areas.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous to suggest there’s not support,” Mayor said. “You just need to look at the signatures on the Uluru statement, read the names there. Sure there might be one or two from Redfern but it’s most certainly a higher percentage from regional areas.”
He said the Nationals appeared to be heavily relying on the views of one person, the Warlpiri senator Jacinta Price, and that had given the party a skewed picture – exactly the problem the voice was designed to resolve.
“This is about political parties and governments not just choosing who they want to listen to and instead having a real structure and a representative body that they have to speak with,” he said.
Polling conducted for Guardian Australia by Essential in August found that a majority of Australians living in rural and regional areas support the idea of a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament despite not having heard much about it. In rural areas, 69% of respondents said they had heard hardly anything to nothing at all about the voice, but based on what they had heard, 57% said they would support it. In regional areas, support was at 66%.
The NSW Aboriginal Land Council, which represents 28,000 people spread across 120 local Aboriginal land councils, most of which are in rural, regional, and remote areas, said it was disappointed in the National party’s position.
“We do find it ironic that non-Aboriginal people have no problem in determining what is right for Aboriginal people and how Aboriginal people wish to be represented,” chair Danny Chapman, a Walbunga man, said. “Comments linking the voice with Closing the Gap are also confusing. They are not mutually exclusive.”
Local governments in regional areas have also put their support behind the campaign: Queensland’s 77 councils, 66 of which cover regional and remote areas, passed a motion affirming their support for the Uluru statement in 2019, and in 2022 reaffirmed that motion and pledged to “engage with the State and Federal governments, Indigenous leaders and organisations to develop communication materials to support an informed vote at the proposed referendum”.
The 2019 motion was brought by Cherbourg Aboriginal shire council, which is in the LNP-held electorate of Wide Bay.
In March, a majority of local governments in New South Wales backed a motion put forward by Byron Bay shire to “support the Statement from the Heart’s call for Indigenous constitutional recognition through a Voice and that a referendum is held in the next term of federal parliament to achieve it”.
The Country Women’s Association of NSW is expected to vote on a similar motion at its conference in March 2023, after a push from some branches to support the reform.
Mayor said the decision not to support the referendum was more likely to hurt the standing of the National party in regional areas than impact the success of the voice.
“We will prove them wrong,” he said. “We will win the referendum. We will be in their communities, talking to people about it.”