Groupwork Centre Blog

Our response to the Voice referendum result

Jim Buckell and Steve Ray

We need to find a way out of the impasse we are in.  Pausing to reflect on what happened and how this came to be is the first step.

The resounding No to the referendum has deeply disappointed a lot of people. Others are feeling relieved. Regardless of how we voted, many of us now want to move ahead on other aspects of the Uluru Statement from the Heart or on Closing the Gap.

With passions running high in the aftermath of the vote, we felt it would be helpful to take some time to reflect on the outcome. In particular, we at Groupwork Centre (GC) have been working through the feelings this process has evoked and the troublesome nature of the misinformation emanating from some on the No side.


How to have respectful conversations

Before we go there, a little about our own efforts as part of this big discussion. Earlier this year we at GC decided we would not take a Yes or No position on the referendum although individuals within our organisation were free to do so.

After some thought, we concluded the best contribution we could make would be to help people have respectful conversations. Like it or not, this had clearly become a difficult and fraught question for many. We were troubled by the poor quality of the debate, and its adversarial nature. We knew we could all do better with some help.

So we produced three short videos on how to have those discussions. They demonstrate some essential ingredients (which we call microskills) of any high-quality conversation:

  • listening
  • curiosity
  • reflecting back what we’ve heard
  • compassion

This mini-checklist serves us well going forward too, as we chart our way in unknown territory on the path to reconciliation with First Nations people. We know in our hearts we can’t avoid this national conversation, but it feels more difficult than ever right now.

In the meantime, we sit with heavy hearts knowing that because the process of dialogue wasn’t honoured and a safe space was not created, collectively, people are now deeply hurting.

What’s going on in our inner dialogue?

Likewise, many of us have also identified some persistent voices in our “inner dialogue”. We’ve uncovered many voices – from the Glum Cynic (“I knew this would fail”) to the Pirate Warrior (“slash and burn the bastards who let this happen!”). Hardly surprising given what we’ve just been through.

Noticing and naming those voices or “selves” as we call them in our model of self-awareness, the Community of Selves, is highly valuable. We can then discern their messages, their gifts (there are always gifts) and, critically, the wise response we need to navigate this tricky terrain.

Holding the big picture

Another facet of our response is how we “hold the big picture”. The big picture in this instance involves the contribution to the debate of key decision-makers, the powerful people and forces that have the ability to guide behaviour and influence outcomes.

When we consider these structural dynamics it can help us see what we can control and what we can’t – and to understand the many complex factors that feed into this grand narrative.

The role of misinformation

This aspect of the referendum debate – and the outcome – has been a critical consideration for many of us. We need to be crystal clear here: the misinformation emanating from some prominent players on the No side has been deeply disturbing and confronting.

Labelling the Uluru Statement from the Heart a “declaration of war”, as Warren Mundine did just as the polls were about to open, was breathtaking in its audacity.

This assertion that an invitation from our First Nations people for us all to walk together on this journey – so deliberately and carefully crafted from a place of love – was an act of war, knocked many of us off our feet. This was its intention: to derail the Yes campaign once and for all at a critical time.

Again, the repeated claim from the No campaign that a First Nations Voice would “divide the nation”, when it was designed to do just the opposite, by bringing people together to have courageous conversations, created doubt and uncertainty.

Safety is lost when fear takes hold

When a cry from the heart is drowned out with such strong opposition, cloaked in fear and uncertainty, it makes people feel unsafe. When we feel unsafe, we quite naturally dig in, hunker down and resist change.

At Groupwork, we value the “container” that holds the conversation more highly than even the work going on within it. Without the assurance that people are going to behave in respectful ways and where listening is at least as important as what we might say, we will not be able to have the conversations we need to have.

Those conversations did not happen once fear and misinformation took over and the environment became unsafe.

A missed opportunity

There is so much that we have collectively forsaken or taken for granted in our country since colonisation. We believe the referendum was a lost opportunity to establish a strong dialogue between all cultures that have arrived in the past 250 years and the ones that have been here for more than 65,000.

The wisdom that lies unacknowledged in our First Nations people is something we desperately hope can help guide us forward as we work out what we collectively need to do in these unique and deeply challenging times.

Many others have commented on the political machinations at play here. For example, of putting this question to the people without a guarantee of support from all the major parties.

We haven’t dwelled on this, it’s not our area of expertise. Suffice to say these deliberations are important, and will continue to be so because we all know the history of referendums that don’t have support from all sides: they fail.

The stories we tell ourselves

How all of this comes together for us, these “stories we tell ourselves”, can leave us reinvigorated, deflated, or – most likely – somewhere in between. Checking in with each other on where we have landed has been useful for us at GC.

This, we believe, is how we have arrived at this impasse: most of us wanting change, but after the referendum the way to achieve better outcomes – for First Nations people, and for us as a nation – is still unclear.

For those of us who work collaboratively, the referendum result is much like a meeting or workshop that’s embroiled in passion, conflict and tension. Just as we would log our inner dialogue (our Community of Selves) and our use of microskills after a session where the heat has risen, it’s helpful to take the time to do so now.

We can also benefit from talking to a valued friend or colleague – debriefing is invaluable in these moments.

Where to now?

As we emerge from a period of reflection and bring our awareness to the choices that lie in front of us – what we do, how we show up, how we talk to each other and who we work with – the path we choose will become much clearer because we’ve taken time to sift through the pile of stuff we are sitting with.

For us at GC, we already know we will continue to work with our partners and collaborators in the truth-telling, treaty and reconciliation space. These groups include Collaboration for Impact, Strong Roots and others.

How we do this work that calls to us so loud and strong will depend on the quality of the reflection process we engage in – now and into the future.

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