Larissa Baldwin-Roberts is a Widjabul Wia-bul woman who lives on Bundjalung Country in the Northern Rivers. Larissa co-founded Seed Mob, Australia’s first youth climate network, and spent years in the Northern Territory working alongside Traditional Owners to prevent the spread of fracking on Country. More broadly, she’s led calls for climate and social justice for Australia’s First Nations people. She’s currently CEO of GetUp and is working with First Nations communities across Australia ahead of the Voice to Parliament referendum.
RJ: Can you tell us about the origins of the Voice; where it comes from and what it’s designed to do?
Larissa: This has been something we've always had, the idea of a voice to parliament. This isn’t a new idea. I think people talk about the Uluru Statement and that is one origin of this modern day ask, but the reality is over a hundred years ago, people like William Cooper were calling for representative bodies. You look at the Aboriginal Progressive Association, the first Day of Mourning on January 26th, 1938, they were talking about equality and their rights to representation and those types of things. We're actually one of the only nations with a significant Indigenous population who don't have one of these things. It's very normal. You have the Māori Council in Aotearoa and they have incredible initiatives like the Māori Health Authority, which really holds government accountable for delivering the services it promises. So overwhelmingly these types of things exist and they've been called for over a very long time. We've also had several different iterations of representative bodies from First Nations in this country, but they've just been wound up and defunded by governments over and over again.
How pivotal is this moment? How pivotal could it be?
I think there's a couple of things. One, it's an historic time already. It's not just about going to a referendum. It is actually thinking about how much attitudes have shifted around First Nations justice over the past decade. The monumental shift you see of movement building and awareness in terms of Middle Australia is like those you see before big fights for civil rights and justice. So we are definitely in this space and that's why there’s so much backlash from the far right. But at the same time, consequently if this thing goes down, then you think about an overwhelming no vote and what that means. Almost every state and territory in this country is already talking about treaties. We haven't done that in decades and looking at this referendum, the polling is looking under 50 per cent in Victoria and that would spell disaster for the Victorian treaty. And so the other thing is just what's at stake here. All the things that we've been fighting for and calling for are finally on the table and now we have this dis and misinformation campaign that is just… disastrous. I feel like people need to have a bunch of conversations about Peter Dutton saying, ‘If you don't know, vote no.’ I was talking to some white fellas up home on the Northern Rivers and they were saying, ‘If you don't know, then do no harm.’ Because actually what is happening here is very consequential, in terms of justice in this country.
What would a yes vote change on October 14?
Imagine if we were able to achieve an overwhelming yes vote, it would tell every state and territory and the federal government that Indigenous affairs is unfinished business that this country is ready to deal with. It’s symbolism matters in so many different ways, as governments don't move on bold policy reform without the voting public doing that first. And so it is that mandate to say, we are a nation with a whole bunch of unfinished business and it's not okay to keep putting it at the bottom of the pile. And also it says a lot about our maturity as a nation and who we want to be. I think we talked to a bunch of people in focus groups around it and this idea of looking at the Pacific Islands or Aotearoa and looking at the celebration of Indigenous culture and seeing how it's done differently in other places. People look at the last decade here, whether it's in black-owned businesses or collaborating with Indigenous artists and that sort of stuff. You're seeing it more and more and people actually seeking out these collaborations because we want to be a nation that celebrates Aboriginal culture. We have the oldest living culture in the world right here. And I think that that's something to be proud of and I genuinely think most people feel same way about it.
Patterns of life flow through the Kimberley as they have since deep time. Photos Ted Grambeau
How important is it for Indigenous Australians to have this representation?
People talk about, oh, we don't need it because we've got eight politicians in parliament. Well five years ago we didn't have that, right? We only have that because of people getting out there on the street and within the party system, but they're also not our representatives. And even in this referendum, our mob will make up less than 1 per cent of the vote. We do not have an overwhelming say within this. We need a representative model and this is one way that’s worked in many, many other places across the world and it can work here.
What about the potential of the Voice to help protect Country?
Our culture and our law and our political thinking is all based on reciprocity and how you live with Country and the idea that we belong to Country… we don't own Country. Our idea around land management and how we live collectively and take care of Country is key, but particularly I think when you are talking about climate adaptation in Australia. So much of the work of Indigenous rangers is going out to other nations because we have incredible land management techniques. Somewhere early in the campaign when they were first talking about the Voice there was an Aboriginal reporter who asked Albanese, ‘What if the Voice to Parliament wants to make recommendations on climate?’ And he was like, ‘Oh, well no, they can stick to their own.’ And mob just went off. We're just like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Of course we're going to talk about looking after Country. Climate change does involve us. Every frontline, whether it's coal or gas across the country, so many staunch Traditional Owners have been leading those fights for over a decade. They don't care about the profit margins of fracking corporations. This is about our water and our Country and keeping it liveable. Of course we're going to talk about protecting Country and this is going to be a model to do that.
Are you disappointed with the tone of public discourse around the Voice?
It was always going to end up like this. We can talk about the wisdom of running a referendum in a social media age where mis and disinformation is so rife, but I also think the other thing we need to be aware of is what is happening over in the US and what is causing so much division over there. It has just been imported into our politics and newsflash, they're winning with it and it’s here to stay. We also have 70 per cent ownership of Murdoch media in this country and that is a problem for us in this post-truth world. The other thing I think is heartbreaking is there are so many mob, and the first thing they're realising about the referendum is this discourse and they’re like, what the hell is going on here? I just worry about people's mental health. We get attacked on a whole bunch of stuff.
What are the implications of a no vote?
I feel like people are going to be devastated. The thing I compare it to is like when Brexit happened in the UK. There were so many people who voted for it and afterwards they were just like, ‘Hang on a minute. I didn't realise this is what the impact was going to be.’ And there was no way to undo it and what it said about the UK more broadly. If the Voice doesn’t get up there are a lot of people who are going to be really devastated and how do you hold collective grief around that? I thought that we were going to move forward so much more than this. How do you come back together after that sort of stuff? Because I genuinely do believe that lots of people think we should be moving forward on these issues.
Walking into the polling booth on October 14, what should be front of people's minds?
We need to think about who we want to be as a country. What country do you want to live in? What do you want to say to your kids that you did on this day? And think about what it actually means to people's lives who are affected by this policy. The majority of people who are voting are not affected by this policy. And so there are so many reasons to vote yes, but I think until First Nations people have the power to make decisions over our own lives things are not going to change and this is a step on that journey to achieving equality in this country. We don't have it. But I also would say that the reality is there are so many people who are just turning on and hearing about the referendum and they just have no idea. There are so many people there who haven't made up their mind, but don't talk about it. And the conversation around what this means to me or who we want to be as a country actually is very persuasive to them. So have a conversation with your friends and your family and if you can show up on polling day, be there because there will be so many people on polling day who wouldn't have even thought about what this thing means and they're very persuaded by regular people having conversations.