Beulah Adams was apprehensive and nervous as she approached Aunty Sue Blacklock, before the first Myall Creek Massacre Memorial Service in 2000. Beulah was nervous because she was a direct descendent of one of the perpetrators who massacred 28 Aboriginal women, children, and old men at Myall Creek in 1838. And Aunty Sue, a Wirrayaraay elder, was a direct descendant of one of the survivors of the massacre. Could these two women possibly reconcile?
Yes. Without saying a word, Aunty Sue put her arms around Beulah, and they both wept (Myall Creek Soundtrails, 2022).
Aunty Sue told Beulah that the deaths at the Myall Creek Massacre were not the responsibility of the descendants of the perpetrators (Soundtrails, 2022). Beulah did not kill anyone. There was no blame to be laid at her feet. In the same way, there is no blame or guilt to be laid at the feet of all of us, non-Indigenous Australians, re the horrendous loss of thousands of indigenous lives around the nation.
The 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Voice to Parliament are not about apportioning blame or guilt. They concern truth telling, recognition of Australia’s dark colonial past, the trauma experienced by Indigenous Australians, and the lasting effects of all of this.
This compelling example from the Myall Creek Massacre memorial tells us what happens when indigenous voices are heard: acknowledgement of the truth of massacres, forgiveness offered by an Aboriginal survivor, and reconciliation of descendants, survivors and perpetrators.
Aunty Sue and Beulah continue to meet at the annual memorial whenever they can. They sit and walk together, often holding hands; there appears to be deep affection, respect, and warmth.
In 2018, Aunty Sue was quoted in an ABC New England interview:
“We won’t forget, but we will forgive and walk down that path together” (the path she was referring to was the path to the Myall Creek massacre site).
The extraordinary events at the Myall Creek Memorial and the close relationship between Beulah and Aunty Sue deeply resonate with the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Truth telling, recognising, and acknowledging the First Nations people’s history (post-colonisation) are at the heart of the Statement. Without truth telling, reconciliation is elusive. Could Beulah and Aunty Sue have reconciled and created such a bond without truth telling?
Hearing indigenous voices is the first step to changing practical outcomes for Indigenous Australians. The Uluru Statement from the Heart asks Australians to support a voice to Parliament that would be enshrined in the Australian Constitution. The Voice to Parliament will be composed of a group of Indigenous people from around the country who will provide advice on a range of issues affecting the lives of Indigenous people, including education, health, housing, and employment.
There is another understanding of the word “Voice” that is as salient for Indigenous people. Indigenous people have fought and struggled to reclaim their voice since 1788. In 1968, the anthropologist William Stanner (1968) spoke of the “Great Australian Silence” and a “cult of forgetfulness”, referring to the failure, on a national scale, to acknowledge the atrocities committed against Aboriginal people since colonisation.
Like all other massacre sites in Australia (and there are over five hundred) there was a great silence around what happened at Myall Creek in 1838. Many people from the Myall Creek and Bingara areas did not know of the killings until the 1960s when Lenny Payne, a committed local Aboriginal rights campaigner, began to raise awareness of the massacre. Uncle Lyall Munro grew up near Myall Creek and said he knew nothing of the massacre (Soundtrails, 2022). Some had heard rumours of a massacre, but talk was not encouraged. For too long, the atrocities committed against Aboriginal people have been left unacknowledged, forgotten, and ignored.
When the Australian Constitution was written in 1901, Aboriginal people were not included. The oldest civilization on the planet with complex laws, culture, and relationships (Ashenden, 2022) had been decimated to the point where it was considered a dying race. It was not until 1967 that 90.77% of the Australian population voted to count Aboriginal people in the census. This was a celebrated and hopeful occasion in our shared history.
However, without the involvement of Aboriginal people in the design and implementation of projects and initiatives that affect their lives, there have been missed opportunities, wasted money and traumatic failures. Failures include the Stolen Generation (1910-1970s) and the Intervention (2007).
Commissions, Advisory Groups and Committees have been established to advise the Government. However, their existence is tenuous. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was dismantled by the Howard Government in 2005. The National Aboriginal Conference (NAC), under-resourced by the Fraser Government, was disbanded by the Hawke Government in 1985. Such groups depend on the goodwill of the Government of the day and can be readily abolished through parliamentary processes. This is why an Indigenous advisory body needs to be enshrined in the Australian Constitution as proposed by the Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and the Voice to Parliament amendment.
Australians are being asked to vote YES or NO to the following question:
“A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
Do you approve this proposed alteration?
What is the Voice?
- A body to advise Parliament on issues affecting Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander People
- It is the Parliament that determines the details of the Voice (see the changes to the constitution section (iii)). This is how democracy works – Parliament debates and then determines the details.
There is also a 272-page report, co-authored by Professor Dr Marcia Langton and Professor Tom Calma, which offers six models for the Voice – a starting point for debate in Parliament. The previous Coalition Government commissioned this Report. Parliamentarians of all persuasions have had access to this detail for over two years.
- The voice enables Indigenous people to incorporate their knowledge, practices, customs, and traditions to improve outcomes for Indigenous peoples – closing the gap which continues to widen under current arrangements.
- The voice contributes to reducing discrimination against Indigenous people by recognising their past, truth telling, and giving them a say on issues that affect them. It acknowledges that Indigenous people have solutions and knowledge, and that they are the equals of non-Indigenous Australians.
- The Voice will attempt to improve indigenous living conditions by implementing progressive initiatives, policies and programs that address the neglect, injustice and atrocities experienced by Indigenous peoples over the past 235 years. There are no special privileges here.
- The voice has the capacity to heal and unite, to work towards healing Indigenous people’s pain, suffering and trauma. Through truth telling, it will enable non-Indigenous people to understand the experiences of Indigenous people, thereby reducing the fear of accusations of blame and guilt. With truth telling and understanding, compassion has a chance. The ghosts of fear, guilt and blame will be diminished, leading to healing and unity.
Now is the time to do something different. Let us start with a Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution. Let us work together to close the gap. Let us show respect, compassion and understanding to all and walk towards a better future in our magnificent country.
Dr Phyllis Parr is a Clinical Psychologist and a supporter of the Yes vote campaign. She is a guest writer.
- Ashenden, D. (2022). Telling Tennant’s Story: The Strange Career of the Great Australian Silence. Melbourne, Australia: Black Inc.
- Australian Government. (2023). Referendum Question and Constitution Amendment. Retrieved from
- Ingall, J., & Fuller, K. (2018). Myall Creek Memorial a Symbol of Reconciliation as Descendants of Victims and Perpetrators Gather. Retrieved from
- Parliament of Australia. (2023). Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian Government Representatives and Advisory Bodies: A Quick Guide. Retrieved from
- Soundtrails. (2022). Myall Creek. Retrieved from
- Stanner, W. E. H. (1968). After the Dreaming. The 1968 Boyer Lectures Australian Broadcasting Commission.