As Australia sits at the precipice of major constitutional change to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, Australia’s first Indigenous Senior Counsel Tony McAvoy SC gave a clear-eyed view of race in Australia at Swinburne’s annual Barak Wonga Oration.
McAvoy, a Wirda man from Central Queensland, spoke on the theme of race and redemption, discussing the lasting impact that colonisation has on the lives of First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians.
“The colonisation process has demanded that [non-Indigenous Australians] distrust us, think us inferior and dismiss our knowledge and culture. This was the British modus operandi…done in the name of British acquisition of our lands,” McAvoy said.
The role of unconscious bias
Hosted by the Moondani Toombadool Centre, the annual Barak Wonga Oration is named after Aboriginal leaders William Barak and Simon Wonga. Now in its seventh year, previous speakers have included Uncle Jack Charles, Dr Jackie Huggins AM, and Jill Gallagher AO.
In his address, McAvoy cited research suggesting that three out of four Australians have unrecognised racial biases, which may affect their decision making.
Borne out of a colonialist mindset, this unconscious bias is the biggest factor holding back meaningful action on improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in McAvoy’s opinion.
“How can a First Nations person be assured fairness when it’s likely that three out of four lawyers have an unconscious bias. The jurors, the police officers…simply put, we cannot be assured a fair trial,” he said.
This bias plays out across society, whether it be fans at football games who jeer Aboriginal players more than non-Aboriginal players, or police officers in Perth who research showed were issuing speeding tickets to Indigenous drivers at three times the rate of non-Indigenous drivers, despite Indigenous drivers overall receiving less fines from automatic methods like speeding cameras.
“This one thing – racism – infects all else,” he said. “While Australians deep in their heart still feel that [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people] are incapable, lesser, inferior or a people to be pitied or despised, our delivery from destitution and impoverishment is nearly impossible.”
Supporting a Voice to Parliament
Looking ahead to the proposed referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, McAvoy was hopeful, not only of the success of the vote but also the positive change that it might spark.
McAvoy said that he had gained “renewed strength” from the possibility that a unified political voice that can call out government and industry would help offer opportunities to engage in meaningful truth-telling and eventually a transition of some power through a treaty process.
“Within the next 12 months, Australians will go to the polls to demonstrate whether there are enough individual Australians who are prepared to share a modicum of power with us. I believe that there are,” he said.
“Maybe, just maybe, in the wake of a successful referendum, in that warm afterglow, with the strong hands of a First Nations voice, we can start to shake hands as equals in a society that is not scared of its past, that understands its own bias and that embraces [First Nations] sovereignty and the rights attached to that sovereignty.
“It’s here, in that place, that redemption may be possible”.