Council changes tack on support for Voice
First Nations advisory committee accuses Merri-bek of hypocrisyMark Phillips
MERRI-BEK Council will not openly support the Yes campaign at this year’s referendum after it was chastised for ignoring the voice of its own First Nations Advisory Committee.
In a dramatic meeting on Wednesday night, the council backtracked on support for the Yes campaign and was accused of “tokenistic” consultation with First Nations people.
The heated debate in the council chamber – described by one councillor as a debacle – eventually scuppered plans to publicly support a Voice to Parliament at the referendum.
The council will still spend $18,000 on public forums and education about the referendum, but after drawing on feedback from the First Nations advisory committee, these activities will not take a side either for or against the Voice. An extra $4000 that was sought for pro-Voice printed materials was rejected by a majority of councillors.
The decision not to support the Yes campaign follows outrage from the committee established to advise the council on First Nations issues that it was adopting a position that was contrary to the wishes of the committee.
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The committee is upset that in July the council allocated $5000 towards promotional materials for a community-based Yes campaign without consulting with it.
Although that decision also acknowledged there was a diversity of views within and outside First Nations communities, a lack of prior consultation has angered the nine-member First Nations Advisory Committee.
The co-chair of the committee, Kim Kruger, attended the council meeting on Wednesday to express the group’s “disappointment and frustration” at not being properly involved in a range of council decisions over the past six months that had a direct bearing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents.
She said that in February the committee had discussed the Voice to Parliament without arriving at a unanimous position of support for the concept and had recommended that the council should not take a stance either for or against.
Meeting four to six times a year, the objectives of the First Nations Advisory Committee include providing advice to the council on access, equity and justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, along with overseeing strategies and projects for reconciliation.
“What is the point of a First Nations Advisory committee if not to provide advice on First Nations affairs?” Ms Kruger said.
“We find it hypocritical that council failed to listen to their own First Nations advisory committee when you resolved [in July] to support a Voice to Parliament.
“The decisions of those in power not to act on advice given by First Nations people is one of the reasons why some First Nations people do not support a Voice to Parliament.”
Councillors had been expected to approve the allocation of a further $22,000 towards the referendum, including $4000 for Yes campaign materials, as this was listed on the meeting agenda.
But after hearing from Ms Kruger, Cr Sue Bolton moved to strike out the pro-Yes funding, slimming it back to $18,000 for community forums and other events.
“I think there’s a need for not shoe-horning people into yes or no, reflecting the breadth of positions because … we need to allow people have a more nuanced debate,” she said.
Cr James Conlan – who quit the Australian Greens in February over his support for a treaty before a Voice to Parliament – said the way the council had dealt with the referendum by failing to consult with its own First Nations Advisory Committee was a debacle.
“In a twisted and disappointing irony, this council has ignored the voice of its own First Nations Advisory Committee when voting on a its position on the Voice,” he said.
“I think this is why so many First Nations communities and groups are so suspicious of the Voice because First Nations organisations that don’t have actual power are easily ignored or sidelined.”
But councillors Lambros Tapinos and Mark Riley insisted supporting the Voice was consistent with the council’s 2021 statement of commitment to Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities which included supporting the Uluṟu statement from the heart which calls for voice, treaty and truth, in that order.
“Our commitment as a council to support Yes in this referendum was not made last month, it was made in the statement of commitment in 2021,” said Cr Tapinos. “I think that’s an important point that has probably been missed in the conversation … [that] this council’s support for Yes is longstanding.”
Cr Tapinos unsuccessfully sought to have the allocation of funding for printed materials in support of the Voice reinstated.
Cr Adam Pulford also spoke in support of the Voice as the first step towards a treaty.
Councillors Oscar Yildiz and Helen Pavlidis — who both last year voted against renaming the city of Moreland with the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung word Merri-bek — opposed allocating any money to the referendum saying it was not the role of councils to tell the community how to vote on national issues.
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