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In the pre-dawn darkness, I sat cross-legged and listened to the women sing and cry. In this escarpment overlooking the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia’s Northern Territory, the majestic stringy bark trees swayed gently. The voices of Aboriginal elders, a melding of sorrow and comfort, made my heart race. Song is a crucial transmission mode for our hosts, the Yolngu people of north eastern Arnhem Land. It is how knowledge is taught, described and shared. The women carry out this sacred ceremony as it has been done for millennia, with wailings of loss, of longing, memories and ancestral belonging.

I was among a group of invited guests at the Garma Festival of Traditional Culture, a yearly event that provides a setting for the sharing of traditional knowledge systems and customs. There are forums with Indigenous leaders, activists and thinkers; political, social and economic discussions, the sharing of traditions, music, art, cinema, dance and storytelling. Attendees sleep in tents, shower in communal facilities and eat together in an open-air dining room.

Yolngu people traditionally learn from observation, by looking and listening. It’s a contrast to the British colonizers who declared Australia “terra nullius" (nobody’s land) two centuries ago, entrenching endemic discrimination against the land’s Indigenous owners. Garma gives attendees a window to their slice of life.

From the violent dispossession of Indigenous people from their lands to the White Australia Policy, a racist doctrine that lasted generations before being phased out in the 1960s, and the broken promises of successive governments, the country’s history is littered with cruelty and political inertia. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s promise of a treaty in 1988, now considered “unfinished business" by Indigenous folks, sparked Yothu Yindi’s 1991 protest anthem, Treaty. There has been some progress made, with a landmark law passed in 1993 returning some ancestral land to its owners and an official apology in parliament in 2008 for misdeeds, including the forcible removal of many Indigenous children from their homes in the name of assimilation.

“Racism works 24/7 to reproduce racial inequalities, regardless of the deliberate intentions of those who are in the state apparatus," Central Arrernte woman and director of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Justice Unit, Leanne Liddle, told the gathering. “It’s not limited to poisonous attitudes and violent or abusive behaviours because it includes laws that impact some groups, rather than others."

PMs have been coming to Garma for a decade to lay out their plans for Indigenous affairs, but this year was different, with the Uluru Statement from the Heart in focus. A petition with roots spanning back 85 years, the Uluru Statement seeks constitutional change to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to have a voice in parliament. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese promised to hold a referendum by the end of his first term in 2025. He spoke of “over 200 years of broken promises and betrayals, failures and false starts," and noted “a voice enshrined in the constitution cannot be silenced." His words received a standing ovation. Now he has to deliver.

To get a referendum over the line, Albanese faces low but not impossible odds. Australia has had 44 referendums, with only eight carried. In 1999, the first question on the ballot was whether the nation should become a republic. The second one was to include a preamble to the constitution that would include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Both failed. Before that, you’d have to go back to 1967 to find the last time the Indigenous population was the focus of a referendum. It was successful. A vote was held to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the official population count and to allow the federal government to make specific laws for Indigenous people. More than 90% of people voted ‘yes’.

Fast-forward 55 years and Australia’s Indigenous people are still the nation’s poorest and most disadvantaged group. They account for about 3% of citizens, yet make up more than 30% of the prison population. Four of nine indicators in an annual government survey tracking social and economic well-being have worsened.

Back in 1999, not one state or territory had a majority ‘yes’ vote for the preamble referendum question. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, with a median age of 24, this has meant a literal lifetime of waiting for change for many. If Australia’s Indigenous people get a voice in parliament, it won’t mean that everyone inside or out of the community will always agree on the best path forward, but it will mean they’ll get a say. Appreciating the values, customs and beliefs of all cultures should be a key tenet, in politics and in life. Rather than having to bus in to experience it for ourselves, why can’t we just listen?

Rebecca Jones is managing editor for Australia and New Zealand at Bloomberg News 

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