‘Women For Yes’ Address by Mary Crooks AO, delivered Sunday 13 August 2023

Speech by Mary Crooks AO (Executive Director, Victorian Women’s Trust; and Project Director, Together Yes). This address was given as part of the ‘Women For Yes’ campaign launch on Sunday 13 August 2023 at the Athenaeum Theatre, Naarm. 


Thank you, Emily Carter, Jackie Huggins and Marcia Langton, for enabling us to create this powerful video. We admire your life-long courage and leadership. 

We pay tribute also to the leadership of Indigenous women past and present and in terms of the referendum effort, we acknowledge Indigenous women including Linda Burney, Megan Davis, Pat Anderson AO, Rachael Perkins, Sally Scales and Kara Keys for their campaign leadership.

The video you have just watched in its first showing. We are now in the process of translating it into eleven community languages – Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Vietnamese, Korean, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Serbian, Hindi and Punjabi. These will be ready within a fortnight for us to distribute around the country, to help reach the hearts and minds of migrant and refugee women, up until polling day. We will do the same with the Open Letter launched today.

My role is to provide some context to today’s launch of our new campaign initiative, Women for Yes; to provide a perspective on the no case and to present you with our Open Letter. I need to warn you that my energy reserves are down, having been almost depleted by last night’s magnificent quinella, the win by the Matildas AND my beloved Blue Boys. 


Pushing back, with respect

Last November, Guardian Australia ran a piece about our Together, Yes campaign. Soon after, I received an email from an older gentleman. He had a Physics degree some years earlier from the same University I had attended. 

He attached his long essay arguing that what happened to ‘The Aborigine’ in Australia was simply a defeat of a people by a technologically superior society. The British claiming of Australia was legal and absolute. Intergenerational trauma was a myth. 

The idea of a Voice was a ‘racist abomination.’ He urged me to reconsider our support for the Voice; and withdraw from the Yes campaign.

I pushed back, respectfully. I told him that it had taken me until my fifties to learn of the Eumeralla Wars in the Southwest region of Victoria where I had grown up and been schooled. Beginning in the 1830s, they lasted for over twenty years in which more than 7,000 Indigenous men, women and children were killed.

He replied, telling me these were not ‘wars’ – they were simply skirmishes, payback killings. Communication stopped at that point. 

However, I am sure you will appreciate the delicious irony to this story. Here I was, proud feminist, Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust, being mansplained on the Voice to Parliament – and, told what to do.


The Great Australian Silence

Bill Stanner was a towering Australian intellectual, an acclaimed anthropologist. He died in 1981. With great regard for his expertise, he was one of three men appointed by prime minister Holt to form a new Commonwealth Council for Aboriginal Affairs. He served successive political regimes, including the Whitlam Government. 

In the handover of the first native title grant to the Gurindji people at Wattie Creek in the Northern Territory, it was Stanner who suggested Whitlam perform the symbolic act of pouring earth through the hands of Gurindji leader, Vincent Lingiari. In 1968, Stanner gave the ABC Boyer Lectures. Entitled After the Dreaming, they drew together the major themes of his anthropological work, capturing unparalleled insight into Aboriginal Australia. This still stands. 

Stanner was disturbed by the prevailing anthropology which he believed dehumanised Aboriginal people. It was an impertinent, condescending world view which denied any sophistication to Australian Aboriginal people, asking them instead to ‘un-be,’ to relinquish what it was that made them, through his eyes, a distinctive, specialised and successful civilisation.

He rejected as naïve the assimilation views of colonial administrators and settlers – because they falsely presumed that Aboriginal people could be treated as individuals rather than as tightly bonded members of a network of kinship groups. The destruction he witnessed was not merely the consequence of British settlement — but its price. So how did he see these British colonists responding? 

In the main, Stanner argues that they responded with contemptuous indifference to the fate of Aboriginal Australians, seeing their extinction as inevitable. Brutal and barbaric massacres, violent bloodshed and atrocious, ugly deeds would help racial extinguishment on its way.

Stanner acknowledged there were people anguished by the bloodshed and treatment meted out to Aboriginal people, who bravely challenged this prevailing colonial thinking, in the face of scornful criticism and derision. He understood that it couldn’t have been easy for some people, especially Christians, to accept what they had done – that in the birth of the Australian nation, no sin was committed. 

His central argument was that rather than acknowledge complicity in the attempted destruction of Aboriginal society, it was easier to hold that the fatal impact of the spread and growth of a pastoral economy was a morally neutral fact – and then avert one’s gaze. 

This grew into a ‘cult of forgetfulness’ or as Stanner otherwise called it, the Great Australian Silence. He argued that this almost total muteness on the fundamental matters of race relations worked itself through the 19th and 20th centuries — silent on the brazen territorial appropriation of land, genocide, the forcible removal of children from their families around the nation, the forcible displacement of Aboriginal people from their homelands onto missions and reserves, the destruction of their culture, the forbidding of languages spoken, the denial of basic human rights and decimation through introduced diseases and alcohol.

This Great Australian Silence was not just absentmindedness, Stanner says, but a structural matter, a view from a window which had been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. It became a habit and — over time — a practice on a national scale. But this was much more than noticing, seeing and recording. It cloaked a fundamental moral and ethical dimension: the systematic suffocation of national conscience.

Stanner’s Boyer Lectures stopped people in their tracks. The idea of the Great Australian Silence stabbed at our national consciousness, drawing plaudits as well as to-be-expected, defensive rebuttals.


Paul Keating’s Redfern Address

In 1992, almost a quarter of a century after these Boyer Lectures, Paul Keating delivered his famous Redfern speech. Keating was Australia’s 24th Prime Minister (i.e., close to a century of national leadership) yet this particular speech was the first acknowledgment by any Australian government of the colonial reality of violent dispossession of Australia’s Indigenous people:

…it was us who did the dispossessing he said. 

We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases…. We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded us all.

In the years since Keating’s milestone speech, we have seen a nation slowly but surely come to terms with the past, to be less at odds with itself, keener and more committed to reconciliation. 

Reconciliation Australia was established in 2001 as the national body. In 2006, Reconciliation Plans began to be adopted by Australian organisations. Today, there are over 1,100 organisations with a Reconciliation Action Plan. There are 1,500 schools and early learning services with a RAP aimed at fostering high levels of knowledge and pride in Aboriginal histories, cultures and contributions.


Constitutional Recognition and a Voice to Parliament

So, here we are now in 2023, with an historic opportunity to markedly progress the cause of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The Question to be put to the Australian people will be:

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 of this proposed alteration?

By answering Yes, we will loosen much, much more the suffocating stranglehold of denialism. It means we can forge a new compact between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, building on the impressive reconciliation work done so far by so many.

The Voice is a simple, straightforward and practical idea. It has been conceived over many years of thoughtful design, and impressive standards of consultation. It enjoys the support of more than 80% of Indigenous Australians.

The Voice will be an Advisory body, allowing the experience, knowledge and wisdom of Indigenous communities to be heard, and reflected, in the development of policies and programs which can positively affect their lives. The design of the Voice will be determined by our elected representatives.

Crucially, once established, it also enshrines a greater level of political accountability from our elected representatives. If they listen, and then choose to disregard sage advice, they must be able to account for this – to us as electors. Continuing to ignore recommendations from such reports as Deaths in Custody and Bringing Them Home, will be at their peril.


Dismantling the “no” case

And so, to the no case. Let’s not be distracted or spooked by the sound and the fury out there; by some loud negative voices, and sections of media that chase conflict and create sideshows. 

Let’s not allow ourselves to be dragged into a vortex of misinformation and lines of argument straight from the same playbook which proclaimed the end of the world with the Mabo judgment; and which questioned the methodology and truth-telling involved in the Stolen Generations Report.

Let’s have some perspective here:

It is said we need more details. No, we don’t. A mountain of detail exists, including the 262-page design report from Marcia Langton and Tom Calma. It was delivered in 2021 which means all senior political figures have had at least two years to read it. 

We were taken into a war with Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction — people did not say, we need more detail. The Labor Opposition went to the polls last year with a policy to create an Anti-Corruption Commission — people did not say, we need more detail.

It is said that the Voice is a danger to our system of government and our democracy. No, it’s not. It is an Advisory Body. It will enhance our democracy. Media concentration in our country and undisclosed political donations are the sorts of things that compromise our system of government and endanger our democracy.

It is said that it’s discriminatory. No, it’s not. It starts to end over 200 years of discrimination against First Nation peoples.

It is said that Indigenous people do not support it. Some don’t. The overwhelming majority do. With every Federal and State election, there is never voter homogeneity so why do we insist otherwise in this case. If the majority of Indigenous Australians were opposed, it would be different.

It is said it is dangerous to extend giving advice to Executive Government. No, it’s not. Ministers’ diaries are filled every week with representations from individuals, representatives of organisations and lobbyists.

It is said that the Voice accords special privileges and rights to Indigenous people over others. No, it doesn’t. When egregious harm has been committed against Indigenous Australians, we need to do something special to redress that harm. We acknowledge it and seek to right the wrong. A mature democracy does this, as well as addressing other inequities across our society. 

It is said that the Voice creates an added expense to the already large amounts spent on Aboriginal programs and services. No, it won’t. The Productivity Commission has recently affirmed the importance of listening and understanding the lived experience of Indigenous communities. Place-based solutions that overcome past failures of government will be money better spent.

It is said that this introduces race into the Constitution. No, it doesn’t. Since the very beginning the 1901 Constitution has included race-based powers and racial exclusion. This is about recognising the original inhabitants of our country by adding them to the birth certificate of modern Australia. 

It is said that the whole thing is divisive. No, it’s not. It will help further heal the deep wound created by our troubled past.


The Power of Women’s Activism

Ever since winning the vote in the late 19th century, in the face of stiff opposition within a patriarchal world, women have muscled in as reformers and nation-builders, despite not having the numbers in our parliaments, until more recently. Indeed, on the polling evidence, the Federal Govt changed last year in large part due to women’s agency and insistence on doing politics differently. This is no flash in the pan. This particular cultural shift is real and lasting – thank God.

Our Kitchen Table Conversation model was first employed in 1997 in Victoria at the time of the Kennett government. We partnered up with Voices for Indi in 2012/2013, tailoring our model to help Cathy McGowan achieve a 9% swing and become the Independent member for Indi. In 2023, through our Together, Yes campaign, we now have literally thousands of Conversation Hosts around the country, the majority of whom are women, bringing others less certain perhaps into supported and constructive conversation about the referendum. 

These women know, as do we, that safe and respectful discussion is the best social medicine, especially in the face of vitriol and bigotry. There is still time for you to take part in Together, Yes if you have yet to do so.

We have a unique opportunity before us — to help create a more forward-looking Australia, one less at odds with itself over the past treatment of Indigenous Australians, one that faces more squarely the problem of acute inequality affecting the lives of many Indigenous Australians, while at the same time celebrating their culture and contribution. 

In the earlier video, in response to the impending referendum, Emily Carter asks herself what will she tell her grandchildren; and she asks, what will you tell your grandchildren? 

Here is what you can tell them – that you decided to stand with Emily, Marcia and Jackie and the majority of Australians on this fundamental question of recognition, respect and fairness; that you had the courage of your convictions; that you signed the Women for Yes Open Letter; and that you helped bring the referendum home. 

We will do everything in our power to build momentum for Women for Yes over the next two months or so. We will also make sure that this Open Letter – with its multitude of signatories – is then stored in the national archive covering this defining historical moment.

So here it is for your consideration:


We are from all walks of life and experience. We speak with our own voice. We understand as women what it means to struggle for our human rights. And we know from the public record that women have made lasting differences on much-needed social and democratic reform. 

We acknowledge the historic wrongs committed against Australia’s First Nations people over two centuries and more. We pay tribute to the past and present leadership of Indigenous women across Australia in their long, courageous struggle for justice for their families and communities. 

Most of us can only imagine what it has been like for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families – dispossessed of traditional lands and brutally killed in large numbers; adult men and women removed to reserves; children taken away, removed from family; children jailed for minor offences; language and culture destroyed. 

Generations of ongoing trauma, discrimination and hardship play out today, affecting the lives of too many Indigenous Australians, their children, and grandchildren. 

Trust has been broken. We can rebuild it.

The Uluru Statement From The Heart graciously invites us to walk with Indigenous Australians toward a better future for all. We ache to do so. We take pride in what Australian women have achieved in terms of civic action and nation-building. But we can do so much more. 

We want to be part of a hopeful, forward-looking Australia, a nation prepared to forge a new compact between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. We want to be part of a new understanding and practical approaches that are underpinned by recognition, respect, and fairness.

Such a new accord starts with the meaningful recognition of First Peoples in the Australian Constitution; and enshrining a Voice to Parliament. 

We see the Voice to Parliament as a simple, positive and practical proposal. When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a say in policies affecting their lives, we can be more confident that their experience, knowledge, and wisdom will be heard, valued, and fashioned into more appropriate policies and programs which make a real difference to their lives as well as benefitting our entire nation.

We see the forthcoming referendum as a once in a lifetime chance to bring about an historic reform, by voting Yes in the referendum. Women for Yes. Let’s make it happen.


Mary Crooks AO
Executive Director
Victorian Women’s Trust
Project Director
Together Yes

Sign our Open Letter: Women For Yes

Show your support for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

Sign the open letter