Aunty Sharralyn Robinson, or Aunty Shas as she is known, is an Elder who was born and raised in the Illawarra on Dharawal Country.
Aunty Shas recently spoke to more than 100 people in Corrimal about the key issues in the upcoming Voice to Parliament referendum from the viewpoint of a local Elder who's dedicated her life to improving the lives of her community.
During her address she attempted to dispel many of the myths being told about the impact of a change to the Australian constitution which, should the October 14 referendum pass, would recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and give them a Voice to Parliament.
She responds to some of the many questions being asked about the referendum.
Q: In simple terms, why do you think this referendum is needed?
A: Put very simply, my people have been suffering for more than 200 years and I witness that disadvantage daily. It's in our health system, housing, the numbers of our people in jails and employment opportunities just to name a few. After all those years of doing nothing that's making a real difference, we have the opportunity to make change by voting yes in this referendum.
Q: Over the years governments have thrown a lot of money at addressing those problems you mention. Why hasn't it been effective?
A: That's very true. People have said to me, "look at all the money they spend on you". Well, most of that money goes to the priorities of white people because they think they know what's best for us. That's always been the case. I've seen it happening for more than 40 years in the work I do. That's why we need our own Voice to help make sure the money is spent where it's most needed.
Q: Do you have any examples of how the money could have been better spent in the Illawarra?
A: Over the years there have been so many examples. There have been many great programs here in the Illawarra which have supported housing, jobs and helping feed my mob. But just when you get something working, for no good reason they take the money away by axing the funding. It's happened repeatedly. We have always had to grovel and struggle for funding, and we still do. That's where having our own Voice will make sure the money is spent where it's most needed and making a positive impact at a grassroots level.
Q: What do you say to those who are afraid of the Voice and believe it will give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people too much power and influence?
A: People have nothing to be afraid of. It's just a voice, that's all it is. It has no decision-making powers, but it will give us an opportunity to speak up and allow us to improve the wellbeing and quality of life of our people.
Q: But is the Voice ultimately going to lead to a Treaty and big compensation claims which will cost billions?
A: We really have to stop all this fearmongering and conspiracy theories. Do some of my mob want a treaty? Absolutely. But you know what, it's not on the table. If I go down the beach to catch a lobster and I only catch a crab, then crab is on my table! We won't get a Treaty through this referendum, but we can get a Voice. The Voice is our hope for a better future for all our people, not just for Aboriginal people in our community. It's for everyone and we can all make this country a better place by voting yes.
Q: What do you say to people who tell you they plan to vote no in the referendum?
A: I ask those people have they read the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Most haven't. It was written by my Elders and community people who gathered in the dust to write the Statement. I respect those Elders and mob and we all should. They've given us an invitation to work together on a pathway forward for my people, for all people!
Q: Why are some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people saying they'll vote "no" on October 14?
A: Aboriginal people are no different to white fellas. You can never get everyone in parliament to agree on everything. It's the same in our local councils. Why should it be any different in my community?
Q: Is there one specific reason some of your people will vote no?
A: After so many years of being let down and given promises that were never kept, some of my people say they'll vote "no" simply because they can't trust governments of any political persuasion. They're very reluctant to trust anything that governments are pushing. But this referendum for a Voice isn't coming from government. It's coming from my people - it's the Voice from the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It's true, in the Aboriginal community not everyone will vote yes, but the majority will. I feel really sad for those who plan to vote no, and I'd love to turn the "no" voters around.
Q: How difficult has this whole referendum debate been for you and your people?
A: I don't like the fact that some are seeing this time as an opportunity to use us as a political pawn. Worse still is how it's brought racism in this country to the surface. People tell me racism doesn't exist in this country. What I hear that's being said by some people in this debate is downright disgusting and it's taking its toll. If racism didn't exist in Australia, we wouldn't even need this debate.
Q: Do you have a final message for anyone who's undecided about how they'll vote in the referendum?
A: Ignore the scaremongering and negative propaganda. The Voice certainly won't fix everything but as my mum told me, a foot in the door is better than no foot at all. Something has got to change and the only way we can make change in this country is through people power and a vote for yes.
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