Sam Woripa Watson: ‘Sovereignty is about controlling what happens on your land’

September 4, 2023

“Left wing people should be voting No [to the Voice] on principle,” Wangerriburra and Birri Gubba activist Sam Woripa Watson told Green Left.

Watson is part of a large cohort of progressive, militant activists who oppose the Voice in favour of measures to support the genuine sovereignty of First Nations peoples.

“We don’t support a powerless body of bureaucrats, whether they’re Black or not, giving their opinion to parliament and then parliament doesn’t have to do anything,” Watson said.

“We support Aboriginal rights and we support sovereignty and self determination, but that doesn’t mean voting Yes for this Voice.

“What it actually means is land rights and community-controlled organisations and reparations.”

Watson is not convinced of the argument that the racist, right-wing No campaign of Peter Dutton and Pauline Hanson will only be defeated by voting Yes. Much as the Voice will not achieve First Nations rights, denying the racist right a victory “isn’t going to bring us any closer” either.

Watson believes that “if [the referendum] doesn’t get through, people are going to have to face the fact that Australia is a very racist country”, since it is the racist right that is the dominant force in the No campaign.

Responding to the rise in polling for the No side, Watson said: “Albanese has really brought this on, and I don’t want to blame people who are in the ‘progressive No’ campaign for racists being emboldened. That blame should be squarely at Labor’s feet.

“They’ve brought on this referendum, that Aboriginal people never asked for, even if now [some of us] support it because it’s been forced on us. Of course racists were going to be encouraged to come out of the woodwork.”

Labor is partly responsible for the racism in society anyway, Watson said, pointing to its support for continuing the Northern Territory Intervention, locking up refugees and imprisoning children as young as 10 years old in Queensland.

“If we’re looking for people to blame for [a possible No] result of this referendum, it should be Labor. It should not be Aboriginal activists.”

Watson said Labor’s claim that 80% of First Nations people support the Voice is “way too simple”.

A lot of people don’t understand the Voice, they said, since the government hasn’t effectively consulted communities. Also, a lot of Aboriginal people who support the Voice are in the “critical Yes” camp.

“There are a lot of people who think the Voice poses threats to sovereignty” in a legal sense.

This is because the Voice will be followed by the Makarrata Commission, which the Statement from the Heart called for to oversee truth-telling about colonialism and to establish Treaties.

“I think that the pathway to Treaties framework has a lot of the same problems as the Voice — where people are excluded. It’s very bureaucratic.

“But I also know that the Voice will be making recommendations on Treaty processes. And the people who sit on the advisory body will not be from the Country that those recommendations are being made for.

“When Noel Pearson, Malarndirri McCarthy or Linda Burney stand up and say that ‘the Voice is something all Aboriginal people want’, I can see those Black bureaucrats making those kind of blanket statements in the Makarrata Commission, or in the Voice to Parliament [and] making recommendations with these treaties that don’t actually represent the people that are parties to those treaties.

“That’s the biggest way that [the Voice] threatens Aboriginal sovereignty.”

Watson said sovereignty is a material framework, and cannot just be viewed through a legal lens.

“The Statement from the Heart called sovereignty a spiritual notion that co-exists with the sovereignty of the crown. I completely disagree with that.”

Sovereignty is the ability to control what happens to your people on your land.

“There is no law that can ever be written that will take away Aboriginal sovereignty. When we fight for sovereignty and self-determination, it is not just a legal acknowledgement, it’s the material condition that we’re fighting for.”

Watson emphasised that their rejection of the Voice is not because they are cynical about change. Since colonisation there have been many examples of solidarity between non-Indigenous workers and Aboriginal people working for justice.

“We need to struggle as part of the working class against the people who want to mine our Country and build a road over a sacred site, and win that way.

“That’s the only way we can ever truly have justice: to dismantle a system that is based on profit accumulation and replace it with a system that is there for human need.”