In March 2021, the Ever Given, a containership wedged between the banks of the Suez Canal in Egypt caused major disruption to global supply chains (Leivestad et al.). The much-shared image of a relatively miniscule earthmover performing the monumental task of dislodging the vessel captured the imagination of social media users worldwide (Salem). Many drew on the event to design memes that, amongst other things, spoke to an array of significant but seemingly overwhelming tasks (The Indian Express). Wiradjuri man James Blackwell, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact, provided an Indigenous Australian perspective to this global trend, using it to comment on establishing an Indigenous representative Voice within Australia’s parliamentary system (fig. 1).
Figure 1: Meme by James Blackwell (posted to Twitter @BlackwellJ_ on 27 March 2021)
In this article, we draw on Blackwell’s meme and his intention to encourage an informed discussion about what an Indigenous Voice to Parliament entails and what “co-design” demands. Activists are embracing digital media to address, talk-back, and re-insert Indigenous voices into discourses that have traditionally ignored and silenced them. We consider how media such as memes are advancing campaigns that call for socio-pollical change. We begin by discussing memes as a socially designed medium that reflects socio-political contexts at moments in time. We then turn our attention to the content and context of Blackwell’s image with reference to the “co-design” process in which the Australian Government has committed to work alongside, and in partnership with, Indigenous peoples, nations, and communities. We argue that to achieve effective co-design, governments must be willing to relinquish some control and support structures bound to the interests of Indigenous populations as set out in seminal documents and frameworks like the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart presents a pathway towards Indigenous recognition and self-determination which was devised out of the delegations of some 250 Indigenous community leaders and representatives who attended the federally-funded First Nations National Constitutional Convention on the lands of the Anangu people in 2017 (Appleby and Davis; Davis and Williams; Larkin and Galloway). The convention built on community consultation which included 13 regional dialogues run by the 16-member Referendum Council (Davis “Quarterly Essay”). The Council documented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ perspectives and identified five options for constitutional change, one of which was establishing a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament (Davis et. al; Referendum Council). It is this proposal and its call for it to be “co-designed” between Indigenous peoples and the non-Indigenous public, which is addressed in Blackwell’s meme.
Memes as Demand for Co-Design
The term “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in reference to cultural expressions, thoughts, practices, and ideas that spread via repetition and imitation (Blackmore). In the current internet age known as “Web 2.0” (Corbett et al.) memes have cemented themselves as legitimate means of communication and are often used as a form of protest and resistance (Petray). Shared via social media, memes enhance the ability to replicate, re-design, and re-distribute messages in ways that provoke dialogue over widespread networks. They have therefore been integral in spreading information and awareness relating to numerous topics such as colonisation (Frazer and Carlson; Land); mental health (Chateau); gender (Kanai; Zillman); resistance and counterculture (Marsh); and documenting responses to emerging crises and world events such as COVID-19 (de Saint Laurent et al.; Flecha Ortiz et al.).
As a form of communication memes are inherently products of appropriation, juxtaposition, and transformation, drawing influence from diverse sources. They are intertextual in that they blend pop culture and politics in unexpected and creative ways (Shifman). Messages are conveyed through intersecting events, dialogues, and understandings, which result in unfolding conversations reflective of diverse perspectives. Memes are not fixed, nor do they portray objective truths, but rather are fluid and transformative (Milner).
Through their ability to antagonise texts that lack Indigenous perspectives, memes such as Blackwell’s disrupt public discourses by forcibly inserting Indigenous voices in ways that expose the limited manner in which the world is often presented. Memes transform seemingly mono-vocal texts by making them sites of contestation, pluralism, and agonism. They demand not only the recognition of Indigenous peoples but provoke audiences to confront their failure to see the persons, views, and perspectives they would otherwise overlook (Frazer and Carlson).
Within the political arena, Shifman argues that memes are effective forms of political participation as they are “a careful articulated, strategic exposure of a political backstage, presented frontstage” (140). Memes help render visible the politicised rhetoric and power imbalances that tend to distort Indigenous views and agendas. Doing so “breaks the façade of optimism and unity presented in official mass media, showing that things are not as ‘harmonious’ as the party would like to present them” (Shifman 149).
The adaptive and fluid nature of internet memes enables rapid communication of messages over vast spaces that are rooted within but also transcend specific localities and socio-cultural contexts. As expressions of cultural information, memes require some insider knowledge and cultural capital so that audiences may understand the content and context on a deeper level. Cho describes memes as creating “reverberations” and “repetitions” through reproducing and re-contextualising content in ways that provokes conversations among those with shared interests and knowledge. Morimoto writes on this in the context of fan art where memes create a “third space” through which audiences enter a dialogue that critiques and unpacks views pertaining to pop culture. It is through a nuanced understanding of the language and content of memes that group affiliations are established and reaffirmed.
For Indigenous peoples, the content produced, displayed, adapted, and shared via memes is done so within a wider context of setter-colonialism (Frazer and Carlson). The messages “reverberated” often correspond to the pervasive nature of colonial power structures in which the displayed words, images, and content signify experiences of subordination and treatment as if one were less than human (Moreton-Robinson). For many, it is the survivance of a lived experience of continuing coloniality that creates a sense of affiliation among Indigenous peoples, both in Australia and abroad.
Indigenous peoples throughout the world are using memes to highlight historical truths, and in doing so are exposing injustices in ways that refute deficit discourses and imposed labels of victimhood (Monkman). For example, a Barkidji/Wakawaka/Birrigubba woman known as Emily (@howdoidelete1) has over 67,000 followers and 2.9 million likes on TikTok. Emily posts on topics relating to Indigeneity and settler-colonialism and her video memes have gone viral, inserting an Indigenous Australian voice into global conversations relating to topics such as racism.
In a socio-political setting dominated by western-centric outlooks, memes reinsert Indigenous voices and opinions in culturally specific and relevant ways. Designing a meme enables an author to rearrange everyday norms, behaviours, understandings, and images in ways that expose issues that often remain invisible (Moreton-Robinson). Like art, memes are embedded within socio-cultural systems—informed by religion, morality, science, commerce, technology, politics, law, etc.—and are always understood within specific local settings (Geertz). For Indigenous peoples, the local setting is shaped by settler-colonialism and competing and contested ways of knowing, doing, and being (Martin; Martin and Mirraboopa).
Due to the lack of representation of Indigenous views and perspectives within mainstream media (Media Diversity Australia), online platforms can create safe spaces that may be controlled, monitored, and censored by Indigenous authors and account holders (Fredericks and Bradfield "‘I’m Not Afraid”). Jacqueline Land (185), for example, observes how Instagram accounts, such as @since.time.immemorial, archive Indigenous views and continue traditions of colonial resistance (see also Carlson and Frazer). Frazer and Carlson similarly observe how Facebook groups such as “Blackfella Revolution” (BFR) effectively use digital media to present a series of memes that collectively document Australia’s colonialism and its ongoing impact.
Memes and digital media have also offered critiques in relation to countering mainstream silences and misrepresentations pertaining to the co-design reforms posed by the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is this that we now turn to.
Figure 2: “Rocking On.” Kudelka Cartoons, 15 February 2020.
Co-Designing a Voice to Parliament
Following the gift of the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017, and the final report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition in 2018, the government entered a period of “co-design” to establish a mechanism that would achieve the goal of forming a model of Indigenous “Voice” (Markham and Sanders). To facilitate the process, $7.3 million was budgeted in 2019 along with the establishment of a Senior Advisory Group headed by scholar Marcia Langton and human rights campaigner Tom Calma (Davis and Williams). This was followed by a National Co-Design Group and Local Co-Design Group in 2020 (Chesterman).
The government’s Interim Report on the Indigenous Voice Co-Design Process (Commonwealth of Australia), released in October 2020, clearly outlines its desired objective of designing a model for an Indigenous Voice across all levels of government. Yet, it remains somewhat silent on what the term “co-design” means. Such lack of definition can be problematic for the space in which different parties come together to “co-design” solutions remains based within governing structures ultimately informed by western ontologies. We argue that co-design must be equally informed by Indigenous Knowledges and methodologies characterised by guiding protocols (Martin; Martin and Mirraboopa; Smith). Furthermore, it must be reflective of Indigenous peoples’ priorities as outlined in the Uluru Statement from the Heart and subsequent reports.
This raises questions as to whether the government is engaging in a process that is equally accountable and receptive to Indigenous peoples. Has “co-design” become yet another empty slogan synonymous with white benevolence, sustained inaction, and a refusal to concede power to Indigenous peoples? O’Neil observes how positioning negotiations and discussions of constitutional reform within Indigenous frameworks pose a direct challenge to white sovereignty:
First Peoples’ voices are rarely convenient for governments. They are voices of critique; voices that challenge the stories that settler-colonial governments have attempted to craft about an empty land, terra nullius, and a race doomed to fail. They are voices that draw their authority from their connection to land and Country, challenging the foundational assumptions of settler-colonial sovereignty in Australia. (2)
The fact that current discussions avoid topics pertaining to constitutionally enshrining a First Nations’ Voice—as clearly stipulated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart—signifies that the government is unwilling to compromise on issues it sees as “inconvenient” to its own political agenda. This is despite the Interim Report acknowledging the government’s commitment, “to develop proposals to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples a say in the laws, policies, and programs that affect them” (Commonwealth, 14). The failure to engage with the call for constitutional enshrinement during the co-design process indicates that the government may continue with its own agenda. Memes such as Blackwell’s juxtapose and repurpose icons, symbols, and current affairs (such as the lodging of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal) in ways that blend politics, humour, and activism. Frazer and Carlson argue that memes “map the shifting ideological justifications and material practices of colonialism” (2). Through voicing his commentary via a meme, Blackwell creatively maps the diluted reforms pursued by the government, which maintains political control over the co-design process.
Indigenous people’s participation within political processes has always been at a disadvantage due to disempowerment and population size. Mechanisms are in place within Australia’s constitution to ensure that all states and territories (regardless of their size) have an equal say/vote over matters concerning their welfare within the Commonwealth. Indigenous nations, communities, and language groups, however, go unrecognised, meaning that Indigenous views are disproportionally represented in comparison to the wider non-Indigenous population. Aricioni observes that:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, given their numbers as compared with the overall Australian population, do not have ready access to representation within our system of government. The Voice would go some way to remedying this. (2)
Although the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament would be non-justiciable and obtain no veto powers, it would nonetheless provide a mechanism that ensures Indigenous perspectives are proportionally considered when co-designing policies directly or indirectly relating to Indigenous affairs (Appleby and Synot).
Since the Uluru Statement was gifted to the people of Australia in 2017, high-profile politicians and media commentators have continued to project the distorted narrative that the proposed reforms lack majority support and would fail to pass a referendum (Harris; Knowles; Wahlquist). The earliest polls pertaining to constitutional reform since the Uluru Statement however have always shown strong public support (Zillman). An Omnipoll in 2017 declared 60.7% of respondents supported a constitutionally enshrined voice (Centre for Governance and Public Policy), while a Newspoll indicated 57% (Morris). Since that time, support has increased with Reconciliation Australia documenting 77% support in 2018, and 88% in 2020 (Reconciliation Australia). A more recent 2021 survey places support for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament at 60%, with 51% expressing a desire for constitutional enshrinement (Deem et al.). Early assessment of public submissions entered as part of the co-design enquiry, conducted by the UNSW Indigenous Law Centre, similarly points towards an overwhelming desire for constitutionally protected First Nations Voice. 87% of public submissions support constitutional change, 82% of which directly call for constitutional enshrinement (Daley; Phelan).
In a political landscape driven by opinion polling, it is bewildering to think why a topic that has overwhelming public support has received inadequate consideration within politics and the mainstream media. In an act described as “mean-spirited bastardry” by Dylan Lino, a legal expert from the University of Queensland (in Wahlquist), Malcolm Turnbull’s initial rejection of the Statement in October 2017—on account of him seeing it as “too ambitious”—stunted the movement and denied its wider debate and exposure. During a recent ceremony that saw the Uluru Statement from the Heart being awarded the 2021 Sydney Peace Prize, Pat Anderson stated that “Malcolm Turnbull, when he was prime minister, wouldn’t even allow a national conversation. Well, despite that, the nation once again, is ahead of its leaders” (in Zhou).
Blackwell’s meme materialises Anderson’s comment by visually emphasising the determination of activists and the Australian public’s desire for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Political figures such as Malcolm Turnbull or Scott Morrison may continue to oppose the movement, but according to Anderson and Blackwell, their opposition ultimately pales in comparison to the will of the Australian people. This message is conveyed by both Anderson, at a formal awards ceremony, and Blackwell, via an online meme, but does so through media that effectively target different audiences, broadening the reach of the campaign.
While awareness and support continue to grow within the public, there is concern amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars, leaders, and members of Indigenous communities that the co-design process will be yet another example of “kicking the can down the street” (Davis), resulting in superficial reform weighted in the government’s favour that will maintain the status quo and ignore the people’s mandate for constitutional change. Pat Turner, CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and a member of the Senior Advisory Group, has also expressed her concerns that Indigenous voices are not being heard within the co-design process (in Snow).
The potential of the Uluru Statement to translate into sustained positive outcomes for Indigenous peoples lies in its ability to transcend the status quo (Fredericks and Bradfield, "We Don’t Want”) and act as a “circuit breaker” (Morris). The proposed reforms, inclusive of a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament, offer relatively minor disruptions to current political structures and the foundation of Australia’s constitution, but will have significant benefits in healing relationships and improving outcomes for Indigenous peoples. An enshrined Voice to Parliament would act as a circuit breaker, as it would potentially revolutionise relationships between Indigenous communities and policy makers across all levels of government, providing a mechanism that can inform equitable and lasting benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Indigenous Australian responses to COVID-19 have further demonstrated the benefits of co-design informed by Indigenous self-determination (Stünzner).
Recently, however, the government has signified a preference for an Indigenous Voice to Government rather than Parliament (Daley; Dodson). Prime Minister Scott Morrison has expressed that constitutional enshrinement was never on the government’s agenda, and deceptively indicated that as it does not have widespread public support it is therefore not something his government will pursue at the present time (Knowles).
Scott Morrison’s words and the proposals outlined in the Interim Report on the Indigenous Voice Co-Design Process are far from the circuit breaker envisioned in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Without constitutional enshrinement Indigenous sovereignty continues to go unrecognised, while the right for Indigenous peoples to govern matters that directly impact their lives and futures—as declared in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—remains threatened. A legislative representative body lacks the security needed to ensure that Indigenous voices are acknowledged and documented in parliamentary records, regardless of whether governments are receptive to its messaging or not. As the past has shown, the survival of bodies, such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (dissolved in 2005), remains at the discretion of political agendas and funding, meaning they are too easily disbanded.
An enshrined Voice to Parliament offers the foundation upon which policies may be effectively co-designed with Indigenous peoples, without the looming threat of disbandment or defunding. The “heart” of the Uluru Statement lies in recognising the enduring right of Indigenous self-determination as eternally present, despite the whim of government and changing political agendas. Within western democracies, constitutions operate as if they are universal, and despite the possibility of amendment, give the impression of being the eternal “law of the land”. Acknowledging Indigenous sovereignty within the constitution is but a small step towards co-designing policies and practices that reflect the interests of Indigenous peoples whilst building capacity for greater advancement.
As highlighted by Fazer and Carlson, memes created by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples create a collective archive that can document an ongoing history of colonialism. This helps educate non-Indigenous audiences by bringing topics pertaining to colonial power disparities to the surface, a process of bringing “backstage politics upfront” (Shifman). Memes also create conversations among Indigenous peoples where a sense of solidarity is formed through shared experiences of oppression and survivance, providing a safe space where a diversity of opinions and expressions of Indigeneity can be shared.
James Blackwell’s meme drew on the blocking of the Suez Canal by a cargo ship earlier this year and provided Aboriginal input to a global trend that was used to depict messages relating to seemingly impossible or incommensurable tasks. Through memes such as Blackwell’s (fig. 1), and other images (see figs. 2 and 3), the voices and agendas of Indigenous peoples are reinserted into national conversations in ways that reflect, reverberate, and reiterate their interests and visions for the future. In doing so, Indigenous people are contributing to critical conversations that expose the obstacles faced in relation to creating meaningful change within settler-colonial settings: in this case, the obstacle of a legislated voice to government.
By inserting and positioning images and text into scenarios not typically envisioned as natural or “normal”, memes challenge the status quo. In the case of Blackwell’s meme, it exposes the oppressive colonial structures that silence or compromise on Indigenous voices and interests as put forward in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The intertextual nature of memes, alongside the ability to quickly respond and distribute information, has enabled Blackwell to reiterate the message that a “co-design” process where Indigenous peoples are overlooked is doomed to failure, just as the hopes of the earthmover dislodging the Ever Given. For Blackwell and others who strategically embrace online media as both protest and entertainment, memes are an expression of self-determination in praxis.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are well accustomed to the empty and broken promises of governments that continue to speak of the need to consult and listen to Indigenous peoples but fail to hear and implement the structural changes needed to enact meaningful change, no matter how accessible proposed solutions are (fig. 2). Tokenistic symbolic reform was rejected by Indigenous peoples in response to the “Recognise” campaign in 2017 (Dreher et al.). The Uluru Statement from the Heart, which culminated in the same year, sought meaningful substantive reforms that will empower Indigenous voices and protect self-determination. As depicted in Blackwell's meme, symbolic, tokenistic piecemeal offerings such as a legislative voice to government pale in comparison to the aspirations of Indigenous peoples (Fredericks and Bradfield, "More Than”).
The Uluru Statement from the Heart concludes:
in 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
Since its gifting to the people of Australia in 2017, many non-Indigenous Australians have indeed walked alongside Indigenous people on the journey towards constitutional reform. Polling and surveys demonstrate that the people of Australia, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, overwhelmingly support a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament.
Like the cargo ship that blocked the Suez Canal, the campaign remains steadfast, committed, and will not be easily moved by symbolic compromise, the spread of mistruth, or delay tactics that propagate narratives suggesting the public is “not yet ready”. Co-design—as a process of collaborative planning and partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia—is doomed to failure if it reverts to the status quo and to power structures that ignore Indigenous voices that are overwhelmingly calling for constitutional protection. It is time for the government to grant the public an opportunity to play their part in co-designing a better future for all and call a referendum.
Figure 3: “A Rock and a Hard Place.” Kudelka Cartoons, 15 February 2020.
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