The real referendum question is ‘How smart do I want my country to be?’

On Monday morning, as I dropped our little girl off to preschool in Bulli on the NSW south coast, the teacher was addressing the kids holding my mum’s book – The Art in Country. It’s Reconciliation Week, and the teacher was reflecting on Indigenous Australia.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

She asked whether I could say a few words. “Oh, maybe,” I replied. (I am wary of moments when I open my heart to the vortex of emotions and lives to which I’m connected). I went inside with our daughter Pemau, who is named after her great-great-great-great-grandmother, one of a handful of survivors of a massacre on our country. Both my daughter and her ancestral namesake, at different times, have carried on with them, via a single strand, our connection to the longest continuous intelligence lab on Earth.

As we packed Pemau’s purple backpack away she whispered to me, “Dad, are you going to say something?”

“Do you want me to?”

She nodded and breathed out the words, “Can I stand with you?”

Outside, I took the book and spoke with the children about the strength of Pemau’s barbin (grandma in Bundjalung). I spoke about how our systems connect us to the stars, the lava below our feet, the trees. One of the kids said, “Aboriginal people are genius”. And there it is. That’s the question we face on Earth right now: Will we find the intelligence needed to navigate the maps of the next century and beyond?

Jack Manning Bancroft with furry friend Professor Hope at AIME’s Imagi-Nation Factory in the Entertainment Quarter.

Janie Barrett

When we look to a vote on the Voice, try to reframe the question from “what do they get?” to “how smart do I want my country to be?”

Just as, when the fires come burning down the mountains again where I live, I do so hope the nation has adopted practices from Indigenous fire management. Do you want your homes to be safer from fire? Do you want financial models that connect us to nature (such as those we are working on right now with the Indigenous Systems Knowledge Labs at Deakin University) and shift our money market relationship to one where nature is in the centre, so we still have human life on earth? We can adapt our ways of housing, of moving with the challenges ahead, instead of battening down the hatches, staring at our devices and hoping it will all go away.

When a system of knowledge reaches out its hand to a nation, to the world – even after endless, intentional devastation – and says, “hey we still want to help”, will we choose to say no? Are we frightened to be smarter? This nation is not finished. Life never is. Anyone telling you life should stay the same is lying. Did you know we have 37 trillion cells in our body? Every single cell is completely regenerated every seven to 10 years. Change is a constant and inevitable and healthy.

These evolutionary cycles are spiritual, as well as biological.

Does the Voice vote mean that little girl on Monday morning and her generation will suddenly not see the genius? No, it can’t happen because with intelligence there is an objective growth. I learn how to spell “learn” and I know that for as long as I remain conscious. I learn how to sit and listen to the trees and I have that gift forever. These are times for brave people, for bold visions, for the best of our collective imagination beyond what we’ve known and seen.

If you take a deep breath and then exhale, by the time a year goes by, approximately one atom from that breath will wind up in the lungs of every other person on Earth. We all have approximately one atom inside us from every human being that has ever existed. We are more than our skin, so much more. More than our avatars. More than me and you, we are filled with almost infinite combinations of we. A truth. I am made of us.

We can, and we must build healthier platforms for discourse online. Our media empires must evolve. We must realise that there is truth and there are many ways ahead, many rivers run from the mountain to the sea, we must not get stuck on tearing apart one river to show our river to be the right way. If the flow is anchored to a belief in our collective genius, in the best of us, in progress, then vote Yes and then absolutely work on ways to provide land back to us, to sovereignty, not so we can run away from planet Earth, but model patterns and pathways now for us to find our way back to an economic spiritual and social and political system that centres the value and intelligence of nature.

As a species, we are custodial. That is our natural way. We have found many rivers to run through and many have moved us in remarkable ways. What we thought was untethered progress has revealed itself to have unimaginable consequences because every tree has roots, every action reactions, and so we must look to a world of healthier cities, not a world with no cities or no commerce. The beauty of economics is it is about what we value, where we place our attention our time and our knowledge. The Voice is deeply a simple and practical question: do you value genius?

While you go through the process of thinking about a vote, think about beautiful young people like the little girl at the preschool, unharmed by the scourge of “social” platforms which drive us to extremes of judgement. Think of the 10 million kids who are refugees, and think of the seven-year countdown we have to stay under 1.5 degrees.

Let’s lift our standards. These little ones are worth it. And so are you. I want for you a joyful, happy, rich life full of love and hope. I stand alongside my mum. I stand with my daughter. I stand with you and the little girl who saw the genius at our preschool. I stand with the child inside us all and say “we can do this” – if we don’t fear our collective intelligence, if we are brave enough to not know, and to make space for each other to grow.

We’ve got a sprint on our hands, and we’ve got to run faster and longer than Cathy Freeman did at the Sydney Olympics. We need every ounce of what we can muster. Enough is enough. It was time long ago, let’s jump to the future, and let’s do it together.

Jack Manning Bancroft is the CEO and founder of AIME, an award-winning social movement that uses mentoring and imagination to unlock the potential of marginalised youth to create a fairer world.

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