Signalling the work that needs to continue after the vote
In August 2022, Prime Minister Albanese made a landmark speech at Garma Festival where he suggested Australians be asked a simple and clear ‘yes or no’ referendum question. ‘Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?’
Over the next year we began to notice the challenges and significance of the proposed Voice to Parliament referendum. Ripple effects that scaled following the Prime Minister’s commitment to the Voice to Parliament referendum in August 2023. The news was received in different ways by various interested parties, and the Australian people.
We began to see that the referendum would shadow the work we are involved in that features First Nations peoples. The shadow became present in our conversations and influenced our relationships. It was present in every conversation about strategy, partnership, purpose, and hopes for the future. It quickly became a dominant feature of our work.
Our core concern was a polarised debate. We began to see movements towards what we call, ‘The Trenches’. Where people gravitate to whatever is a simple solution, to resist or reject, or to follow behind the passionate presentations of others.
As Australians prepared to cast their vote, we remained focused on how we might take up the work on the other side of the result. Our response to the mounting polarisation of the referendum was to develop the Voice to Parliament Referendum Scenarios, a webinar and practical guides to assist existing partnerships and collaborations between First Nations and other Australians to prepare and navigate their work on the other side of the referendum result.
Deep Collaboration, The Trenches and The Referendum
As part of the practice of Deep Collaboration at Collaboration for Impact, we help people to move out from their trenches through a series of conversations that increase awareness and understanding of the current situation. We explore what it will take to work peacefully and practically, in the so-called middle space.
We have identified a number of Key Power Roles that show up in the collaboration space between First Nations and other Australians. We refer to these Key Power Roles as ‘Symptoms’ because they tend to show up when there has been a misuse of power in relationships, due to a lack of awareness.
During this year we noticed one Key Power Role showed up consistently, that is known as ‘The Trenches’. In this piece we are going to look at how to have a different conversation about the Voice To Parliament referendum using the elements, attributes and perspectives of ‘The Trenches’.
The concept of ‘The Trenches’ comes from the work of Lost Conversations. In our discussions as a group of authors we connected two stories of trench-type engagement. One story was from an extraordinary scene from WWI where German and British soldiers came from their trenches to share a Christmas time of peace.
The second story was from an experience of First Nations engagement feeling like we were hurling things over to ‘the other side’ in the hope that something would land or stick, and make a difference. From these two narratives we constructed the concept of ‘The Trenches’.
In Deep Collaboration, The Trenches refer to the well-established place where we do our engagement from. Usually we find ourselves in trenches when we feel like it is ‘us’ and ‘them’. A binary or polarising context is the natural habitat for The Trenches. Here we build up our narrative, impose views from our side, and feel righteous about our lack of consideration for other perspectives.
We also know that trenches are very difficult to climb out from. To then approach the other side. Once we do, we are at risk of attack from the opposite side as well as our own side, due to perceptions of betrayal.
Over these past months, we have observed many of the dynamics associated with The Trenches demonstrated in the conversations about the Voice To Parliament Referendum. The binary options of ‘Yes and No’ became gravitational epicentres for supporters and the general public to be drawn into a trench-type set up. You were either with ‘us’ or ‘with them’.
Each trench built up their narrative to include passionate supporters, reasonable considerate voters, through to the general public who were asked to ‘trust us and vote with us’. Both sides amplified their narratives and attempted to de-legitimise the other side.
We witnessed things being projected from side to side, to highlight the ‘rightness’ of one side, and the ‘wrongness’ of the other. We noticed the swelling righteousness expressed by both sides coupled with the dismissal of the values and virtues of the opposite side.
All classic examples of The Trenches.
What does being in The Trench teach us?
One of the first places to begin moving from the predictable binary of The Trenches is to appreciate the positives and negatives of being in a trench.
This helps everyone in collaboration appreciate that sometimes it is important and necessary to retreat to our trenches, whilst sometimes knowing we need to climb out and collaborate.
In the context of changing the conversation post-referendum, there are times where it is important and necessary to retreat to our trenches. We need to take stock of the vote and its on-going implications. We need to prepare ourselves for the next stages of engagement. We need to be wise with our resources, and the reality of the landscape we are working in.
Retreating to The Trenches is a way to refocus our efforts on the next horizons, whilst remembering there will be times when we need to climb out and collaborate.
Right now, we need to be asking ourselves and others, what is important?
What are our shared goals and purposes? Can we sustain conversations together to develop shared visions for our futures and explore partnerships beyond the binary debates? What can we learn from each other about the values we are holding, and what do we share in common?
Awareness of The Trenches is key to being free from The Trenches.
The first thing to be aware of is how The Trenches can keep us stuck.
We get stuck in our ways – we establish patterns that have worked for us and we keep doing them to try and reach the same impacts. This stuckness is partly caused by things working for us (and the interests we represent).
It is an advanced form of the old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. We can get stuck in pride – we feel the righteousness of passion for our position and euphoria from supporters to stay strong and true.
This stuckness can have us holding onto a distortion of our position, focusing on never wavering or weakening our position. We can end up being held captive to our own ego and the pressures to be a ‘Fantasy Leader’ who is always righteous.
When we get stuck in our thinking we can lose sight of change and evolutions in thought, even though we are super clear on our values and beliefs. This stuckness is pressured by those who share our beliefs and values and are not willing to compromise on them.
We can get caught up defending our ideology and become close-minded to alternatives or opportunities to learn from unlikely sources.
The second awareness for The Trenches is about how positive and nourishing they can be.
Trenches are important for Retreat
We retreat to where there is safety and comfort. We retreat because it feels unsafe and risky to be ‘out there’. The Trenches can offer the opportunity to be among folk who ‘get you’ and ‘support you’.
Trenches are important to Restore
In our trench we can restore and rejuvenate. We can regroup, replenish and prepare to return to the middle space of collaboration.
Trenches are important to ReThink
We can convene in our trench and rethink our positions, options, explore differences in perspective and test new ideas.
When thinking about the work that needs to continue, the practice of Deep Collaboration offers the lens of The Trenches as a way to see our work collectively.
It’s time to reframe our work beyond the binary of ‘Yes and No’ vote toward our shared visions and emerging horizons. Reframe our work from our trenches and into the middle-space that we are all sharing. Ask each other the big questions …
What are our shared values, hopes, dreams, visions and fears for the future?
Is that enough for us to work across the differences together?
We encourage you to keep using your trenches. Keep using them to restore your energy and rethink your purpose. We encourage you to emerge from your trenches to do the work of deep collaboration, to delve into what we need to move forward.
While in your trenches we encourage you not to focus on beating or out-performing the otherside, but rather to find ways to stay in the middle space, longer to achieve more together.
In that sense we are calling for more of us to practise the art of reframing our work together and dedicating ourselves to the discipline of deep and generative listening, healing together for the sake of equitable nation building.
This piece is written by Mark Yettica-Paulson, Deep Collaboration Lead. An Indigenous leader from the South East Queensland and North East NSW regions, Mark is from the Birrah, Gamilaroi and Bundjalung peoples.
Image: Mark Yettica-Paulson. Photo by Morgan Roberts.Back to all