The federal government’s move to recruit retired NBA champion Shaquille O’Neal for the Voice to Parliament campaign has divided the community, with some slamming it as “insulting” and “ill-advised”, while others welcoming it as necessary to drum up public support.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Saturday announced the basketball legend would be lending his support to social media videos to raise awareness ahead of a referendum for constitutional change to establish an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
Mr Albanese said he was approached by the former professional athlete for a meeting where the basketball star expressed interest in the Indigenous Voice proposal.
O’Neal appeared briefly in a press conference with the prime minister and Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, where he declared “Shaq loves Australia” but did not take any questions about his involvement.
The prime minister said he wanted to “build the broadest possible support” across all segments of society – including religious groups, sporting groups and overseas celebrity endorsements – ahead of the referendum, which could happen before the next election in 2025.
No date has yet been set for the vote, but the prime minister has committed to implementing the call by Indigenous leaders in the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart – the first national consensus statement on the matter.
Some critics have voiced concern about O’Neal’s involvement in advertisements for online gambling.
A critic of the Voice proposal, Country Liberal Party Senator and Warlpiri/Celtic woman Jacinta Price said the move to enlist O’Neal was “insulting”, “desperate”, and “clueless”.
“I’ve no doubt Shaq’s a top bloke, but it’s a bit insulting to call on a black American to help with black Australians as if this is all about the colour of one’s skin,” she said in a Facebook post.
“Aboriginal Australians historically have more in common with Native Americans than African Americans. “Such shallowness with no substance when we’re faced with such serious issues.”
National Party leader David Littleproud echoed those sentiments, saying the government’s enlisting of O’Neal was a “sideshow”.
“I think it’d be far more important for Shaquille O’Neal to stand up with Indigenous Australians in remote central Australia or in my electorate in Cunnamulla and actually hear what the Voice should be about,” he told reporters at the WA Nationals Conference on Saturday.
“The Voice should be about shifting the dial on domestic violence, on drug and alcohol use in these remote communities.”
When in government, the Coalition did not support changing the constitution to recognise Indigenous Australians, opting for a legislative change instead. Now in opposition, it said it wants more detail on the constitutional change proposal and an emphasis on practical measures.
Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe said she did not believe it was appropriate that someone from overseas weighs in on “what is a controversial topic, dividing our people”.
“ll advised, hope you take the time to set it right @SHAQ. We don’t come to your country& interfere in your business,” she wrote on Twitter.
Senator Thorpe said the Greens would like a Treaty with First Nations Australians to be a condition of the party’s support for a referendum on a Voice to Parliament.
But some within the indigenous community welcomed the basketball star’s involvement.
Quandamooka man Dean Parkin, director of the From the Heart group behind the Uluru Statement, said he only saw positives from O’Neal supporting the campaign.
“It was certainly a surprise,” he said. “And we didn’t expect of all people Shaq to come out and support,” he said.
“Obviously, the high-profile support is good in the sense that it stimulates conversation; and that’s important because we know that when more people get involved, they understand what’s going on. People are really curious.”
Kaurareg/Kalkalgal/Erubamle man Thomas Mayor, who travelled around Australia with the Uluru Statement from the Heart canvas as part of a grassroots campaign, said he was pleased to see there was international support.
“This is something I think that raises awareness that this is actually a world issue. This is something that Australia really needs to fix. We’re way behind compared to other similar countries on Indigenous relations,” he said.
“Shaq’s involvement is welcome. If it raises awareness about this, and helps people look into it themselves, then that’s a great thing for this campaign.”
Australia is the only Commonwealth country without a Treaty with Indigenous people, although at a state level – in places like Victoria – more progress has been made.
Australia’s constitution , with the founding documents of Canada, New Zealand and the United States providing a of their First Nations peoples.