Now is our moment to act: VOICE TREATY TRUTH

The Uluru Statement from the Heart positions this moment as ‘an historic opportunity to reimagine our nation. It is our chance to come together to deliver real change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so they can take their rightful place in our nation.’

It’s the moment … now is our moment to act: VOICE TREATY TRUTH

By Jane Durie, Deborah Durnan, Victoria Smith and Jacquie Widin

Borrowing a phrase from Pat Anderson (AO), Alyawarre woman, (at a recent SEARCH forum with Nolan Hunter, a Bardi Jawi man) “now is our moment to act” acknowledges the critical moment of the struggles of First Nations people and brings into sharp focus the urgency and importance of the movement for enshrining the VOICE in Australia’s constitution. In this article we address a number of questions that are raised in discussions about the struggle for First Nations constitutional recognition.

The first question is why this is an important campaign issue for SEARCH members to engage with - to ensure that a referendum is held on the VOICE to parliament and that it is successful. The second addresses some of the history and context to how the Statement of the Heart and the campaign for VOICE, TREATY, TRUTH came about; we importantly include here recognition that there is a diversity of views. The query often raised about the order of the struggle: VOICE, TREATY, TRUTH is the third question addressed and is followed by a summary of the expressed positions of the three major political parties. Following this is the question of constitutional change versus legislation of the VOICE. Clearly, we support the Statement from the Heart’s call for constitutional change. Finally, we look at what we can do to support this struggle.

Why is the Statement from the Heart an important campaign for SEARCH members?

The Uluru Statement from the Heart positions this moment as ‘an historic opportunity to reimagine our nation. It is our chance to come together to deliver real change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so they can take their rightful place in our nation.’

The SEARCH Foundation, at the last AGM, made a commitment to prioritise support for the Statement from the Heart and its campaign for a referendum on a VOICE to parliament. The SEARCH Voice, Treaty, Truth working group was formed and is following in the footsteps of the long-time involvement of socialists in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander struggles for land rights and self-determination. In its very early days CPA policy strongly supported the fight for First Nations’ self-determination. Over decades CPA trade union, student and individual activists joined with First Nations people in their struggles, for example the Freedom Rides, and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Right now, First Nations people are asking the Australian people to stand with the Statement. It is up to us as to continue the long tradition of socialist support and join the campaign for a strong Voice enshrined in the constitution. It is up to all of us to make this happen.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart encapsulates today’s struggle for self-determination for First Nations people. Borrowing from another First Nations activist speaking at the CPA centenary forum, Teela Reid, a Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman,

‘the VOICE is simple and profound, it acknowledges that First Nations people were here first as sovereign people… it ensures an obligation to listen to First Nations people and is a first step in gaining some political power at the treaty table’.

As socialists we understand that colonisation is an ongoing process, we see the continuing racism and discrimination towards First Nations people in every facet of our society, we need to act and stand in solidarity with campaigns for First Nations’ self-determination. If we do not act, we risk being complicit in the ongoing racism and exploitation of First Nations peoples and country. 

Thomas Mayor, a Torres Strait Islander man born on Larrakia country in Darwin, a key activist in pursuing the goals of the Statement from the Heart, a trade unionist and SEARCH member, brought the Statement from the Heart to the SEARCH national forum in 2017. Thomas urges us to share and educate our communities about the Statement and to join the struggle to hold and win a referendum for a First Nations VOICE to parliament.

How the Uluru Statement from the Heart came about

The work of Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble woman from the Barrungam Nation, and other First Nation activists, draws a line from the 1967 Referendum and ongoing debates about constitutional recognition through to the Uluru gathering and the Statement from the Heart in May 2017.

In the Howard period of practical reconciliation there was very little movement towards any kind of constitutional recognition, symbolic or power-based, apart from the failed attempt by Howard in 1999 at a toothless Preamble symbolically recognising Australia’s First Peoples.

With the election of the Rudd government in 2007 things began to stir again in the political arena. In the decade 2007-2017 there were a number of initiatives in relation to Constitutional Recognition.

  • The Expert Panel on the Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples was set up in 2010, to report to government on possible options for constitutional change to enable Indigenous constitutional recognition.
  • Despite not responding to the Expert Panel Report, Labor passed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act 2013 in the hope of keeping the momentum for a referendum going.
  • In 2013 PM Abbott established a joint select parliamentary committee chaired by Indigenous members of Parliament Liberal Ken Wyatt, a Nyungar, Yamatji, and Wongi man, and Labor Senator Nova Peris (OAM), a Muran woman, to advance the work of the Expert Panel.
  • Abbott also met with Indigenous leaders, the outcome being the July 2015 Kirribilli Statement which strongly argued against a minimalist approach to constitutional change.
  • Finally, and significantly, the Referendum Council was set up in 2015 by then PM Turnbull and jointly supported by the Federal Opposition Leader to consider “how to best recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution”. It was this action that led to the Uluru gathering and the Statement from the Heart in May 2017 and then rejected by Turnbull in October 2017.

One could say that most of this decade was dominated by much talk but little action. Megan Davis argues there was a common “misunderstanding” amongst politicians in the decade 2007-2017 and that Constitutional recognition would be symbolic only. Possibly Davis is being kind referring to this as a misunderstanding rather than a reflection of deliberate intention to give nothing away.

First Nations views during this time were very much to the contrary. This period was framed at one end by the Yolngu and Bininj Leaders’ Statement of Intent, presented to Rudd in July 2008. This statement called for constitutional protection for traditional land and cultural rights, demanding substantive constitutional rights, not symbolism. At the other end, the Kirribilli Statement, in July 2015, demanded substantive not minimalist changes to the constitution.

This very brief outline of significant events demonstrates that the Uluru Statement from the Heart sits within a continuing process of debate and action on Constitutional Recognition. The Dialogues undertaken through the Referendum Council from 2015 through to May 2017 were substantive, extensive and representative. According to the Referendum Council the dialogues were “the most proportionately significant consultation process that has ever been undertaken with First Peoples”.

In short, the Uluru Statement from the Heart reflects the proceedings of First Nations dialogues, the hard work of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people around Australia to grapple with constitutional change that will bring lasting and positive change. The Statement documents the proceedings of the First Nations constitutional dialogues and the outcomes of the final meeting of representatives at Uluru in May 2017.

Why now, why this process, when there are many voices?

Pat Anderson (AO), an Alyawarre woman, is a strong advocate for the Uluru Statement from the Heart. In the context of multiple voices and possible paths it is worth reflecting on her sentiments about why all Australians should get behind and support the Statement from the Heart. Not just because it reflects deep, emotional, and challenging dialogues within First Nations communities. Not just because it is the respectful thing to do.

This is our moment says Pat Anderson, this is what is in front of us. We, the people of Australia, are being asked by a significant majority of First Nations people to take up the intent and purpose of the Statement from the Heart to work for a just and honest outcome that will benefit all Australians.

Of course, there are different views, doubts about success, suggestions for change to the process fundamental to the Statement from the Heart, disagreements about Voice First, and so on and so on. But this is what, right now, in this moment, for future generations, is before us.

It is unrealistic and even potentially a cop out to hide behind the argument that not all First Nations people agree with or personally participated in the dialogues and the Uluru Statement from the Heart gathering. Why would this be an expectation? It is a consensus view of those who represented their communities, how can we expect more?

No process is perfect, there will never be a moment when everyone is in agreement; but there may not be, for another generation, this moment, this opportunity. Can we allow our doubts, our quibbles, or our personal views to let this slip away and another generation of First Nations children suffer the consequences?

Significance and sequencing of Voice Treaty Truth - why is the sequencing important?

The Voice Treaty Truth campaign (VTT) is about implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination and recognition of First Nations’ sovereignty. It invites us to mobilise in a mass movement to support two major structural reforms in our political system. The first is a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to Parliament. The second is a Makaratta Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations treaty-making; and to oversee a process of historical truth-telling.                                         

Voice refers to constitutional enshrinement of a First Nations Voice to the Commonwealth Parliament providing a permanent, representative, and authoritative political body elected to express First Nations’ views to the parliament on important policy decisions affecting their rights.

VTT calls on us to act in solidarity by campaigning for a yes vote in a referendum to establish a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution. A successful referendum will provide a powerful mandate to proceed to the next stage of treaty-making and truth-telling.

Treaty refers to the process of agreement-making at different levels, including at Federal and State levels and with individual First Nations. Treaty-making requires political will and can be enacted by legislation supported by the enshrined voice. If there is to be a national treaty and/or treaties negotiated with individual or groups of First Nations, the Voice will ensure that legislation adopted by the parliament is first subject to scrutiny by the recognised First Nations body, whose authority has come, via the referendum, from the Australian people.

Truth-telling refers to the other role of the Makaratta Commission, namely, to heal and unite the nation through a peacebuilding process of coming together to listen, learn, and tell the stories of invasion and colonisation from 1770 until today. The Uluru Statement calls on the Commonwealth government to legislate to establish a Makaratta Commission but only after the Voice is in place so that it can provide clear authoritative advice on this legislation.

Some ask why truth-telling does not come first. The reason is that truth-telling is done through a deep and challenging process, region by region, locality be locality, led by First Nations people in those places. It is a process that has already begun for some and will be ongoing for all, to change the most fundamental understandings of Australia’s citizens about who we are and how this country has come to be.

Finally, why should SEARCH members support the call for Voice Treaty Truth, in that order? The fundamental reason is that this is what we have been invited to support by the framers of the Uluru Statement. They have not asked us to pick and choose what we support and in what order. They have asked for our solidarity, to support the program they have put forward and adopted through the most representative process ever undertaken among First Nations people.

Why is constitutional recognition and a referendum important? What’s wrong with a legislative approach?

The Uluru Statement from the Heart clearly calls for the establishment of a First Nations’ Voice enshrined in the Constitution as its first priority. Dean Parkin, a Quandamooka man from Minjerribah, and the Director of From the Heart, has made it clear that the Uluru Statement is not a Lego set to be pulled apart as governments and political parties pick and choose what suits them. The Uluru Statement is the product of intense consultation and dialogues with over 1200 delegates in gatherings around the country. It was the most proportionally significant consultation with First Nations people ever undertaken.

Over decades, Australian governments have been establishing various advisory and representative bodies to provide a place for First Nations people to participate in government processes. We have seen them come and go at the whim of Ministers, bureaucrats and through changes of government. These bodies have had no protection against their own abolition. Only a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution would provide a permanent and authoritative voice that is not subject to changes of government.

There has been talk from the LNP Coalition Government about legislating a voice to Parliament as an alternative to constitutional change, but we know that legislation and parliaments come and go while the provisions of the Constitution remain. The Constitution is the supreme governing document of the Australian nation, and its provisions can only be changed via a referendum in which Australian citizens vote for change. In 1967, a referendum proposing new rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was passed overwhelmingly by the highest majority ever recorded. It is again the time for Australians to again support a demand for just and fair constitutional change.

Enshrining a Voice to Parliament in the Constitution will ensure that a Voice is not subject to removal through political whim. It would bring much needed stability and continuity in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. We have seen the results of decades of policy making without appropriate input from First Nations people in the current gaps in life expectancy, education and in chronic health conditions and the high rates of incarceration and deaths in custody. The Voice would provide for the right of First Nations people to be at the table when laws and policies are discussed about them and their communities.

A First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution provides a permanent change and a significant shift in power. It would provide protection for any processes and legislation that come before parliament, such as a treaty or a Makaratta Commission, which would otherwise remain susceptible to existing conditions where governments can make changes that do not appropriately recognise First Nations people.

The current Australian Government made a commitment in the last election to conduct a referendum on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their sovereignty and for a Voice to Parliament. It is vital that we continue to demand that these promises be made good.

What do the major Federal political parties say about the Uluru Statement from the Heart?

The Liberal & National Parties Coalition

  • In October 2017 PM Malcolm Turnbull rejected the Statement out of hand, claiming it amounted to establishing a Third Chamber of Parliament.
  • The 2019 election policy platform committed to a two-stage process consistent with the recommendations from the 2018 Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The first stage is to co-design, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, models for a legislated Voice. Minister Ken Wyatt, is currently considering the report on options for a legislated Voice to Government/Parliament. The second stage is for a referendum on recognition to be held once a model has been settled.
  • The 2019 policy also acknowledged the importance of supporting a process of truth telling and healing.
  • In 2020 PM Scott Morrison confirmed to parliament the Government’s commitment to hold a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution if consensus is reached on a Referendum question.

The Australian Labor Party

  • The 2019 election platform committed to a plan for enshrining a Voice for First Nations people in the Constitution; and to establishing a Makarrata Commission, for truth-telling and treaty.
  • On 27 April 2021 Leader of Opposition, Anthony Albanese recommitted to holding a referendum if elected in the next term of Parliament by asking “how can we have reconciliation when one side has no voice? The voice is the bedrock upon which we must build. I want a voice and truth, then treaty, to be part of our national journey and our national life.”
  • In August 2021 Linda Burney, a Wiradjuri woman, and the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, reaffirmed this commitment adding that in respect to any legislation the Government might put forward on a First Nations Voice, a decision on the party's position would be made once such legislation was made available.

The Australian Greens

  • On 1 Dec 2020 the leader of the Australian Greens, Adam Bandt reaffirmed support for the Statement from the Heart saying “We have always supported Truth, Treaty, and Voice and our newly adopted policy continues to back these three elements just as we always have. Our view is that the timing and sequence of these actions matter”. In summary, the policy states: Our 3 core priorities for First Nations in order are:
  1. Truth: establish a Truth & Justice Commission.
  2. Treaty: enact a national Treaty and/or Treaties with First Nations peoples in this country, sovereign to sovereign.
  3. Subject to Treaty negotiations, establish a national First Nations Voice to be included in the governance of Australia, as determined by First Nations peoples.

What’s next?      

SEARCH activists and the SEARCH Voice Treaty Truth working group have held a number of activities and events over the last couple of years, including a recent forum with Pat Anderson and Nolan Hunter. A recording of this webinar is available on the SEARCH Youtube Channel.

Join the VTT campaign by signing up to support the Uluru Statement and write letters to local MPs - go to:

Sign the Uluru Statement and sign up at to receive updates on the campaign.

Further Information

The article above draws on a number of sources, in particular:

Davis, Megan "The Long Road to Uluru: Walking Together: Truth before Justice " Griffith Review: First Things First, vol. 60, 2018, pp. 13-32, 41-45,

Dean Parkin Director From the Heart podcast talk:

From the Heart website:

National Indigenous Times

an excellent short article by Professor Megan Davis

Reconciliation NSW

The CPA Centenary Forum with Thomas Mayor, Teela Reid, Ann Curthoys and Bob Boughton can be found on the SEARCH Youtube Channel:

Thomas Mayor’s recent video is the second in the list under the SEARCH Youtube channel Videos tab, and it is also the latest article on SEARCH News here:



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