It is difficult to overestimate the achievement represented by the Uluru Statement from the Heart proclaimed about eighteen months ago. From three-quarters of a million people in 200 countries speaking 100 languages, a remarkable unanimity emerged against tremendous odds.
Both the Coalition and the ALP in the Federal Parliament, including the seven Indigenous members, had supported vocally and financially the Recognise campaign to change the preamble of the Australian Constitution. Organisations as diverse as the SEARCH Foundation and the Business Council of Australia (BCA) backed the Recognise cause, with the BCA supplying 20 people from its membership to the Recognise Board. Nonetheless in May last year, the Uluru Statement resoundingly rejected the Recognise campaign’s proposal to change the preamble to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of Australia.
The meeting at Uluru of more than 250 community leaders was the culmination of six months of regional meetings organised by the Referendum Council. Made up of 16 people who included Megan Davis, Dalassa Yorkston, Pat Anderson, Noel Pearson and Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the Council was jointly appointed by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to advise them on options for constitutional change.
Meetings were held in Thursday Island, Darwin, Broome, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Dubbo, Ross River, Cairns, Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney between December 2016 and May 2017. Attendance was by invitation and limited to about 100 at each location: 60% of places were for traditional owner groups, 20% for community organisations and 20% for individuals.
Member of the Council Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble woman from Queensland and a Professor of Law, reported, "all of the dialogues rejected totally outright having some sort of acknowledgment in the constitution. That was totally rejected by all of the meetings and everybody we’ve spoken to over this six-month period."
The ten delegates elected at each regional meeting who came together at Uluru rejected Recognise and instead adopted The Statement from the Heart, electing the Uluru Statement Working Group, co-chaired by Josie Crawshaw, Suzanne Thompson and Thomas Mayor, to carry the work forward. The Statement contains three core demands, and substantial movement has occurred in all three, in several countries.
Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle.
This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples . . . This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown . . . With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood. - Uluru Statement from the Heart
Uluru Statement Working Group co-chair Suzanne Thompson said, "what was very loud and clear were treaties, and more importantly, the importance of establishing a national treaty framework on all agreement making."
Makarrata, a Yolgnu concept meaning “coming together after a struggle”, has been in use since the National Aboriginal Conference adopted the term in 1980. It refers in part to treaty making, which has a long history. The NAC demanded a treaty before it was disbanded in 1985, and 30 years ago, in June 1988, Galarrwuy Yunupingu handed the Barunga Statement to Prime Minister Bob Hawke who promised that a treaty would be in progress by 1990.
Significant work for treaty was already underway again even as the Referendum Council set about its consultations. After Melbourne was shut down three times when thousands of people occupied the city centre, in July 2016 a Treaty Working Group was established to discuss with local communities how a representative body could be formed that would advise on how to proceed with a treaty. Based on its work, which included ten regional consultations, in June this year, the Victorian Lower House enacted legislation enabling a treaty process.
In February, the Narungga Nation and the South Australian Government signed the Buthera Agreement which Elder Tauto Sansbury said, “can really start proper Treaty discussions and begin building something”. At the Barunga Festival this year, four Northern Territory Lands Councils signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the NT Chief Minister to begin a three year period of discussion to work out such a process. In NSW, the state with the largest Aboriginal population, the ALP has committed itself to a treaty should it become government.
We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history. - Uluru Statement from the Heart
According to Prof Davis, “Part of this healing of the nation and coming together and having a mature nation, there has to be proper truth-telling in the same way they have done in other countries in the world”. But whatever shape truth-telling formally takes with the Makarrata Commission, the process itself is already well advanced.
In August, Yawalk Lakarana, Telling the Truth, was the theme of the 20th Garma Festival in Arnhem Land. In the opening speech at the Festival, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, a Referendum Council member, said, "now that Aborigines have risen on today, what we are doing is fronting up to the Government. Captain Phillip was wrong. It was a wrong law and a wrong takeover and the land must be given back to the landowners."
In the same month, Time to Tell the Truth was the theme of the 90th Anniversary of the massacre at Coniston where at least 60 people were murdered by police. The Northern Territory Police Commissioner apologised for the dreadful crimes, saying, "there was no excuse or justification for what occurred. We have to acknowledge and reflect on these horrific crimes. We can and we must learn from it. I am sorry that these horrific crimes occurred."
A great-niece of the Mounted Constable who lead the attacks also spoke,
"If we can accept what happened here, we might be able to accept 60,000 years of history. This is not just a story from the past. It is something that continues to ripple through our families. These stories are not being heard. This history is every Australian’s history."
Making this history heard has been gaining substantial momentum. Recently, the NSW Teachers Federation released the film Naa Muu Gurung, the story of Aboriginal teachers and their union. In 2017 and 2018, these compelling documentaries were made by Australia’s leading Indigenous filmmakers: Erica Glynn’s In My Own Words, Trisha Morton-Thomas’s Occupation: Native, Tyson Mowarin’s Connection to Country, Steven McGregor’s Servant or Slave, and Warwick Thornton’s We Don’t Need a Map. Last year, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu was reprinted for the fourteenth time and the Documentary Australia Foundation plans to make a feature film of Bill Gammage’s monumental The Biggest Estate on Earth.
In May the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines removed ten racistly offensive North Queensland names from the map, and Mount Wheeler and Mount Jim Crow will revert to their original names, Gai-i and Baga. There is a move to have Brisbane renamed Miguntyun and the local federal member for the electorate of Miguntyun, said that a name change for the city shouldn’t be ruled out. Renaming Melbourne as Naarm is also gaining popular support following the returning in April 2017 of the name Budj Bim to a mountain between Hamilton and Portland.
In June 2017 in Gundagai, a sculpture was unveiled honouring Yarri and Jacky Jacky and other Wiradjuri people who saved 69 people from drowning in the Great Flood of 1852. Gundagai, 300kms south west of Wollongong, had 250 residents when the Murrumbidgee River flooded, drowning an estimated 89 of them. Aunty Sony Piper, a member of the Yarri and Jacky Jacky Sculpture Committee said she was very proud of the sculpture of “these two Aboriginal heroes. To be Aboriginal men, there's not many statues around”.
In December 2018, Sarah Mitchell, the NSW Aboriginal Affairs Minister, unveiled a plaque at Sydney’s Central railway station to recognise the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. The first of many to be erected in stations across NSW, it says:
Platform 1 is where these children arrived, were separated from their siblings and sent to institutions throughout the state. Some of these children never made it home, living their lives disconnected from their families and communities and not knowing their true heritage.
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country. We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution. - Uluru Statement from the Heart
The National Aboriginal Conference (NAC), established in 1977 and abolished by the Hawke Government in 1985, was made up of members elected by Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders across the country. Fred Chaney, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs at the time, described it as “ a potent voice, the greatest reality check”.
Described, incorrectly, as a "path-breaking experiment", the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), was established in 1990 by the Hawke Government. It was made up of 400 elected representatives, and combined representation, policy formation and program management in one statutory body. The Howard government abolished it in 2005. Amanda Vanstone, a member of the Referendum Council and Indigenous Affairs Minister at that time, has admitted it was probably a mistake to dismantle ATSIC in its entirety, a view shared by many Aboriginal leaders who subsequently considered that representation and policy formation should have been maintained without ATSIC’s involvement in program management.
As in the 1967 referendum, the conservative government has rejected change, Scott Morrison claiming that the new Voice would constitute a “third chamber” of Parliament, as did Malcolm Turnbull in October last year, a characterisation firmly and clearly rejected by Indigenous leaders. Turnbull said that a referendum was “undesirable” and “unwinnable”.
The Prime Minister’s rejection of the Voice, according to Suzanne Thompson, “just the biggest kick in the guts”, has done little to slow momentum towards its achievement. The Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition in its Interim Report to Parliament, supported the Voice, ALP Senator Pat Dodson saying, “the overwhelming evidence to this committee is that First Nations people want a voice, and a more meaningful say in the issues that impact their lives.”
The ALP has said that if it wins government, it will legislate a Voice as the first step towards constitutional change to enshrine it. ALP Senator, Pat Dodson, said that a Voice “that can interface with Parliament” needed to be in the Constitution, out of the hands of politicians, who had shut down both the NAC and ATSIC. In WA, the government has announced that it will work towards a Voice at state level. (Editors note: after this piece was submitted to SEARCH, the ALP subsequently announced at its national conference that a referendum on the Voice to Parliament would occur before a plebiscite on the Republic.)
It seems fairly certain that there will be a referendum in the not too distant future, one that could enshrine the Voice in the Constitution. Obtaining the required majority of votes in a majority of states has proved difficult in the past, for of the twelve referenda for constitutional change held since 1901, only four have been successful.
Yet there are early indications of success. An online survey by OmniPoll in October last year for researchers at the Australian National University and Griffith, NSW and Sydney universities, found that of the 1,526 respondents, 61% supported the Voice to Parliament, 24% strongly; and 58% supported formal agreements between governments and Indigenous peoples, 19% strongly. The proposal received majority support in all states but Tasmania. It also received majority support from the Greens, Labor and Coalition voters polled.
Similarly, a national survey conducted in December 2017 by the Australia Institute addressed the three core demands. Of the 1, 417 respondents roughly twice as many supported each of the three, as against them, with 20-25% undecided. More Liberal voters supported the proposals than opposed them, with the Hansonites firmly against in each case. Winning the undecided is the key, and while it is a real challenge to meet the 91% gained in the 1967 referendum, it is not an unreasonable target.
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. - Uluru Statement from the Heart
Mike Donaldson is a co-author of A History of Aboriginal Illawarra Vols 1 & 2, available free on-line.