In May 2017, at Uluru, following months of consultation and dialogue, First Nations peoples from across the continent came together to make a direct and powerful statement regarding their aspirations for true recognition in Australia’s Constitution:
"With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood… 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."
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a consensus statement from over 250 First Nations’ delegates. The Statement called for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament, one that would advise on all matters concerning the wellbeing of First Nations peoples and their communities. It also called for a Makarrata commission:
"...to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history."
Unlike petitions of previous decades, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was not only addressed to the Government, but to all Australians. The Statement concluded with an invitation to:
"...walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future."
Since the late 1930s there have been many struggles for recognition and justice led by First Nations peoples. They include:
- the 1937 petition from William Cooper to King George VI for Aboriginal representation in the federal parliament;
- the establishment in 1938 of 26 January as a ‘Day of Mourning’; the 1962 referendum to allow voting rights for federal elections;
- the 1963 Yirrkala bark petition presented to parliament protesting the loss of land to mining;
- the 1967 referendum where Australians voted Yes to First Nations being counted in the census and to federal government making laws for Indigenous people;
- and the 1988 Barunga Statement presented to PM Hawke who responded with the (unfulfilled) promise of treaty.
The 1990s was a decade of significant milestones on the road to reconciliation with the Mabo High Court decision and subsequent Native Title legislation, Paul Keating’s famous Redfern speech, and the Bridge Walk for Reconciliation in 2000, in which 250,000 Australians participated, making it the largest political demonstration in Australia’s history. Sadly, with the exception of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, progress stalled from that time onwards.
After much delay and countless efforts to bring this issue to the fore, the Gillard Labor Government with bipartisan support introduced the ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012’. This made some acknowledgement in legislation and set in law a time limit of two years to determine the way forward for constitutional recognition. Expert panels and government select committees pursued options for constitutional recognition. However, various technical, legal and political roadblocks once again stalled progress. In December 2015, another bipartisan supported Referendum Council was established to lead a national process of consultations and community engagement, including those ‘Indigenous-designed and led’, and to advise government on the next steps to a successful constitutional referendum.
Despite the generosity of spirit embodied by the Uluru Statement, in October 2017 the then Turnbull government outrightly rejected its proposals, breaking the Prime Minister’s promise of ‘doing things with Aboriginal people’ not to them. Turnbull made the decision unilaterally without consultation with either the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples - the national representative body - or members of the Referendum Council.
After rejecting the Uluru Statement, the Government established another Joint Select Committee in March 2018, tasked to again ‘inquire into and report on matters relating to constitutional change, including the proposal for the establishment of a First Nations Voice.’
This committee’s Final Report in November 2018 endorsed a constitutionally entrenched Voice to Parliament. By the end of 2018, the Federal Labor Opposition took an affirmative position by promising to ‘establish a Voice for First Nations people’ and to take the issue of Constitutional Recognition to referendum if elected to government in 2019.
Now in its 3rd Parliamentary term, the Coalition government shows no sign of addressing the foundational issue of Australia’s relationship to its First Peoples.
The first Indigenous person, the Hon Ken Wyatt, to hold the office of Minister for Indigenous Australians has shared mixed messages on constitutional reform to date. Since his first public statements as Minister in NAIDOC week 2019 the Minister has variously stated that: he would seek a ‘consensus option’ for a referendum within three years; he could not rule in a constitutionally validated Voice to Parliament; other forms and levels of co-operative self-determination between government and the people are available; that he is attempting to ascertain the extent of support throughout his own government; and, that any referendum must not go ahead without a confident expectation of success.
Prime Minister Morrison has never expressed support for a constitutionally enshrined Voice. It appears that our present government is, at best, ambivalent in its commitment towards to a lasting solution to what the Uluru delegates described as ‘the torment of our powerlessness’.