The hard work starts now

Paul Wright

On election night, Anthony Albanese – the new Prime Minister of the just elected Labor Government – began his victory speech with an acknowledgement of Country and a reiteration of his commitment to finally give the Australian people a chance to honour the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Albanese went on to say: 

Together we can embrace the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We can answer the patient, gracious call for a Voice enshrined in our Constitution. Because all of us ought to be proud that amongst our great multicultural society we count the oldest living continuous culture in the world. 

Political realities, economic headwinds, global instabilities can all wait. It was a clear statement of intent that we have been waiting decades for. In speaking with people in the days since, the sense of relief and rising expectations are understandable. We can afford a few short moments to enjoy the feeling of promise, real change and the excitement that comes with thinking about the steps that we can now take together. 

As our new Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs (and first Aboriginal woman to hold the portfolio), Wiradjuri woman Linda Burney has noted, the new Government has been elected in the week of the fifth anniversary of the Uluru Statement and she is sure that we will ‘all be proud’  when we make this happen. Minister Burney has also said that the fulfilment of Voice, Treaty and Truth will be ‘an exercise in nation-building, and this will change Australia.’ 

But the truth is the hard work begins now.   

There are three priorities for the coming weeks and months to hold Albanese and his Government to account for the promises of Voice, Treaty and Truth.

Firstly, while I am confident that Albanese and co won’t do what Morrison did to Ken Wyatt when he asked him to take on the portfolio and gave some indications that a referendum would be supported on the Voice before completely undermining Wyatt when he emphatically said no to constitutional enshrinement. The Australian people want to see this happen and hopefully Labor have learnt the lessons of the Rudd years where ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’ in climate change could be jettisoned so easily when things got a bit tougher. Our effort must be to support Minister Burney and Senator Dodson and the other First Nations members and senators in pushing Parliament forward. 

In ANTaR’s Election Scorecard, we listed the key promises and commitments of the Labor Party in relation to Closing the Gap, addressing the broken ‘Justice’ system, ensuring the protection of Australia’s cultural heritage and of course – constitutional reform in the shape of the Voice to Parliament. Labor’s direct response to our questions on these issues, included:

  • Training 500 new First Nations health workers, increasing access to lifesaving dialysis treatment for those living with chronic kidney disease and expanding efforts to eradicate rheumatic heart disease in remote communities. 
  • $100 million for urgent housing and infrastructure on Northern Territory Homelands and our Housing Future Fund that will provide $200 million to improve housing in remote First Nations communities. 
  • To scrap the Liberals’ failed Community Development Program (CDP) and replace it with a new program with real jobs, proper wages and decent conditions – developed in partnership with First Nations people. 
  • To abolish the discriminatory Cashless Debit Card and instead support First Nations communities to make their own decisions about the way forward. 
  • $79 million to expand justice reinvestment initiatives across the country, helping to turn the tide on incarceration and deaths in custody. 
  • Funding 500 new frontline workers to support women in crisis, with a specific focus on plugging the gaps for First Nations women in rural and regional communities. 
  • Work with the First Nations Heritage Alliance and other stakeholders to reform our national heritage protection framework and prevent such destruction occurring in the future.
  • Doubling the Indigenous Rangers program, boosting funding for Indigenous Protected Areas by $10 million a year, and delivering the promised cultural water in the Murray Darling Basin. 
  • And of course – their commitment to delivering the Uluru Statement from the Heart reforms of Voice, Treaty and Truth. 

These commitments are on our watch list. We’ve had a lost decade on most of these issues and our mission continues – we hold every Government accountable to their obligations towards the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities. 

Secondly, with the historic influx of independent parliamentarians - particularly in electorates that identify as moderate (small L) liberal communities – the so called ‘teals’ will be a critical group to have on board in support of Voice in the constitution. We can’t take it for granted that they will. We must work with them to ensure they understand the importance of this work for Australia and that they are ready to take action as representatives in their electorates and in Parliament. Zali Steggall, elected to the seat of Warringah (Tony Abbott’s old seat) at the 2019 election has already made her support clear:

Sovereignty was never ceded. I accept the invitation extended to all Australians through the Uluru Statement from the Heart to walk with us in a movement of Australian people for a better future. The depth of Indigenous history, knowledge and culture adds a depth of richness to this continent that makes it all the more special. I wish to use this opportunity to push for a better way, one where we elevate this to a moral issue, recognise the Indigenous voice in this place and in the Constitution and establish the Makarrata Commission to oversee the process of truth-telling about our history.

For a referendum YES vote to be successful, we will need all of Zali’s new fellow crossbenchers to be making similar statements of support. 

Finally, and probably most importantly, the Australian public will be the most important stakeholder (after First Nations peoples) in terms of being brave, to make change. Every pollpole or survey taken over the last five years has shown that most of us are already on board for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament. ABC’s Vote Compass reported earlier this year that ‘there was clear support for the idea – overall 73 per cent of Australians agreed ‘ “strongly” or “somewhat” that there should be constitutional change to give Indigenous Australians a greater say over their lives.’ Reconciliation Australia CEO, Karen Mundine has said:

“More and more Australians are understanding the issues involved when it comes to constitutional recognition of our First Nations people.” 

There will be a lot of work ahead to continue to build this support throughout our communities but it is clear that the Australian people are ready to get on with it. We can’t take this support for granted though. There will be a negative, divisive NO campaign when the referendum is called. There will be shameless lies, and the strategies of divide and conquer – pitting our communities against each other and pushing to deny the Voice in this generation. 

But the times may now suit us. If 1967 ended the atrocities enabled by our constitution, it is now that we must reform our constitution to make it the truly nation-building, community-binding force for good that we all deserve. 

Paul Wright

Paul is ANTaR’s National Director and has experience working in both Government and non-government sectors – covering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, health, immigration and social services. Paul studied politics and international relations at the University of Canberra and has a Masters of Strategic Studies from the Australian National University. Prior to his role with ANTaR, Paul was the Executive Officer for the Close the Gap Campaign Secretariat and the National Health Leadership Forum at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Find out where the political parties stand on a referendum for change, responding to the Uluru Statement from Heart, and other important priorities in ANTaR’s 2022 Federal Election Scorecard.