explainer

Explainer: Exactly what the Uluru Statement from the Heart is, and why it’s so important.

In 2020, Mamamia will only refer to January 26 by its date, to acknowledge that it is not a day of celebration for all Australians. If you want to be an ally this January 26, we urge you to sign this letter to your MP about the Uluru Statement from the Heart – which calls for constitutional change and structural reform that recognises the sacred, ancient spiritual link Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have to their land.

As we reach another Australia Day/Invasion Day/Survival Day I reflect on the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the very generous offer made by First Nations peoples in 2017 to the Australian people.

The Uluru Statement provides a roadmap forward for the nation as we enter into uncertain times.

Here’s why January 26th is one of the most complex dates in Australia. Post continues below.

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A roadmap that can unify the nation, embedded in the world’s oldest living and continuing culture and resolving the unfinished business this country has with the First Peoples. With climate change, a tightening economy and a perennially toxic national day, most Australians yearn for some leadership as we navigate our way through the messy conversations that need to be had about who we are and what we stand for, now and in the future.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a roadmap to peace forged by many First Nations peoples in 2017. It is a very Australian innovation. It is an example of the transformative potential of liberal democratic governance through civic engagement. This engagement produced the best of what Australia’s democracy has to offer: innovation, creativity and a vision for the future.

On May 26, 2017, the Uluru Convention saw the delegates adopt a consensus position on ‘meaningful recognition’ in the Constitution, and that was constitutional reform, a Voice to Parliament, to empower our people. Following the decision-making, we issued a statement to all Australians – the Uluru Statement from the Heart – asking Aussies to walk with us.

Our people have issued many statements over the past few decades: the Bark Petitions of 1963, the Barunga Statement of 1988, the Eva Valley Statement of 1993, the Kalkaringi Statement of 1998, the report on the Social Justice Package by ATSIC in 1995 and the Kirribilli Statement of 2015. This time we adopted a different approach.

To bring about change, we decided to call upon the Australian people to help us. All Australians are suffering from a lack of faith and confidence in our public institutions to deliver the reforms that are required to push us forward, united as a country. The law and policy inertia plays out in many areas from productivity to climate change and especially in Indigenous affairs.

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The Uluru Statement and the call for a constitutional Voice to Parliament came as a result of the work of the Referendum Council. The year it was issued to the Australian people in 2017 was the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, the 25th anniversary of the High Court’s decision in Mabo, the 20th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report and 10 years since the suite of legislation known as the Northern Territory Emergency Response or Northern Territory Intervention.

Each of these anniversaries brought to bear on the Aboriginal constitutional dialogues that the law has played a role in the oppression of our people but the law can also redeem. This is what the Uluru Statement is; it is hopeful and forward-looking. It has faith that the Australian nation and its public institutions can change to empower our people to have some control over their lives.

Through a complex deliberative process that was bottom-up – not led by elites, handpicked leaders, politicians or bureaucrats – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples led a process that decided that the most meaningful form of recognition for them is a Voice to the Parliament. That is to say, an enhanced role in Australian democracy and the decision-making of the state.

The reform is a constitutional amendment to set up a provision that enables the Parliament to pass legislation providing this voice. It has unanimous support across Australians law firms, medical and legal professions including the Australian Medical Association, the Law Council of Australia and its constituent state law societies, big business including BHP, IAG, Lendlease, Qantas, Woodside, Rio Tinto, KPMG, the NRL, Richmond Football Club and ACCOR.

It also has the support of many civil society groups including ACOSS. And it has the support of our former High Court Chief Justices Murray Gleeson and Robert French. It has been endorsed by media such as The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and Marie Claire. It is a modest and logical reform. Better policy, better laws and better outcomes will flow from having First Nations people at the table. It is no exaggeration to say that currently they are not.

But true to the era of Australian politics, the government has ignored the voices of Indigenous Australia and they are designing a Voice to Bureaucracy or Voice to Government, not a Voice to Parliament. They are seeking to have a referendum on a statement of recognition that is wholly symbolic and was unanimously rejected by the constitutional dialogues and the Uluru Convention and the Uluru Statement.

Our people seek a durable reform that means we are no longer a political football. This is why the Voice must be enshrined in the Constitution. Also, we do not want more symbolism that does not change our lives. Symbolism may make others feel good, but it does not help us on the ground.

Listen to Mamamia’s podcast, Tiddas 4 Tiddas. It’s back for a second season on January 26, with Marlee Silva discussing what Australia Day means to young Indigenous Australians. Post continues below. 

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The Minister for Indigenous Affairs’ unilateral decision to entrench more bureaucracy in our lives, not less, demonstrates why a Voice is needed. The state does not listen to our voices. Our numbers are too small and we do not sway elections. They are not listening and they are not hearing what is required to make change in communities. Rather, the power resides in non-Indigenous bureaucracies where decisions are made without our input. But we can change this, together.

Australians should be proud of the work that has been done by many First Nations on constitutional change. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives in the Uluru process underwent a deliberative dialogue process that involved a tightly structured intensive civics program and an assessment of legal options for reform.

Major credit should be given to the mums and dads, young people, grannies, elders and traditional owners who gave up three days, including their weekends, to speak with us about the Constitution. Many constitutional lawyers remarked that the constitutional consensus model that arose out of the dialogues and Uluru was one that no constitutional lawyer had conceived of before! This highlights the creativity that can happen when you give people the reigns over their lives.

The idea for better participation in the democratic life of the state, especially the Federal Parliament, is not a new ask. It is as equally prominent in Aboriginal political advocacy as a Treaty. It is also very common around the world. The sky will not fall down because we empower First Nations.

Out of Uluru, the consensus for a simple, singular alteration to the Constitution emerged. A body whose functions will be for the Parliament to legislate. This is the recognition we seek; recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should have a direct say in decisions made about their lives.

On this Australia Day/Invasion Day/ Survival Day, I urge you to take the time to read the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which is issued to you, the Australian people. It is a sign of friendship.

Many of our old people are dying and they want some peace for their country. And as we continue through this period of bushfires and extreme weather events, it is fair to say that all Australians want peace for their country.

So let’s do this together as we did in 1967. And while we keep walking on this journey together, we wait with bated breath for Australian politicians to see the very Australian solution that is theirs to grab if they too could have faith in the Australian people the way we did at Uluru.

Professor Megan Davis is a Cobble Cobble woman from Queensland, constitutional lawyer and Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous at UNSW. She was a contributor to the Uluru Statement of the Heart.

Mamamia has written a letter you can send to your MP urging them to support the Uluru Statement. You can find it here, along with your MP’s contact details.

Feature image: Supplied/Thomas Mayor.

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