The Uluru Statement is an opportunity for meaningful change to restore a voice taken more than 250 years ago.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is no accident of history. The idea of a constitutionally protected Voice to Parliament and the sequenced reforms of treaty-making and truth-telling are no accidents either. They are deliberate mechanisms designed by First Nations peoples across this country to alleviate our voicelessness and address the settler-colonial structures of power that maintain our disadvantage.
First Nations peoples have been resisting the colonial project and seeking recognition and restoration of our rights since the British first took them away. In the last 10 to 15 years, we have been involved in more formal processes and negotiations with government to secure reforms that maximise benefit to our people.
The most recent of these processes gave us the Uluru Statement. After decades of telling government that symbolism was not the answer for our people, that we wanted purposeful structural change, government finally listened. The Referendum Council was a bipartisan effort to determine the most meaningful and effective path forward for our mob. Through 13 regional dialogues around the country, First Nations people were asked, on our own terms and in our own ways, what constitutional recognition and reform meant to us.
The result was the Uluru Statement, a piece of political poetry as much as an agenda for change and nation-building. It asks for a national referendum on establishing a First Nations Voice to Parliament, so we may regain control over our destinies and once more have a say on things that impact us. It also asks for a process of Makarrata, which means coming together after struggle in Yolŋu language, between Australia and First Nations so we may enter into agreement-making and truth-telling about our histories.
This process and these reforms are specific to the struggle here in these lands. In the words of Professor Megan Davis, one of the key figures behind the campaign for a Voice, “the Uluru Statement is the Australian solution to a very Australian problem”. It was designed to reorient Australians away from meaningless symbolism and towards questions of power. What is the truth? Who holds structural power? What does repair of our system look like?
While not all First Nations people will agree with the idea of a Voice, or the sequencing of these reforms (what community has ever agreed fully on any issue?), Voice, Treaty and Truth, in that order, represent the consensus of our peoples and what we most want to achieve.
The delegates at Uluru in 2017 — selected by their communities to articulate our hopes, pain, and drive to move forward — rightly saw structural power as the root of our problems. It is at the centre of the relationship the settler-state has had with our peoples since 1770. We lack the structural power to be heard and to advocate for ourselves. Government has no obligation to listen or take us seriously. How can we hope to advance treaties or promote the truth if we do not have a Voice?
To grow and advance as a nation involves first repairing the grievances with First Nations peoples.
This is what the ordered sequencing of the Uluru Statement tries to solve. By giving us a Voice, it seeks to remedy the structural power imbalances so inherent in our political system, and through so doing, enable other goals that we have sought for so long; Treaty and Truth. The Uluru Statement is a deliberate document; a plan of reform developed through deliberate choices by our mob. And it was part of a deliberate call to the Australian people to walk with us.
This is the idea at the heart of the referendum debate. Why do we need a mass movement of the people? That much is obvious; we need all Australians to walk with us on this journey for this change benefits not only First Nations people, but all Australian society. And what is the benefit of a Voice? It allows First Nations to once again take control over so many aspects of our lives, communities and cultures. It gives us a platform from which to be heard.
To grow and advance as a nation involves first repairing the grievances with First Nations peoples. We as First Nations people seek to be heard about the laws and decisions that affect us, and to have a say over our own destiny, as it always was for our people, under our own law and culture.
Although there are some prominent people, including in parliament, who dispute the benefits of a Voice, First Nations people as a whole, and Australians more broadly, are prepared to support this movement.
Close to two-thirds of Australians from a majority of states support enshrining a First Nations Voice to Parliament in our Constitution, data shows. This is a nation-wide grassroots movement, ready to champion change. History is calling to us in this moment. Are we ready to answer?
Top image: James Blackwell. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU
The Uluru Statement must be owned by all Australians — not only the opportunity for a constitutionally enshrined Voice, but also the risk of failure.
Enacting the Uluru Statement will progress Australia towards correcting colonial concepts that dehumanised Indigenous Peoples and denied their rights.
Anglo-Australian law has disenfranchised Indigenous Australians for decades. Enacting a Voice to Parliament would provide secure recognition in the Constitution.