The Uluru Statement from the Heart is the fullest expression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander desires for substantive reform to the Australian Constitution.
The statement proposes a permanent first nations Voice to Parliament, and a Makarrata Commission to engage in agreement-making and to sponsor truth-telling about the past.
Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Yolngu elder, July 2016:
What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you … Let us be who we are — Aboriginal people in a modern world — and be proud of us.
The special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the first peoples of Australia, who lived here long before European settlement, has never been acknowledged in the Australian Constitution.
Over the years there have been many protests by Aboriginal people over their treatment, and many reports and enquiries initiated by governments. But there has been little genuine dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
European settlers seized the land on the pretext that it was unoccupied. In fact, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples never ceded sovereignty. Nor was there ever a formal treaty between the two groups.
In recent years non-Indigenous Australians have focused on the need to include a formal recognition that Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders were the original inhabitants of Australia, and that they had close connections with the land, in our Constitution.
But Indigenous people themselves have come to see this as a token and meaningless gesture. Instead they want real constitutional reform that will lead to a better relationship between all Australians in the future.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart came out of the work of the Referendum Council, the most organised attempt yet to establish a consensus on these issues among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The Referendum Council
The Referendum Council was set up jointly by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on 7 December 2015.
It was intended to build on the work of the many earlier panels and committees. But these had focused on the idea of formal recognition in the Constitution, an idea already rejected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves.
Indigenous leaders wanted substantive changes to the Constitution, to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people greater power to prevent governments passing discriminatory legislation.
The Referendum Council conducted an unprecedented series of 13 First Nations Regional Dialogues in all parts of Australia. These were deliberately termed ‘dialogues’ rather than ‘consultations’, to overcome the cynicism of Indigenous groups who felt they had often been consulted but rarely listened to.
In all, 1200 delegates attended these dialogues. A further 200,000 people — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous — expressed their views through written submissions, social media or surveys.
The dialogues comprehensively rejected the idea of adding a statement of recognition to the Constitution. Delegates believed the statement would be watered down and made too bland to be useful.
They also feared such a statement might imply that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had accepted the loss of their sovereignty over the land.
Nor did the dialogues strongly favour changes to existing sections of the Constitution.
A small majority supported an earlier suggestion to add a new section outlawing discrimination based on race. But all dialogues supported the idea of a Voice to the Parliament, and all but one an enhanced process of agreement-making through treaty and truth-telling. These became key elements in the Uluru Statement.
The dialogues culminated in the First Nations National Constitutional Convention, held at Uluru from 23 to 26 May 2017. With relatively little dissension, the convention produced the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Uluru Statement from the Heart
At the convention the idea of a Voice to the Parliament — some form of representative Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander body — received overwhelming support.
This would sit apart from parliament. It was not a proposal to have dedicated first nations seats in parliament. Rather it would provide a permanent vehicle to allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to monitor government legislation and advocate for better treatment.
In the words of the Referendum Council, it would guarantee them ‘an active and participatory role in the democratic life of the state’. By contrast, previous consultation had been either superficial or, when it was more meaningful, ignored.
The statement also called for a Makarrata Commission. 'Makarrata' is a word from the Yolngu language of East Arnhem Land. Its primary meaning is an act of peacemaking or reconciliation between individuals or groups, a ‘coming together after struggle’. Since the 1970s it has been used to describe the process of making a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
The Makarrata Commission would have two functions — to supervise the process of agreement-making between Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander people and governments, and to enable truth-telling about Australian history.
The latter would be akin to a truth and reconciliation process, through which non-Indigenous Australians would hear and acknowledge accounts of their historical relationship with Indigenous people. The dialogues and the convention regarded this process of storytelling as an essential part of future reconciliation among Australians.
Responses to the Uluru Statement
The Uluru statement was presented to government, framed by artistic representations of Anangu stories about the creation of the country around Uluru, and by signatures of the delegates to the convention.
The Turnbull government rejected it. The Prime Minister argued that Australians would not agree to the proposal for a Voice to the Parliament which ‘would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of parliament’.
In fact, opinion polls showed substantial public support for the proposals.
In December 2018 a year-long parliamentary inquiry found that the Voice to Parliament was the only viable option for constitutional recognition. In 2019 funding for design work on the Voice, and for a referendum on the Voice, was provided in the federal budget.
In October 2019 the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, set up a group to examine possible forms of an Indigenous voice to government. Non-Indigenous Australians may yet respond to the final words of the Uluru Statement from the Heart:
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.
Thomas Mayor, Finding the Heart of the Nation: The Journey of the Uluṟu Statement towards Voice, Treaty and Truth, Hardie Grant Travel, Melbourne, 2019.