Shortcuts / 02 June 2022

The Uluru Statement from the Heart

When Anthony Albanese’s claimed victory for Labor in the recent federal election, he acknowledged the traditional owners of the land and committed to delivering the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we take a look at the background to the statement, what it’s about, and how it might be delivered.

To start off – what is the Uluru Statement from the Heart?
It’s quite a short document made up of just 440 words across 12 paragraphs. It covers 3 things: Voice, Treaty, and Truth.

You’re going to have to explain that…
Essentially, the statement calls for the establishment of a ‘First Nations Voice’ in the Australian Constitution, and a ‘Makarrata Commission’ to supervise a process of ‘agreement-making’ and ‘truth-telling’ between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Hmm. You’re going to have to explain that…
We will, but can we give you the preamble first? 

Go for it.
In May 2017, 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders gathered at the foot of Uluru for a convention. What came from it was a majority resolution that was captured in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

How did that come about?
It was preceded by years of work and discussion and consultation and wrangling by Indigenous leaders and governments over the reconciliation agenda.

What’s the reconciliation agenda about?
Put simply, reconciliation is about strengthening relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous peoples.

And I’m guessing that there’s a history behind that too…
There sure is. Australia’s colonial history is stained by land dispossession, violence, and racism against Indigenous Australians. Since the 1970s, many significant steps toward reconciliation have been taken, but there’s a long way to go to achieve one of the most important markers of equality – that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have the same quality of life and opportunities as non-Indigenous children.

So where are things at?
One part of the reconciliation agenda has been to move towards the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution. And in 2012, Reconciliation Australia – the lead body working towards reconciliation – started the Recognise campaign.

What was that about?
The Recognise campaign was funded by the federal government and it had a very specific focus: and that was to raise awareness across the Australian community of the need to change the Constitution, in advance of a referendum.

Ok, so there was a campaign… What was the government doing?
During that time, then-PM Malcolm Turnbull worked with Labor leader Bill Shorten to appoint a Referendum Council whose job was to advise the government on steps towards a referendum to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution.

So what did the Council do?
In 2016, it released a discussion paper that was designed to guide nationwide consultations on constitutional recognition that included things outside the scope of the brief – like the establishment of an ‘Indigenous Voice’ to parliament and other reforms. What emerged from those consultation meetings was a document that became the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

And that happened at that meeting?
It was the First Nations National Constitutional Convention, and it met over 4 days in May 2017. Delegates were selected from participants in regional Dialogues held around the country.

And the Uluru Statement from the Heart was born?
You got it. And the plan was that it could be a conversation starter about constitutional reform and the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

But would constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians address the issues they face?
There’s been a lot of talk about its limitations in overcoming the social and economic difficulties faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the structural impediments to real empowerment. And those who endorsed the Statement say that’s why it doesn’t just cover recognition – it also seeks reforms to give Indigenous people more power.

Take me through the details…
So the Uluru Statement calls for the ‘establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution’. That would see the establishment of a representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to provide the Australian Parliament with non-binding advice on legal and policy matters.

What’s the thinking behind that?
It would give Indigenous people a say in how government decisions affect their lives. But a sticking point has been the proposal for it to be a constitutionally entrenched institution. Then-PM Malcolm Turnbull rejected it, saying it would be like a 3rd chamber of the Parliament, but then Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt got involved and a model emerged for a body with regional and national Indigenous Voices that would be legislated for – no changes to the Constitution required.

But the Coalition lost the last election…
They did, and Labor supports a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament, so we’re going to have to wait to see how that evolves…

Have any other nations given their Indigenous people a Voice to parliament?
Yep – there are First Nations parliaments in Norway, Sweden and Finland. And in New Zealand, 7 of its seats in the parliament are reserved for Maori electorates.

But the Voice to parliament still has critics in Oz?
It does, and a lot of that comes from Coalition MPs and senators who are wary about adding an Indigenous Voice to the Constitution because they say any proposal that would impinge on Parliament’s supremacy goes against the foundation of our liberal democracy.

And constitutional change requires a referendum, right?
It would and with a referendum comes a campaign with advocates giving their cases for and against the proposal. And there’s little appetite for a campaign against moves that are meant to empower Indigenous Australians. So getting the proposal right is important. 

So what’s the deal with the Treaty and Truth elements of the Statement?
A good place to start is Yothu Yindi’s hit song Treaty from 1991. What was referenced in that song is the Barunga Statement which was presented in 1988 to Prime Minister Bob Hawke with called for a treaty with the Commonwealth of Australia. Hawke promised to negotiate a treaty, but it didn’t eventuate.

So it’s still on the agenda?
Yep, and what was proposed by the Uluru Statement is the establishment of a Makarrata Commission. Makarrata is an Indigenous word meaning “coming together after a struggle” and healing of divisions of the past.

What would the Makarrata Commission do?
Once formed, it would be tasked with seeking agreements between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the Federal Government. A big part of that process is that the Commission would oversee “truth-telling” activities.

What would that involve?
It would see the sharing of historical truths and revealing the injustices committed against Indigenous people. It would be about coming to terms with what happened in our history and moving towards true reconciliation. A version of that is already happening in Victoria, called the Yoorrook Justice Commission.

So new PM Anthony Albanese is keen to implement the reforms outlined in the Statement – when will it happen?
It’s not a simple yes/no proposition – there are tricky legal issues and of course, there’s the politics… The leaders of the Uluru Dialogue – a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders – have suggested 2 dates for a referendum to be held on the Voice: that’s 27 May 2023, or 27 January 2024.

So it could happen next year?
Potentially… Linda Burney, Australia’s new minister for Indigenous Affairs and a Wiradjuri woman, says that May date next year is a possibility. But she’s also keen to make progress on the Makarrata Commission and reckons they can be advanced at the same time.

What does the PM say?
Albanese has previously avoided committing to a firm timeline, and there is a push for there to be bipartisan support for what’s put up in a referendum. That could take some time to work through. 

Where does the Coalition line up now it has new leadership?
Newly-elected Opposition Leader Peter Dutton says he will talk with Albanese about Labor’s plans.

Didn’t Dutton boycott Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008?
He did, and this week he said that was a mistake and that at the time he felt the apology should be given when more had been done to help fix the problems faced by Indigenous Australians.

But he’s willing to work with Labor on the issue?
Yep – he says he’s keen to find out more about Labor’s position on implementing the proposals flagged in the Uluru statement, but he also wants to see practical action.

What do Indigenous leaders say about the Statement?
Not all of them agree with what’s been proposed. One notable critic has just been elected to the Senate and that’s the Country Liberal Party’s Jacinta Price from the Northern Territory. She’s a Warlpiri woman who says it’s a distraction from more important issues facing Indigenous Australians.

So there’s some way to go to lock it all down…
There sure is. 

Squiz recommends:

The Uluru Statement from the Heart

Treaty – Yothu Yindi (original version)

Treaty – Yothu Yindi (Filthy Lucre Radio Edit)

The 2022 federal election sees record Indigenous representationABC

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