Five years after the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a new federal government has committed to irrevocable constitutional enshrinement of First Nations representation, a Voice to Parliament. First Nations leaders comment on this long-overdue priority for the governance of a nation.
Prime Minister-elect Anthony Albanese opened his May acceptance speech by acknowledging First Nations Australians and reiterating his party’s commitment to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This includes a Voice to Parliament, a permanent forum of representation from which First Nations can advocate for their peoples to the parliament and government. “We can answer its 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,” he said.
Gracious, certainly, but for many the patience is wearing thin.
“We’ve been fighting for a rightful place in our own country since colonisation,” says Allira Davis, a Cobble Cobble woman and South Sea Islander who is co-chair of the Uluru Youth Dialogue and works for the Uluru Dialogue campaign at the Indigenous Law Centre. “Instead, we’ve had people working in Aboriginal affairs who have never visited an Aboriginal community. In 2022, our people are still more than 12 times more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous people. We have much shorter life expectancy and we’re far more likely to be unemployed. We’re sick of taking baby steps and we don’t want symbolic recognition. We want the First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution so we can be part of the lawmaking process rather than having bureaucrats and politicians deciding what is best for us when they clearly have little idea.”
Understandably, elders are also tired of talking about the same thing. “Our obligation as black young people is to continue the fight of our ancestors and elders,” says Davis. “We have fire in our belly and we want to achieve this goal for them.”
Rocky road to referendum
The journey to constitutional change began in 1937, when Yorta Yorta elder William Cooper petitioned King George VI for representation in parliament. More than 80 years and many petitions and intense consensus-building efforts later, the Uluru Statement was endorsed by 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders at a gathering at Uluru in May 2017. All agreed on the need for structural reforms, including the constitutional change that would give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people an inalienable right to provide advice to Parliament on policies and projects that impact their lives. The statement also seeks a “Makarrata Commission” to supervise a process via treaties and other mechanisms of conflict resolution, truth-telling and justice between the Australian government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The Uluru statement was rejected months later by the cabinet under former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on the grounds that “the government does not believe such an addition to our national representative institutions is either desirable or capable of winning acceptance in a referendum”. In 2019, Turnbull’s successor Scott Morrison proposed a legislative approach, with local and regional voices and an overarching “national voice”. The federal government and Parliament would be obliged to consult the National Voice, but only on proposed laws that “overwhelmingly” related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“Legislation can be revoked, as we saw when ATSIC, the old Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, was overturned,” says Cath Brokenborough GAICD, a Wiradjuri woman from central west NSW who is chair of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre, a member of the Queensland Building and Construction Commission Board, and executive lead for First Nations engagement and reconciliation at Lendlease. “The commitment to irrevocable constitutional enshrinement shows the new government is ready to work with First Nations people on treaty, truth- telling and healing.”
The Australian Constitution can only be altered by referendum and, in the run-up to the election, Albanese promised a referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in his first term if he were elected. He has yet to commit to a date, although First Nations leaders have put forward either 27 May 2023 — which would be the anniversary of the 1967 Indigenous referendum — or 27 January 2024 — the day after Invasion Day/Australia Day. Does this give the campaign time to secure the support it needs?
“We’ve already done 15 years of work on this — we’re not starting with a blank page,” says Quandamooka man Dean Parkin, director of the From the Heart Campaign. “Our conversations with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people across the country show they understand that a Voice to Parliament is both practical and fair.”
Ian Hamm MAICD — a Yorta Yorta man who holds a number of board positions including chair of the First Nations Foundation and the Koorie Heritage Trust, and directorships of Yarra Valley Water, Australian Red Cross and The National Trust of Australia (Victoria) — is concerned by the amount of work that needs to be done at a fundamental population level.
“To get something like this across the line, you have to do the hard yards, the old-fashioned stump politicking — speaking at town hall meetings and small remote social groups,” he says. “A referendum isn’t something to take lightly — only eight of the 44 proposals put to Australian electors since federation have been approved — and, personally, I wouldn’t be rushing into it.”
Torres Strait Islander woman Tanya Hosch, AFL general manager of inclusion and social policy, agrees there’s still much to do. “Yes, we’ve spent years working towards this, but the work must take on a new pace and new sense of urgency as we draw closer to a referendum,” she says. “This is where business leaders can play a critical role. Ian’s right — we need to saturate the country with information, and corporate supporters can help by disseminating the facts to their own workforce, customers and others in their networks.”
In 2017, the government argued the Uluru Statement would be seen as a third chamber of Parliament and that this would undermine the universal principles of unity, equality and “one person one vote”. Dr Gabrielle Appleby, a professor at the Law Faculty of the University of New South Wales, refuted this at the time, saying neither claim was true. “[The plan] is far more modest: to create a representative body that will ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander views are sought on proposed legislation that will affect their interests.”
“There’s always a danger that some people will project an unrealistic or misrepresentative view, and that can be incredibly damaging,” says Hosch. “This is why it’s so important for Australians to have easy access to accurate information. The better you understand what you’re voting for, the less likely you are to be confused by misrepresentation.”
In 2013, IAG became the first major insurer to introduce a reconciliation action plan (RAP). Managing director and CEO Nick Hawkins notes that given the company’s purpose — to make the world a safer place — it was a natural decision to stand behind the Uluru Statement and the collective First Nations voices that helped to form it. “We believe that helping people to understand what the Uluru Statement means — and that a referendum brings an opportunity for positive change for both First Nations peoples and the wider Australian community — will give us the best chance of achieving a successful outcome,” he says.
Research also supports the importance of education. The 2021 Australian Constitutional Values Survey by Central Queensland and Griffith Universities found more than 60 per cent of Australians are in favour of a First Nations Voice to Parliament in some form. Only 12 per cent were opposed, and most of those who were undecided hadn’t heard of the proposal.
“We know from our own research that people who aren’t really aware of this issue are more likely to vote yes than no when they understand what we’re asking for,” says Parkin.
There are many educational resources on the Uluru Statement website, and the From the Heart campaign is developing a free digital education resource for organisations to distribute to their staff. “I’d be a negligent campaign director if I didn’t mention the need for financial support,” says Parkin. “We’re independent, and everything we achieve is thanks to the support of our donors, including corporations.”
Power of the corporate sector
Djiribul woman Shelley Reys AO MAICD is a partner and board member of KPMG, a board member of the Brisbane Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games 2032, and CEO of Arrilla Indigenous Consulting, which provides services to enable Indigenous peoples and the wider community to work together more effectively. She believes the corporate sector has already been behind the greatest contribution to reconciliation in the past 30 years.
“Corporates aren’t tied by the same level of bureaucracy as government, so they have greater capacity to deliver where government can’t,” says Reys. “They also understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples know what works and what doesn’t work in their own communities and circumstances, and that decisions made in partnership are far more likely to succeed. This could have significant economic as well as social consequences.
“Can you imagine the money, time and resources saved if government-led decisions were more successful? Can you imagine how much more effective government strategies would be if they were informed by those who had the insight into the solutions?”
As an organisation, KPMG’s position is that First Nations peoples have a unique and special place in Australian history, are part of Australia’s identity and culture, and that this should be appropriately recognised.
“KPMG has been on a reconciliation journey for 15 years and our CEO has spent the past 10 months driving a purpose-led and values-based agenda,” says Reys. “Standing behind the Uluru Statement and the concept of enshrining Voice to Parliament in the Constitution is a way for us and other organisations to stand in unity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. If we’re going to walk into a referendum, all Australians should be able to make an informed decision. Many CEOs of large corporations have already begun to think about their role — that being to educate their workforces.”
Parkin is confident that having a supportive government will put wind in the sails of the campaign, and that we’ll see a groundswell of support from across the nation. The question boards need to answer now, suggests Hosch, is which side of history do you want your organisation to be standing on?
Shelley Reys AO MAICD
The CEO of Arrilla Indigenous Consulting was the first chair of Reconciliation Australia and spent a further 10 years on the board, during which time the organisation conceived the Reconciliation Action Plan program and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the National Apology to the Stolen Generations. She was named by the Australian Financial Review as one of Australia’s 100 Women of Influence in 2013.
Davis was a delegate of the Brisbane regional dialogue that led to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. She and Bridget Cama (Wiradjuri/ Fijian) organised the December 2019 Uluru Youth Dialogue summit. They are co-chairs of the Uluru Youth Dialogue, working closely with the Uluru Dialogue campaign.
Hosch helped to create the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples in 2010 and was a foundation director of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre and the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, and the public face of the “Recognise” campaign. As AFL executive general manager of inclusion and social policy, she supported the first Indigenous player statue (Nicky Winmar), sought a review of the anti- vilification policy and helped facilitate an apology from the AFL to former player and 2014 Australian of the Year Adam Goodes. In 2021, she received the SA Australian of the Year Award.
Formerly an investment analyst at Tanarra Capital, Parkin was a facilitator for 12 regional dialogues and the Uluru Constitutional Convention. He advocated for constitutional and structural reform as CEO of Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition, was project director of the Uluru Education Project and director of the From the Heart campaign.
He is also a senior fellow of the Atlantic Fellowship for Social Equity and an ex-officio member of the Business Council of Australia’s Indigenous Engagement Taskforce.
During the 2022 federal election, the Australian Labor Party campaigned on “Fulfilling the Promise of Uluru” by implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.
This is an extract of its commitments.
Constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament
An Albanese Labor government will progress a referendum to constitutionally enshrine a Voice to Parliament in our first term. We know that if we want to change outcomes for First Nations people, we must allow these voices to be heard. Five years after the Uluru Statement was presented to the Australian people, there should be no more delay.
A Makarrata Commission for treaty and truth-telling
Labor will also establish a Makarrata Commission with responsibility for truth-telling and treaty. If we want to understand the challenges of the present, we must understand their roots in past trauma.
The Makarrata Commission will support and fund local models of truth-telling in partnership with First Nations communities and other levels of government. It will also develop a national framework for treaty-making, taking into account existing state and territory treaty processes.
Without truth and treaty, we can never be all that we can as a nation. Labor will take the steps necessary to progress these important elements of the Uluru Statement and ensure its full vision becomes a reality.
Next big step on the path to reconciliation
In late May, Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, the first First Nations woman to be appointed to the role, released a statement addressing the reconciliation journey.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a generous and inclusive offer for all Australians to build a more reconciled future together. It calls for a Makarrata Commission to oversee a process of truth-telling and treaty-making — two tasks essential for building a better future, which recognises how our present is shaped by our past. It also calls for a First Nations Voice to Parliament.
Its role would be to advise on legislation and programs that impact First Nations people. It would be a simple, common decency. It would mean lawmakers would have a moral responsibility to listen to First Nations people — and to consider our diverse views and experience before making decisions that affect us.
The Voice needs to be enshrined in our constitution so that the accountability it will create is permanent. And cannot be simply swept aside by a government if it becomes inconvenient to hear First Nations Australians.
The hurdle for constitutional change in Australia is high — a majority of people in a majority of states. I believe Australia is ready for the national conversation about a Voice to Parliament in our constitution. And I believe Australians will support this modest, but very meaningful change. Everyone will have a role to play — community groups, corporates, individuals. It will take more than tweets or statements of support. It will take action, from each of us.
That is what happened 55 years ago today. In the lead-up to the 1967 referendum, Australians came together and decided to work for change. The result was the most overwhelming “yes” vote in a referendum in Australia — 90 per cent voted to count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian population.
People around the country remember how that vote made them feel. For First Nations people it meant we knew our country valued and wanted us, in a way we hadn’t been wanted for too much of Australia’s past. It meant all — whether First Nations or not — Australians could look each other proudly in the eye and know that together we had built a better future for our country based on the shared values of fairness and equality. It was a proud day for all Australians.
Labor’s commitment to a referendum on a Voice to Parliament was supported at the election — and it is the next big step on the path to reconciliation.
Today, I am asking for your support in this important endeavour. Because the day we vote yes for a Voice to Parliament will be another day we will remember with pride as a moment we together built a better future for Australia.
Everything You Need to Know About the Uluru Statement from the Heart by Megan Davis & George Williams (UNSW Press)
On 26 May 2017, after a historic process of consultation, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was read out. This call for reform to the community from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples asked for the establishment of a First Nations Voice to Parliament protected in the Constitution, and a process of agreement-making and truth-telling — Voice, Treaty, Truth. Written by two Australian constitutional experts, this is essential reading on how the Constitution was drafted, what the 1967 referendum achieved, and the lead-up and response to the Uluru Statement.
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