Why the Uluru Statement is a national governance issue

Monday, 20 February 2023


    The AICD recently hosted a successful online event attended by more than 2,500 on why the Uluru Statement is a national governance issue. Here we summarise the main points outlined by a panel of top directors and experts.

    AICD Uluru Statement of the Heart panel discussion highlights1:05:21

    Later this year every Australian will be required to answer the question Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?

    On Thursday, 16 February, the AICD brought together a panel of experts to clarify the issues around the Voice to Parliament, discuss the board’s role in the run-up to the referendum — and the potential impact of a “yes” vote on the companies they lead. More than 5,000 registrations confirmed the importance of this topic to members.

    Moderated by AICD sector lead — First Nations Justin Agale MAICD, the panel comprised AICD chair John Atkin FAICD, Diversity Council of Australia chair Ming Long AM GAICD, From the Heart director Dean Parkin, and Lendlease chair Michael Ullmer AO FAICD.

    A matter of governance

    Michael Ullmer AO FAICD said he finds it shocking that, more than 10 years after the apology in parliament by then prime minister Kevin Rudd (13 February 2008) no progress has been made in closing the “dreadful” gap between the conditions of First Nations peoples and the rest of Australia. “We have to reflect on why what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked and whether the Voice will start moving us in the right direction,” he said.

    Ullmer added that when it comes to governance, corporations can’t pretend they operate in a vacuum, referring to the significant loss in shareholder value we’ve seen in recent years in companies such as Rio Tinto which lost the trust of the community. He noted that the public increasingly expects companies to engage with social issues and employees want to feel aligned with — and proud of — the company they work for.

    “How companies engage on First Nations issues is an important element,” said Ullmer. “At Lendlease, we consult with First Nations peoples at the earliest point when important decisions are being made and that, as I understand it, is the intent of the Voice — to consult First Nations people on legislative matters that affect them.”

    Ming Long AM GAICD finds it astounding that she has the opportunity to cast a vote that will have an impact on First Nations people for generations to come. “This is an opportunity for us to help heal the wound at the heart of our nation,” she said. “As leaders, we have the ability to make a difference — and not stepping up would leave our nation with that gaping wound.”

    She also called on directors to play a part in the education process. “It’s impossible for the three per cent who identify as First Nations people to educate everyone else in Australia,” she said. “We can’t leave that load to them. I would also love for the (other) 97 per cent to harness the knowledge, culture and capability of the three per cent. Adding that to the governance of our boards would be a huge benefit to us all.”

    Atkin made it clear that the Voice is also a national governance issue. “It seeks constitutional reform and the constitution is the foundation of the governance of the nation,” he said.

    Differences of opinion

    As the referendum approaches, the differences of opinion existing in most organisations will inevitably rise to the surface. Long urges directors to consider how they will protect vulnerable people from any extreme racist views. They should also bear in mind that not all First Nations people support the Voice.

    Parkin cited research suggesting around 10 per cent are likely to vote no, while 10 per cent have yet to make up their minds. “That’s a good starting point,” he said. “It’s also natural, normal and healthy to have disagreement within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.”

    Some are disappointed that the Uluru Statement acknowledges the coexistence of Crown sovereignty. “The statement says that traditional sovereignty has never been ceded or extinguished and coexists with the sovereignty of the crown,” said Atkin. “It struck me how generous that was on the part of the authors, but many First Nations people have derived their sense of who they are by fighting for their sovereignty and individual rights.”

    A journey for members

    The AICD sees its role as providing education and information for its members and promoting respectful discussion.

    “As an institute, we’re on a journey,” said Atkin. “Part of that journey is supporting our Indigenous people to build their capability, part is helping our members to support and engage with First Nations communities relevant to the organisations they lead. Our ultimate goal is to develop a deeper understanding of the governance and stewardship principles that have been at the centre of the culture of the oldest continuing civilisation in the world.”

    What is a Voice to Parliament?

    Australia is home to the oldest continuous culture on Earth. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had struggled for decades to achieve constitutional recognition as the country’s first peoples when, in 2017, the First Nations National Constitutional Convention issued the Uluru Statement from the Heart calling for a First Nations Voice to Parliament. This was developed from 12 regional dialogues across the country with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of all ages in urban, regional and remote locations.

    “We’re talking about a representative body made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that would give advice to parliament and government on laws and policies that have a particular impact on our communities,” said Dean Parkin. “This isn’t a new idea. We’ve seen many iterations over the years where bringing the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to decision-making has achieved better results and better value for taxpayers.”

    There would be no need for a referendum if the Voice were passed as legislation, he said. However, as John Atkin FAICD pointed out, there is a history of bodies established through legislation being abolished. Once enshrined in the constitution, the Voice could be changed by parliament, but not repealed.

    Parkin spoke of the need for recognition to go beyond symbolism. “We want to be able to say what makes us unique as Australian,” he said. “No-one else in the world has a 65,000-year-old culture and, by recognising Indigenous people in the Constitution, every Australian gets to connect their story to this. That’s meaningful. But recognition must also have a real, direct impact on the lives of our families and communities.”

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