My first two years of life, I was like a refugee child in detention, stateless and unpossessed of citizenship. The supreme law of the home where I was born provided that our people should not be counted in the national census, and that the commonwealth parliament should not hold any responsibility for us.
I don’t know what awareness my parents and grandparents had of the vote on May 27, 1967 — 50 years ago today — or the decade-long campaign leading to it. Confined in the mission with little contact with the world outside, our people stood outside of the tradition of Aboriginal political advocacy that began in earnest in 1938 with Sydney’s Day of Mourning on the sesquicentenary of the arrival of the First Fleet.
My generation became citizens of our own country because of the struggles of those extraordinary Yorta Yorta leaders William Cooper and Jack Patten, and their compatriot, Wiradjuri leader William Ferguson. It was Cooper, one month after Kristallnacht in 1938, who led a march from his Footscray home to the German consulate where he denounced the cruel persecution of the Jews.
These are our founding fathers. They roused subsequent generations of leaders and activists for justice, not least the man who would become my first hero of public life, pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls, another product of the Yorta Yorta of the Cummeragunja mission on the Victorian side of the Murray. My primary school principal gave me his biography and this man, who became governor of South Australia, became an inspiration for my life. The next book he gave me was Charlie Perkins’s autobiography, A Bastard Like Me. It was lightning in my veins.
This week at Uluru, the Referendum Council convened the culminating meeting of a series of 12 dialogues held across the nation, from Hobart in the south to the Torres Strait in the north, from Dubbo in the east to Perth in the west. It has been a hard process, but no good comes without hardship. It has been an uplifting process, too, but hope always seeks to rise above fear.
These dialogues were led by two courageous black women. Veteran health leader Pat Anderson and leading law professor Megan Davis shouldered the excruciating burdens of the process. These women carried this whole process in an indomitable search for reform opportunity for the sake of our country. Seeking reform in the brutal intersection of the indigenous world and the wider Australian media and politics is the hardest row to hoe. These past six months I often stood to the side of these long and vigorous discussions and marvelled at Davis and Anderson’s sheer stamina and dedication.
We reached a crucial milestone when the conference landed with the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The statement distils the dreams and passions of more than a thousand indigenous delegates from across the country and the tens of thousands of families and communities from which they were drawn.
The Uluru statement rejects mere symbolic minimalism in favour of practical reform. It calls for a constitutionally enshrined voice in political decision-making affecting our people. And it endorses a Makarrata between us and the commonwealth.
The Yolngu concept of Makarrata captures the idea of two parties coming together after a struggle, healing the divisions of the past. It is about acknowledging that something has been done wrong, and it seeks to make things right. It entered the political lexicon via the Senate committee on constitutional and legal affairs inquiry begun by the Fraser government, which reported under the Hawke government in 1983.
The Makarrata is now revived as the right language for the reform sought in the Uluru statement. Meaningful recognition should enable Australia’s Makarrata: the long-awaited healing of enduring historical rifts. This is what constitutional recognition is about.
Some of the media commentary leading up to and during this week’s gathering declares such reconciliation unachievable: because our people ask for meaningful reform over empty symbolism, our cause will be defeated. These commentators underestimate the Australian people. Australians want to see meaningful change in indigenous affairs.
There is every reason to be optimistic First Australians will find common ground with Australia’s political leaders, and we will rise to the challenge.
Australians can accept that the First Australians were left out of the original constitutional compact. We had no place at the negotiating table alongside the colonial founding fathers, and no opportunity to negotiate ourselves a fair place in the power-sharing deal that gave rise to the new nation.
The Constitution guaranteed us no fair representation and no recognition of our place in the commonwealth. Instead there were provisions excluding us. Australians understand this must be fixed. The Statement from the Heart delivered from Uluru presents an honourable way of dealing with this original exclusion. It presents a way of transforming our peoples’ constitutional powerlessness into constitutional empowerment.
Empowerment can come through having a voice. A First Peoples’ voice to parliament will enable our peoples’ ancient spiritual sovereignty to shine through Australia’s constitutional arrangements and political processes, as the statement explains, “as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood”. This will address the torment of our powerlessness. The Statement from the Heart encapsulates the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country in this respect:
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people to take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny, our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
We call for the establishment of a First Nations voice enshrined in the Constitution.
Such a reform would be in keeping with Australia’s constitutional character as a power-sharing compact.
The Constitution operates, in the words of former High Court judge Ian Callinan, through principles of “mutual respect and comity”.
It confers on parliament its necessary power to make indigenous-specific laws, such as the Native Title Act. It’s only right that indigenous people have a fair say in such laws, and that the Constitution make provision for this.
The proposition is entirely viable. This is not a bill of rights solution. It is a political participatory solution, in keeping with our process-driven Constitution that protects citizens’ rights by guaranteeing parties a say.
Now that a unified indigenous position has been determined, constitutional recognition can extend the principles of mutual respect and comity to Australia’s constitutional relationship with the First Peoples.
This is a strong consensus. It provides a clear pathway forward for substantive recognition.
Last week, Warren Mundine offered his own ideas on how a First Peoples voice might best be achieved. He argued it should enable local voices to speak for their local affairs. This reiterates the message at Uluru that any voice must be connected and accountable to local people at the grassroots level.
The message also resonates with my long-held belief that self-determination, correctly understood, is about our peoples’ right to take responsibility. That is what constitutional recognition should enable: local people taking responsibility for their local affairs and their future.
A constitutional voice for the First Peoples must be about empowering the “small platoons” of conservative lore.
Edmund Burke said: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ, as it were) of public affections.” Home is where the heart is. That is why local people are best placed to have a say and take responsibility for their communities. Love of home, or oikophilia, as philosopher Roger Scruton calls it, drives our human aspiration to care for our country and community, and to protect our families.
As Australians, our shared sense of oikophilia unites us: this is the patriotism that propels us to strive for our country and community.
The First Peoples also carry this love: we have an ancient, pre-colonial connection to this land. This attachment to our country, our tribe and our kin is exactly why the First Peoples want a voice in our affairs — because no one is better placed to strive for the betterment of our people and our communities than we ourselves, because we have our own best interests at heart more than any government ever could.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart confirms that constitutional recognition must ensure the forgotten peoples, the peoples wrongfully omitted from the constitutional compact, a voice in our affairs. This would extend the principles of mutual respect and comity to Australia’s relationship with the First Peoples of this land. It is a proposition that Australian can accept.