The Rotary Club of Sydney Peacebuilding Group met by Zoom on 25 June 2020. There were 28 attendees including Auntie Helen Riley, a Wiradjuri elder from Lithgow. We were privileged to hear from Dean Parkin, CEO of Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition and Project Director of Uluru Education Project. He has been actively involved in the process that resulted in the historic Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017. Dean has asked that we share this link and I encourage you to send this on to your Rotarian colleagues and friends so you can learn more about the From the Heart campaign: https://fromtheheart.com.au/about/contact-us/
- The From the Heart campaign aims to drive support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart (the Statement).
- The Statement represented a consensus by 250 Indigenous representatives from across the country as to most meaningful and appropriate way to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within the Australian Constitution – a Voice to Parliament. It was signed on 26 May 2017 at the National Constitutional Convention in Uluru.
- The Statement also calls for a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.
- Only the Voice to Parliament requires constitutional change, which can only come about through a referendum of the Australian people.
- Dean acknowledged that the process leading to the Statement was led by Auntie Pat Anderson, Professor Megan Davis, and Noel Pearson.
- As part of that process Dean attended 12 regional dialogues around the country listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people express their aspirations and concerns for this latest effort at constitutional reform. Many were wary from having seen previous initiatives founder, but Dean felt strongly that the Statement had the potential to succeed in achieving structural reform where others had failed.
- The Statement was not meant to repeat the disadvantages that beset Indigenous Australians, but to ‘unlock the cultural genius’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and ‘weave this into our national identity’. He acknowledged that there was a diversity of views amongst Indigenous people, as there is in any community, but the Statement was, he said, ‘a compelling consensus’ that emerged from those diverse views.
- The Statement issues an invitation to the people of Australia. It is not a submission or a petition to governments. Submissions and petitions seeking structural change to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians have been made to politicians in the past, only to become decorative pieces on the walls of Parliament House; the calls for meaningful and lasting reform went unanswered.
- The drafters of the Statement were committed to ensuring it would not be a display piece – it would be issued to us, the people of Australia. Being an invitation, it is for each of us to decide what our response is to be. If its message of hope and reform resonates with us as individuals, then we should seriously consider supporting the From the Heart campaign.
- The Statement calls for three reforms: Voice – Treaty – Truth.
- A constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament aims to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a means of direct input into laws and policies that affect them. For too long their own expertise and knowledge on how best to effect positive change in their communities was ignored. A call for ‘empowerment’ has accompanied each and every failed attempt; what was missing was a means of achieving the structural reform needed to translate ‘empowerment’ into ‘change’.
- It is important to understand that the Statement is a mandate for a Voice to Parliament as a whole (all of the elected officials responsible to all who elected them) and not just to the party in government in power at the time or the executive of that government. To speak only to the government or its bureaucracies would create even more entrenched power and lose the Voice to the people of Australia that the Statement seeks to achieve.
- A constitutional Voice is necessary for continuity. Past efforts have come and gone, been started and not followed through, changed at the whim of whatever government was in power. The Voice needs to be able to survive electoral cycles.
- The complex challenges facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need longer term views and strategies. Constitutional protection of the Voice will give authority through the will of the people to that Voice that a merely legislated Voice (passing a law permitting a Voice in some fashion or another) would not have. A legislated Voice could be ignored or disbanded or de-funded by the government if what was being said, for example, was uncomfortable to the government in power.
- The aspirational nature of a Treaty or Treaties to Indigenous people cannot be overstated. Negotiated treaties would define the actual ‘settlement’ of Australia that has evaded us since arrival of Europeans in 1770 and colonialization since 1788.
- Truth-telling is thought by some to be the easiest of the three aims of the Statement. “Why don’t we just start with a little truth-telling about our history”, some say, “and then move on to the structural issues of Voice and Treaty?” If fact, the kind of truth-telling called for is not a simple call to sit around in circles telling stories. Addressing the truth means recognising that our institutions have been instrumental in creating or maintaining Indigenous disadvantage. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, emphasises how institutions like the criminal justice system and policing have contributed to African American disadvantage. We need to tell the truth about how these institutions have similarly contributed to Indigenous disadvantage in Australia.
- We need the Voice to ensure that the necessary structural reforms are made. That is why a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament must come first; telling the truth about our history and the institutions that have emerged therefrom can come later.
- Three years on the Uluru Statement from the Heart has never been more relevant. There is already multipartisan commitment for constitutional recognition. The government committed at the last election to carrying through with a referendum. This has been the culmination of decades of work, not just the Uluru conference in May 2017.
- The global recognition of the issues behind the Black Lives Matters movement coincides with the start of the From the Heart public campaign. It has elevated the issues behind the Statement to a national level. From the Heart is in solidarity with BLM but notes that the issues now in the forefront of the public mind were well known in Australia and addressed back in 1999 with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. It was also noted in the 2017 Statement that the incarceration rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is the highest anywhere and needed to be addressed.
- The COVID-19 pandemic provides interesting context. Remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities shut down well before the general government advice to do so as they recognised their particular vulnerability if the virus took hold there. So far there have been no reports of infections in those communities, and this is an example of these communities taking initiative and successfully acting proactively with Indigenous health services for a good outcome.
- Generational change is also important. Young Australians are better informed about their history than older Australians ever were, and this is reflected in the strong levels of support for the Statement among younger people.
- Research shows that nearly half of all Australians would support a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament – and this has evolved organically since the 2017 Statement. This is even before the From the Heart campaign started. Generally speaking, supporters are made up of younger, and more middle-aged people including tradies, more educated people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and, interestingly, people of Asian background. About a third of those surveyed are undecided and this represents an opportunity as they could be persuaded to support a Voice to Parliament if properly informed. Only about 20% would, or would likely vote No, and these are generally older, less educated people with lower incomes and living in regional Australia.
- The research also shows that awareness and understanding is closely associated with support. This is encouraging to the From the Heart campaign and it should not be assumed that the present survey information cannot change, inclining to more support across the board as the campaign is promoted and awareness in increased.
- The messaging from the campaign emphasises that support for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament is fair, practical, safe and unifying.
- It if fair because since the Constitution gives Parliament the power to make laws that specifically affect Aboriginals (as opposed to general laws affecting everyone) it is only fair that those directly affected have a say in the creation of those laws.
- It is practical because bringing the necessary experience and expertise of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to the laws and policies that affect them is likely to improve outcomes.
- Two former Chief Justices of the High Court, Justice Murray Gleeson and Justice Robert French have endorsed the Voice to Parliament as a safe model. It is not, as some have tried to argue, a ‘third chamber’ of Parliament. Indeed, those who said it was have since retracted those statements on properly understanding the model.
- It is unifying because the Statement is not just for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – it is an opportunity to all of Australia to re-think its identity in an inclusive way with a real prospect of moving forward together as a nation.
- The success of the campaign will depend on its ability to leverage networks. The idea is that if the simple messages of the Statement are made known to others through their networks, the prospect of a successful referendum outcome is enhanced. People want to hear from other people like them – it cannot be expected, for example, that Dean’s voice will resonate with everybody. The campaign needs ‘champions across the spectrum’.
- Realistically, a referendum could probably not take place until at least 2023. The From the Heart campaign now focuses on mobilising support and activating the base, getting the information out and raising awareness.
Dean took many questions from attendees. He made the following points:
- The current minister for Indigenous Affairs, Ken Wyatt, has been inconsistent in his support for the Statement’s call for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament. He is currently advocating a legislated voice to the government, which From the Heart does not support for the reasons explained above.
- As for those who would support a ‘symbolic’ addition to the Constitution, it is not enough to have a referendum to ‘add some lines of poetry that will not change a singe life’. This would do nothing to change the structural inequalities that now exist to the detriment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This would do nothing for culture or language, which are necessary to preserve before meaningful Indigenous-led change can be achieved.
- Domestic violence and the high incarceration rates will not be ‘solved’ simply by a Voice to Parliament. We need to understand that these issues have been worked on for years but with little progress because the policy settings, laws, and funding (the structural issues) did not work properly. The Voice to Parliament aims to allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices ‘into that space’ so that their experience and expertise can lead the kinds of changes needed to improve outcomes in these areas.
- What makes the campaign uniquely Indigenous? It is the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people connect to community and harness expertise and wisdom. Older people are privileged. The campaign will take guidance from them and also harness the energy of young people. There is also a generosity and inclusiveness amongst these people, who have every right to be jaded and angry about their place in Australia. Their wish for a proper settlement for the whole nation gives the From the Heart campaign its Indegenous uniqueness.
- The details of the Voice will not and cannot be spelled out in a referendum question or in the Constitution itself. The details of the Voice will only come once enabling legislation is passed after the constitutional change.
- We must not lose sight of the vision behind the Statement and get bogged down in detail. It is about bringing the voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to the issues that affect them, enhancing the democracy of this country and improving the lawmakers’ ability to make good and effective laws. It will not veto or block Parliament in any way. ‘You (non-Indigenous Australians) will have nothing to lose here’.
- As a Rotary club and a peace group we can support the From the Heart campaign. We can sign up on the From the Heart website and be informed on the content as it is developed. We can engage with our networks and our communities informing them of the campaign and directing them to the FAQs on the website that address many of the issues that people might have.
- The more people sign up, and the more they view and ‘like’ content from the website (or our own Rotary Club of Sydney website), the greater is the impact of social media on gathering support. That is how the ‘algorithm’ of social media works.
- The campaign will be won ‘conversation by conversation’, so we as Rotarians can promote and participate in those conversations. We need to be able to say why the Statement and all that it stands for and calls for is important for us.
Visit the From the Heart website: https://fromtheheart.com.au/
The Rotary Club of Sydney Peacebuilding Group will be hosting more talks on Indigenous issues as we head into our Centenary year.