Today, I acknowledge the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation, and pay my respects to their elders: past, present and emerging. I do so because acknowledging First Nations people is vital to recognising from where, as a nation, we have come, and how far we still have to travel. It is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ land on which we meet, their culture and humanity which has been exploited to create the Australia that we know, and their voice that should resonate across this immense land.
The extent to which we, as non-Indigenous Australians, are prepared to listen to our Indigenous people was made apparent by the proposed Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the political response that ensued.
In December 2015, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten jointly appointed the Referendum Council, an expert panel to advise on how best to achieve a successful referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution.
For six months, dialogues were held around the country in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples considered options that met the detailed criteria established. In May 2017, this culminated at the First Nations National Constitutional Convention, held on Anangu Country at Uluru. After exploring truth-telling, treaty and a voice to Parliament, the Uluru Statement from the Heart emerged by consensus, welcomed with a standing ovation, presented to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shortly afterwards.
Uluru is the heart of our country and so is this Statement, from the perspective of Australia’s First Nations people. Carefully considered, and carefully crafted, the Statement notes:
‘With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood, … empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish.
It calls for a ‘First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution [and] a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations…
It ends; ‘In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. … We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
Here was an opportunity for our country to reckon with its past and finally listen to the voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Statement proposed a compelling, achievable, open-minded way not just to acknowledge, but act in accordance with the people who have lived on this land for time immemorial. And also: it was a hand reaching out to a perpetrator of 230 years. To continue, and in some ways only begin, the arduous task of deconstructing the pillars of our country steeped in colonial and racist attitudes. It was a chance to start making things right.
Instead, in October 2017, Malcolm Turnbull, accompanied by Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion rejected the Uluru Statement from the Heart outright. He unilaterally declared it ‘not desirable or capable of winning acceptance at a Referendum’. He deemed it a ‘radical change’. He said ‘a constitutionally enshrined additional representative assembly for which only Indigenous Australians could vote for or serve in is inconsistent with [the] principle [that] all Australian citizens [should have] equal rights.’ And just last month PM Scott Morrison reiterated this stance.
Apparently unaware of the blatant, cold irony and profound hypocrisy. Disingenuously and grossly misleading the Australian people by characterising an advisory body as a ‘third chamber’ to parliament.
On this land, historically deemed ‘terra nullius’, Indigenous Australians were massacred. Stripped of human status, denied the right to vote, own their own land, parent their own children, speak their own language, voice their own struggles; struggles created by white Australia. After all this time, and so little progress, after the Prime Minister’s own commission for a guide to Constitutional Reform had presented its case – what they wanted was too much? How could it be too much?
It is sickening to hear our white and privileged ministers telling the Indigenous people what they need. What they don’t need. What they should not have the right to ask for.
Today I condemn the government’s brash, out of hand rejection of the Statement. Aware of the importance of listening to the First Nations people, and giving them the space to act on issues as they deem appropriate. I do so in solidarity, and in the hope that I may extend the reach of concern, and respect, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
The Guardian described the Statement as ‘a significant departure from the more symbolic forms of constitutional recognition discussed by largely non-Indigenous politicians in the past’. Pat Anderson, co-chair of the Reconciliation Council, explained on QandA that ‘For any … change, one has to imagine a new future … be aspirational,… inspire a new change … that’s what’s not happening in the country today. We have to focus. We have to imagine a new future so we can move to that.’ Perhaps that is why it was rejected. A plea, merely to be heard, was too revolutionary a measure, notwithstanding that it has been maintained for more than 200 years.
Through their rejections Turnbull and Morrison have dismissed the voice of 1,200 delegates from 12 regional dialogues, and wholly the voice of the Australian people. They have deprived us of the chance to hear, listen and respect. To heal, and move forward.
And so, today, I am calling for change – not for the Indigenous community, because they can speak for themselves, and they do. I am calling on all non-Indigenous Australians – to listen. To actively seek a deeper engagement with Indigenous Australia and its people. Because this always was, and always will be Aboriginal land. And we have a responsibility to respect that.
In her acceptance speech, NAIDOC Person of the Year Dr June Oscar told the Indigenous community: ‘We cannot bend for this world. Let the world bend for us.’ I say, let us bend. In the comfort that bending is not breaking, but rather, flowing like a river: fluid and forward. Being aware of, and in harmony with, all those around us. Let us walk in solidarity alongside First Nations people, making space for their demands and voices to be heard, in every corner, every classroom and every Parliament of this country.
(This piece was delivered as Noa’s Year 12 English oral presentation)