Indigenous affairs // Leadership | Diversity | Inclusion

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians yearn for voice to parliament

The surprise federal election result reinforced the importance of enshrining an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice in Australia’s constitution, according to University of New South Wales Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous, Professor Megan Davis.

Addressing CEDA’s event on the rights of Indigenous people, just days before the second anniversary of the seminal Uluru Statement From the Heart, Professor Davis said a referendum is still on the table even though it was an ALP election promise. 

“Our voice is never really secured  in a federal parliament and our situation is almost always uncertain and insecure in legislation,” she said. 

“That was the core of the Uluru statement – that it's a structural problem.”

Professor Davis outlined the nationwide dialogue process that led to the creation of the Uluru Statement From the Heart and the legal reforms it contains. 

“This notion of constitutional recognition has been around for a very long time. Constitutional recognition means structural recognition, it means structural reform,” Professor Davis said. 

She noted we have had five government processes on recognition in eight years and eight Commonwealth reports on recognition in eight years. 

“One of the key problems that has emerged upon this road to recognition is that indeterminant word recognition,” she said. 

“Recognition is in fact a very complex legal and political concept, so it can mean many things. It can mean symbolic recognition, which is its dictionary meaning – acknowledgement – but it can also mean substantive reform to power relations.”

Following an extensive dialogue process with representative groups of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the National Constitutional Convention was held on 26 May 2017. The outcome in terms of reforms was called voice, treaty, truth.

“Effectively the number one ranked reform was a voice to parliament, an upfront political empowerment with the model to be decided at a later point,” Professor Davis said. 

“This voice to parliament was the first prioritised reform because I think it spoke to immediate need or urgency to address the voicelessness and powerlessness that so many people feel in communities and in the dialogues.
“People said that there was no existing entity that represents them and that they would like a First Nations voice to the parliament.”

Professor Davis said the second reform was treaty and this had surprised some observers. 

“I think that's because the dialogues shone a light on the complexity of agreement-making that already goes on around Australia. It shone a light on the impact, the fatigue and sometimes the destructive impacts of Native Title and land claims upon communities across Australia.”

She said the appetite for treaty depended on where the dialogue was taking place. 

Instead the Uluru statement had called for the establishment of a Makarrata Commission to do the work of supervising agreement-making, truth-telling and naming and un-naming. 

The third reform priority was truth. 

“It was very clear it needed to be done at a local level and controlled by the mob at their own pace and they very much disavowed a national truth commission,” Professor Davis said. 

“There were some politicians who said, ‘you’ve overreached and what have you done?’ but it had to be included because it was a very important thing to the dialogues that Australians come to learn Aboriginal history.” 

Professor Davis said law reform is a complex task, at times hard and thankless. She said the key to law reform is imagination. 

“You have to imagine that the world can be a better place,” she said. 

“You must suspend your disbelief that this country can’t change. The law can oppress but the law can also redeem. Uluru since day one has been an exercise in idealisation.

“The best changes in the world have come through idealisation, through the exercise of imagination.

“The Uluru statement is an invitation to you all to help us walk together to persuade politicians of the exigency of the reform. As the Uluru statement says we invite you to walk with us on a journey of the Australian people for a better future.” 

High expectations and relationships key to success

Queensland Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, Director-General, Dr Chris Sarra told the event that he is keen to transform relationships that exist between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

Reflecting on the success he had as the first Aboriginal principal of Cherbourg State School, Dr Sarra said honourable relationships were built between communities, children, schools and teachers. 

“The key to success has always been an authentic belief in who we are as Aboriginal people and our belief that we can make a difference and we can transcend the challenges that are confronting us, and I will never depart from the belief that it comes down to high expectations and relationships,” he said.

Dr Sarra said in a policy context over time relationships between government and Aboriginal people began in a place where Aboriginal people moved from surviving to dying then from surviving to complying. Governments or corporate masters were either doing things for Aboriginal people or to Aboriginal people.

“As an Aboriginal man, when I reflect on the essence of that kind of a relationship it doesn't particularly inspire me to want to be a part of that relationship,” he said. 

“It’s not about doing this for us. It’s not about doing this to us, so it must be about something else. 

“We've got a way to go in terms of shaking that off and if we want to truly get to a transformative circumstance that enables us to transcend relationships, we've got to understand that the policy context and the relationship context has to be about enabling us to move from surviving to thriving where we retain our sense of authentic belief and our sense of cultural identity because we offer that to the country as a gift. 

“If it's a relationship in which we co-design what the solutions might be, accepting that we might make some mistakes, if it's that kind of a relationship when I compare it to what's existed in the past I may well be inspired, in fact I am inspired to be a part of that kind of relationship.”