Prominent voices within the Indigenous community are questioning or actively opposing the Uluru Statement from the Heart – and urging the Albanese Government to listen. In this analysis piece, editor-at-large Gary Nunn speaks to some of the delegates who walked out from the Uluru convention to find out their concerns.
It may surprise you to learn that just one major political party – Labor – supported the Uluru Statement from the Heart at the recent election.
Neither the Liberal Party nor the Greens supported it in full – although for different reasons.
What may also surprise you is that a cohort of First Nations people oppose it. The Sentinel spoke to delegates who, in protest, walked out from the Uluru Statement from the Heart meeting in 2017 to find out why.
What is the Uluru Statement from the Heart?
Issued in 2017 directly “from the heart” to the Australian people, so it wouldn’t be beholden to the government of the day, the Uluru Statement was the culmination of two years of dialogue amongst First Nations people, decided over four days in a convention near Uluru, featuring 250 delegates.
It calls for the establishment of a permanent First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution, and a Makarrata Commission (‘makarrata’ is a Yolngu word meaning to come together after a dispute to make peace) to oversee truth-telling and treaty-making. The ultimate goal of this, the statement says, is to achieve “justice and self-determination” for Indigenous people.
Where do political parties stand?
The Liberal Party has either outright rejected it, or kicked the can down the road, via their last two governments.
The Turnbull Government in 2017 opposed it, arguing it would effectively create a third chamber of parliament; a characterisation that has been rebuffed as “misplaced” by organisations such as the Law Council. Turnbull also ruled out a referendum, fearing it wouldn’t win.
The Morrison Government asked its Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, to investigate a ‘co-design’ alternative in 2019. But it achieved little. In three years, the co-design group met more than 70 times and developed a widely criticised model which was never tabled anyway. All co-design group members were government appointed.
For the Greens, on the other hand, it all comes down to the order of things. They want the reverse order to that laid out in the statement: truth-telling and a treaty first, then a voice. The implication is that the current statement doesn’t go far enough and a truth-telling commission – modelled on that of South Africa coming out of apartheid and the current Yoorrook Commission in Victoria – will inform the shape, context, extent and powers the voice to parliament should take.
The practical problem with this policy is the gentle pace required to be sensitive and ease the burden of re-traumatising – Victoria’s Yoorrook truth-telling commission has a deadline of June 2024, and that has been described as “extremely ambitious”. The commission has already requested a deadline extension. A process which saw a federal truth-telling commission followed by a voice/treaty could be derailed by a change in government before a voice to parliament even gets voted on.
Many view the Uluru Statement from the Heart as having a “modest ambition”. Anthony Albanese himself described it as a “modest and gracious request”. Labor’s policy is to back it in its current order and put it to referendum in its first term, by mid-2024.
But Labor needs bipartisan support to get that through in the first place.
The Aboriginal people who don’t support it
Like any group, First Nations people are diverse rather than homogenous. Although it’s fair to say that most of those who oppose the statement do so because they don’t believe it goes far enough.
They include delegates, politicians and celebrities.
Actor and writer Meyne Wyatt nephew of former Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt, recently told The Guardian it was a “shallow tool” without a truth-telling and treaty process first: “There’s an assumption all Indigenous people support it, but we don’t all think alike,” he said. “I understand the urge. But being in a constitution still means we’re connected to the Commonwealth and don’t have sovereignty, or a treaty.”
Of the 250 delegates who met in 2017, seven walked out in protest. They were joined by 30 supporters in their walk-out protest.
Some, however, argue these numbers are conservative because others walked out who didn’t note their details on the day.
At the time, delegate Jenny Munro claimed she was being silenced and asked: “How does our sovereignty remain intact when we go into the white man’s constitution?”
For many, their opposition could be surmised by a single word: treaty. They urged the guarantee of one, and don’t trust the current process to deliver one, or mitigate the risk of further embedding their loss of sovereignty.
To articulate the detail of these concerns, the group wrote their own Walkout Statement in response.
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy hosts many of these dissenters, who urge the PM and new Aboriginal Affairs Minister Linda Burney to speak with them.
The Sentinel spoke with two of those delegates who walked out: Greens Senator, Lidia Thorpe and academic and Indigenous rights activist Lynda June-Coe.
“For us to heal as a nation, we must own our truth”
Senator Thorpe tells The Sentinel she walked out of the convention in 2017 “ in solidarity with Elders and activists who weren’t being heard”.
She claims the convention invited lots of people from Aboriginal corporations, but sidelined many clans and nations.
Whilst acknowledging a “healthy” diversity of views, Senator Thorpe says: “Many First Nations people believe we should be negotiating sovereignty instead of tinkering around the edges through constitutional recognition.”
When I put it to her that seven of 250 delegates is a minority, she responds that “the convention didn’t have equal numbers of grassroots people and those employed by their local corporation/organisation. Those clans and nations who walked out represented many families and communities nationwide.”
She wants to see the legislation before she can comment on how likely it is to pass and wants to work with Linda Burney on all elements of the statement and take it back to the people, although she doesn’t back a referendum on a treaty.
“I don’t think 97 per cent of the population should make decisions about three per cent of the population and decide what’s best for us. First Nations people should be deciding what’s best for us, not everyone else,” she says.
Nevertheless, the senator sounds optimistic. “Minister Burney and Senator Patrick Dodson have long been advocates for treaty and reconciliation,” she says. “For us to heal as a nation, we must own our truth.”
“The coloniser’s constitution”
Wiradjuri and Badu Island delegate Lynda-June Coe also walked out.
She’d attended the convention as a delegate from the Dubbo dialogue and from the Wiradjuri Council of Elders.
“It wasn’t an inclusive coming-together of ideas but rather a dominant facilitation by the Referendum Council to roadmap and prioritise constitutional reform via the voice to parliament model,” she says. She emphasises links to the Crown by labelling it a “coloniser’s constitution”.
Coe – a PhD candidate and Indigenous rights activist – walked out because she couldn’t see the convention rectifying the issues of “the unfinished business of Aboriginal sovereignty and our continuing dispossession”.
She claims that from the outset, Indigenous communities have “not been properly informed, consulted and provided the opportunity to participate within the process”.
“The regional dialogues were by invitation only and held in secret. The right for all of our mob to be involved in decision-making processes to self-determine their own future were not the foundations of the Uluru Statement,” she says.
The Coalition’s only Aboriginal MP opposes it
Jacinta Price is the Coalition’s only Aboriginal MP, and the newly elected senator also opposes the Uluru Statement and an Indigenous Voice to parliament.
She hasn’t ruled out campaigning against Labor’s proposal, arguing it isn’t a genuine reflection of what most Indigenous people want, although it’s unclear on what statistical basis she is making that claim.
Price has claimed that there’s already “enough parliamentary representation of Indigenous people”. She comes at this from a right wing perspective which is relatively unique; many Indigenous people are on the record with opposite views to this.
It’d be foolish, however, to describe newly elected Price as a fringe voice.
As the Coalition’s sole Aboriginal representative in parliament, she has an influential new position, and intends to use it – most recently saying she’ll urge her party colleagues to “prioritise education, tackling child sexual abuse and tackling family violence in First Nations communities” instead of pursuing constitutional change for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
If she’s successful in persuading her fellow MPs these are “more critical issues than the Uluru Statement”, Labor’s hopes of bipartisan support could yet be dashed.
It makes the position of Linda Burney, the first ever Aboriginal woman to serve as Minister for Indigenous Australians, a key one.
Lynda June-Coe tells The Sentinel she’s yet to hear from Minister Burney.
But many have expressed high hopes at Burney’s conciliatory, diplomatic approach.
In a recent Q+A panel discussion, she told one of the walk-out delegates and Tent Embassy members, Jenny Munro: “My job as the Minister for Indigenous Australians is to listen and take into account those who don’t support the Uluru Statement from the Heart and also and those who do – and to find common ground.”
That elusive common ground remains ready to be marked in the rusty red soil that runs through the heart of a country ready for Indigenous reconciliation.
Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.