Junk Explained: What Is The Uluru Statement From The Heart, And Why Is It So Important?

And what's this about a referendum now?

uluru statement from the heart

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This week, once again, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is in the news. Chances are you’ve also heard some talk about an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, the constitution, a referendum, treaties and more.

It’s been two years since Indigenous leaders came together to release the Uluru Statement, which called on Parliament to take a number of steps forward. Since then, government leaders have rejected the statement, wilfully misunderstood other parts of it, and dragged their feet on taking any action at all.

Last week, though, new Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt announced that he plans to work towards a referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition in the next three years. If you’re wondering what that means, and whether it’s a step towards finally enacting the Uluru Statement from the Heart, you’re not alone. Here’s what you need to know to get up to speed.

Remind Me: What’s The Uluru Statement From The Heart?

In 2017, close to 250 Indigenous community leaders from around Australia met at Uluru and released the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It was a historic moment, though not without controversy, with a number of leaders walking out of discussions where they felt like they weren’t being heard. Still, a majority of delegates signed on to the statement, which called on the government to take some very specific steps to support Indigenous Australians.

The statement itself is very short, and worth reading for yourself. It calls for two things: “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution”, and “a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history”.

By “First Nations Voice”, the statement is referring to some kind of Indigenous group or body that gives the government advice on laws and policies affecting Indigenous Australians. The Uluru Statement doesn’t go into detail about exactly what this Voice should look like. The only thing it makes clear is that the Voice must be enshrined in the constitution. That’s pretty important because the constitution can only be changed via a referendum, where the entire country votes. It’s also Australia’s founding legal document, and changes to it can have flow-on effects for laws throughout the country.

The second thing the Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for is a Makarrata Commission. Makarrata is a Yolngu word that means something similar to ‘treaty’, or “a process of conflict resolution, peacemaking and justice”. A Makarrata Commission could help oversee treaty-making processes like the ones currently underway in several states, and/or a treaty agreement with the federal government.

Then there’s the “truth-telling about our history” part. In Aboriginal culture, a process of truth-telling is the first step on the journey of healing after a conflict. A Makarrata Commission would likely provide opportunities for that truth-telling.

Ultimately, then, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is summarised pretty well by the 2019 theme of NAIDOC week: Voice, Treaty, Truth. And yes, NAIDOC week is still focused on the Uluru Statement two years after that statement was released. Because the federal government’s response has been sadly, though not surprisingly, lacking.

What Has The Government Done In Response To The Uluru Statement?

The federal government’s response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart has been pretty rubbish so far. Malcolm Turnbull rejected the Uluru Statement back in 2017, saying that the Coalition government does not believe a First Nations Voice “is either desirable or capable of winning acceptance in a referendum”, and arguing that it would become a “third chamber of parliament”. Labor supports the Uluru Statement from the Heart, but has not managed to win government since the statement was released.

It’s not true that a First Nations Voice would become a third chamber of parliament. What Turnbull (and now Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton and others) mean by a “third chamber” is something like the House of Representatives or the Senate that we already have: a room full of elected representatives who must approve legislation before it is passed. The First Nations Voice is intended to offer advice and input, not to block legislation and make it harder for parliament to operate. Victoria is in in the process of setting up a similar thing now, and it’s pretty clearly not a third chamber.

As for the argument that a First Nations Voice is neither “desirable or capable of winning acceptance in a referendum”, that part isn’t the government’s call to make. Unfortunately, the Coalition has treated the idea of a First Nations Voice as just one suggestion as to how we could recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution. In reality, Indigenous Australian communities have been having this discussion for years, and the Uluru Statement included their final demands, not suggestions.

The government’s most recent attempt to respond to the Uluru Statement took place in July 2019, when new Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt gave a NAIDOC Week speech.

Wyatt is the first Indigenous person to hold the role of Minister for Indigenous Australians, and it seemed for a minute like he was willing to take action on the Uluru Statement. He pledged to work towards a referendum on “constitutional recognition” of Indigenous people within the next three years, but said that time had to be taken to get the wording of the question right. That leaves things pretty vague, though, because “constitutional recognition” can mean a whole lot of things.

What Does “Constitutional Recognition” Mean?

“Constitutional recognition” of Indigenous Australians means changing the constitution to formally recognise that Indigenous Australians are the original inhabitants of this country. There are lots of different ways to do that, though. There’s a big difference between adding a symbolic line mentioning the existence of Indigenous people, and adding something like the constitutionally-enshrined First Nations Voice the Uluru statement called for.

Many Indigenous people still have differing views on what kind of constitutional recognition is best. Some don’t want constitutional recognition at all. The Uluru Statement from the Heart, however, is clear: the only change to the constitution it calls for is one that creates a First Nations Voice to Parliament.

Ken Wyatt’s speech the other day was vaguer: he committed to a referendum on constitutional recognition, yes, but he didn’t say that referendum would necessarily enact the Uluru Statement. Instead, he said that he will prioritise finding a consensus position on the referendum that both major political parties and Australians from all walks of life can get behind, so that the referendum itself is likely to be successful.

“I’ve got to find the common ground that we bring each other to and there are diverse views,” he said. “How do we bring the majority to a common ground that is acceptable, that we could win a referendum with? That’s the challenge, but I’m up to that and I’m prepared to walk with people on all sides of politics, all sides of our community, to hear their views and reach a point at which we can agree.”

“Sometimes we can aspire to an optimum outcome, but we also have to accept that there is a pragmatic element to constitutional recognition, and I would rather us, in the psyche of this nation, have a win on a referendum than to have a loss.”

The fact that Wyatt’s own party is opposed to a First Nations Voice suggests they probably won’t support the kind of constitutional recognition the Uluru Statement calls for. Still, Wyatt didn’t rule out introducing a First Nations Voice outside of the constitution. As for the Makarrata Commission, while he didn’t mention this by name, he mentioned making truth-telling a priority and expressed support for treaty processes at the state level.

Going forward, it seems like we’ve still got a lot of waiting to do. On a federal level, Wyatt is just beginning looking into possibilities for a referendum, truth-telling and treaty. In fact, more work on treaties is happening on the state level right now.

We’ll keep you posted on what happens next.

Feature image via the Australian Human Rights Commission, used under CC BY 2.0