The Uluru Statement from the Heart report has been met with little enthusiasm by Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders have not given up hope that Australia will make significant constitutional changes in regards to the recognition and inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
In May of this year, 250 representatives from 13 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander regions, met in Alice Springs for the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, or Makarrata commission. The convention was arranged by the Referendum Council, a committee established in December of 2015, by Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, to advise the government on decisions regarding Indigenous constitutional recognition. The three-day discussions resulted in the establishment of a report, delivered to the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition at the end of June, at the Anangu community of Mutitjulu. The opening ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ calls for “substantive constitutional change and structural reform”, and recommends the constitutional enshrinement of an Indigenous voice in Parliament, and the establishment of a truth-telling treaty commission.
Though the statement was released in June, there has been no commitment to action from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. In a speech made at Garma Festival in North Eastern Arnhem Land, Turnbull neglected to give any indication of plans to act on the report. However, Indigenous leaders have encouraged the Indigenous communities to not be disappointed but to continue to support the report. Since its delivery, the statement has been endorsed by both the Greens and Labor, by activists, social justice and religious groups, and by various Indigenous communities, including the descendants of Gurindji workers who took part in the historic walk-off at Wave Hill station.
“In 1967 we were counted,” the statement read. “In 2017 we seek to be heard.” The statement also says that “Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle […] It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination […] Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.”
Australia is the only Commonwealth country that has never created a treaty with its first peoples, and it is clear that this is the option supported by many Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal Australian lawyer, academic, land rights activist and founder of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, Noel Pearson has said that there is little support for mere constitutional acknowledgment of Indigenous Australians and that an enshrined ‘voice’ in Parliament would be more substantive: “It will have a more practical impact Aboriginal people’s place in the democracy,” he said. “That’s what they’ve chosen rather than some sort of nice words of acknowledgement.”
“In the discussions that we’ve had in the last six months, people want treaty … they don’t want acknowledgment, they want treaty and a truth and justice commission,” said Chairperson of the Lowitja Institute, Pat Anderson.
According to Aboriginal activist and human rights lawyer, Professor Megan Davis, no hard copy of the statement was presented to the government because of fears the document would remain in Parliament house while affecting little or no change. She also indicated that after the statement there would be no more significant attempts for constitutional change in regards to Indigenous Australians. “The only way we can get this done is to get all Australians to walk with us,” said Ms. Davis, “People feel like it’s the last throw of the dice — so it has to be.”
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