Dr Dani Larkin
In his election victory speech on May 21, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese commenced by acknowledging the traditional owners of the country he was on, he paid his respects to their elders (past, present and emerging) and most significantly he committed to the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.
To be clear, this process for seeking our constitutional recognition commenced back in 1999 when then-Prime Minister John Howard sought to recognise us in the preamble of the Australian Constitution as First Peoples to this continent. This proposal, however, was rejected by the Australian people when it was put to them at the 1999 referendum. This rejection came largely from the fact that minimal-to-no consultative effort had been undertaken by the Howard Government with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, or the broader Australian public. The proposal offered only symbolic recognition, which was a concern amongst many First Nations peoples that it was unable to deliver on recognising substantive rights through meaningful structural reform.
From there, the question of how Australia should constitutionally recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples has remained up in the air. Over the years Indigenous constitutional recognition has received support through election commitments from all major Australian political parties, but what has changed over time has been the shift in the form this recognition should take.
We know today that recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples means structural reform and not symbolic reform to the Australian Constitution. Structural reform in this way involves the constitutional recognition of an Indigenous elected representative body so that Indigenous people have a seat at the table when it comes to decision-making that impacts upon Indigenous people and our affairs.
In 2015, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott endorsed the ‘Recognise’ campaign which again sought to symbolically recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the preamble of the Australian Constitution. In reaction to this proposal, prominent Indigenous leaders and constitutional experts such as Professor Megan Davis, Noel Pearson, and Aunty Pat Anderson AO, spoke with Prime Minister Abbott at Kirribilli House and called on him to support a new process of Indigenous constitutional recognition. From there, the Referendum Council was formed and tasked with going out and testing the sentiment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities as to whether – and how – they want to be constitutionally recognised.
The Referendum Council then designed and coordinated the Regional Dialogue consultative process, which commenced in 2016. The Regional Dialogues involved 13 regional meetings across Australia of invited Indigenous Elders, Traditional Owners, and prominent community representatives to discuss potential options. The Regional Dialogues culminated in the 2017 First Nations National Constitutional Convention where 250 Dialogue Delegates gathered together to discuss and reach a consensus on the most preferred option for Indigenous constitutional recognition. Once a consensus was reached, delegates issued the Uluru Statement from the Heart 2017.
The Uluru Statement is an invitation to the Australian people to walk with us as part of a people’s movement for structural reform achieved through Indigenous constitutional recognition. Most importantly, it sets out a deliberately sequenced legislative reform roadmap that seeks to achieve justice and political empowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Uluru Statement reform proposals include: first the establishment of a constitutionally-enshrined First Nation’s Voice to Parliament and; second, the establishment of a Makarrata Commission to supervise Treaty and Truth-Telling processes.
Since 2017, the Uluru Statement has garnered sweeping public support, including from all major political parties. A co-design process has also been completed which was rolled out under the Morrison government from 2019- 2021, led by the then-Minister for Indigenous Affairs Ken Wyatt. The co-design process has provided us with further options for how a Voice might look and function.
Since the Albanese government has come to power, support for the Uluru Statement has continued to grow. What now remains uncertain is when a date will be set for a referendum to take place.
The Uluru Dialogue Leadership remains adamant that this should be done urgently. The Yarrabah Affirmation from Dialogue Delegates puts forth two dates for a referendum to take place. First, it proposes May 27 2023, which would be the 56th anniversary of the 1967 referendum and the 6th anniversary of the Uluru Statement. The second date proposed is early 2024, (likely January 27, which is the day after Invasion Day/Australia Day).
The timing of the referendum is important. Successful referendums count on the momentum of public support. This process has more than two -decades worth of public support and a lot of effort to show how a Voice could be established and work to represent all views of First Nations’ people in law and policy reform processes. It’s time for constitutional enshrinement of a First Nation’s Voice to Parliament to become a reality.
Dr Dani Larkin is an Australian Human Rights Institute Associate, a Deputy Director of the Indigenous Law Centre and a Lecturer at the Nura Gili Centre for Indigenous Programs. Dani is a Bundjalung, Kungarykany woman from Grafton, New South Wales.