Structural Reform – dissent is not a mandate for disrespect

6 May 2022

As we continue to fight for justice, land rights, self-determination and structural reform, it is critical we remember homogeneity is a colonial concept. We are diverse and dissent does not mandate disrespect.

Our people are dying in custody, our children continue to be removed at alarming levels, our children are locked up, our people struggle to advocate for access to health services, our communities don’t have access to affordable housing and basic living necessities and we are year after year experiencing continued trauma from colonisation.   And yet here we are still standing, still sovereign. 

There is certainly no question we need change. Our ancestors resisted, our Elders took to the streets in protest and our generations continue the struggle for our land, for justice and for Treaty. 

Our iconic protest calls speak for themselves.

However, as political campaigns heat up by the major political parties leading up to the Federal election on Saturday 21 May 2022, the focus on social media has been the structural reform models. 

While the current demands by Indigenous groups for the government to respond urgently to the Uluru Statement’s call for Voice-Treaty-Truth has been a continuing debate since 2017, disappointingly and of concern to our community is the recent behaviours of a small group pressing for support for the Uluru Statement.

There have been social media posts from supporters of the Uluru Statement’s call for Voice-Treaty-Truth and even academics speaking to mainstream media to attack the status, validity, and voices of prominent Black women because they do not support the model of reform that the Uluru Statement’s call for Voice-Treaty-Truth proposes. This type of behaviour in the face of dissent is very concerning, particularly given the undertones and reminiscence of previous reform campaigns.

Senator Lidia Thorpe, a Gunnai-Gunditjmara woman has spoken openly about her alternative views to the Uluru Statement. Following a review of the Greens’ initial support, the Greens have revised their position which places Treaty as the priority under their Indigenous policy portfolio. While the Greens continue to support truth-telling and a voice, the priority for Treaty is the only change to their support and pursuit of structural reform. This approach should not be controversial given it is not a significant departure from other models, just sets priorities differently but this divergence from the Labor-backed model has been met with criticism laid primarily at her feet.

The truth is in the 234 years of Indigenous dispossession, not one government has undertaken to ask the question of all First Nations to ascertain an appropriate answer to the task of treaty-making.   In the Uluru Statement its opening sentence reads, Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs’.  Those sovereign First Nations referred to in the Statement still to this day affirm their sovereignty to still be intact and it has never been ceded.  

Since the arrival of the First Fleet and an ensuing regime to exterminate Indigenous peoples, our tribality and nationhood too has been severely reduced through the impact of colonialism.  A closer examination of other settler-colonial societies such as Canada, New Zealand and the United States provides insight into how Indigenous nations who have signed historical treaties have maintained the structural qualities of nationhood in their contemporary political survival against the state.  The structures that I refer to for instance are political autonomy, tribal governance of treaty lands and reservations in what are deemed “domestic dependent nations.”      

In Australia however, due to the refusal by the country’s British forefathers to treaty with our ancestors in an attempt to maintain the lie of Terra Nullius, our inherent rights to elect our own representation within our own political institutions in accordance with Aboriginal law has become futile under the current Native Title and Land Rights regimes. Both policies are proven to be even more so destructive in rebuilding Indigenous governance in accordance with our custom and protocol whilst simultaneously retaining the structure of Terra Nullius in the violent process of cultural recognition in the colonisers’ court system, which is where we have now landed in practical reconciliation efforts.  

For Australians who are unaware of Indigenous custom and protocol, it is against our lore for a nation to speak on behalf of another – as is the custom in western democracies that are sovereign.  Indigenous political systems are autonomous as are our identities and territories.  Each sovereign First Nation has a right to speak to issues which impact them directly, especially one so important as constitutional reform and the model of a voice to parliament whose fundamental power is to act as an advisory body.       

In deference to cultural protocol, in 2016, regional dialogues were held around the country to determine if Constitutional Reform should be a priority for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and to roadmap a pathway forward for communities given the reluctance of governments over the past two decades to fully recognise Indigenous calls for treaty. 

I remember the march of 1988 in Sydney as 40,000 Blackfullas called for justice as the rest of the nation celebrated its bicentenary year and  I remember the shifts in national dialogue by political leaders once treaty became too prominent an issue for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to turn away from.

I attended the Dubbo dialogue in regional New South Wales along with my father Les, Aunty Jenny and Uncle Lyall Munro who were all elected to attend as representatives at the Uluru Convention.  What has transpired since the Dubbo dialogue is, in my experience, an attempt by some to silence and intimidate Blackfullas, and in particular Black women, who attended and participated in the process but held dissenting views to the agenda. These behaviours are not only concerning but it undermines the meaning and auspiciousness of what was attempting to be achieved through years of work.

To those of us who were dissenting, it appeared that the agenda was already set and any attempt to deviate or engage in the robust discussion was not allowed and I feel like this diluted the message.  Prior to attending the Uluru Convention, I met with the Wiradjuri Council of Elders who along with other Aboriginal communities were largely unaware of the Dubbo gathering as well as the meeting in Uluru. The lack of awareness among Elders and communities raised concerns in my mind as to whether the dialogues were fully inclusive. So, it was under their instruction and cultural authority that I, along with my Father, would represent and act in the best interest of the Wiradjuri Elders and Nation to ensure our sovereignty was honoured and affirmed in any decision-making.  What occurred at the national convention was an attempt to overshadow all debates and proposals by delegated representatives and steamroll the roadmap to a Voice to Parliament under the notion that ‘we must appeal to these whitefullas’ if a referendum is to be successful. While I am of course aware of the political nature of Indigenous affairs in a settler-colonial state, the claim that the dialogues were an inclusive gathering of views from our peoples is a disappointing and damaging representation of what took place.

The Wiradjuri mandate I was instructed to convey was to amplify the unfinished business of sovereignty and treaty and to collectively address the structure of white supremacy which has continuously denied us these rights.  The issue of being excluded in the Australian constitution was and is a distraction to our collective anti-colonial efforts which were established during the foundational work of the Aboriginal Land Rights Movement throughout the 1960’s and 70’s.  Since that time of what was our most historically progressive era in the lifespan of the Black political movement, it feels like we have become derailed and blind-sided by the proposals of conservative elitists and constitutional lawyers with little regard for our communities and cultural protocols. The fact that this one reform approach is sponsored by multi-billion dollar mining companies and beneficiaries of our continuing dispossession should give pause to at least understand why.  

Why would a model that is intended to reform the system to place some form of power in the hands of Indigenous peoples be so heavily supported by companies that have and continue to profit from our dispossession and theft of our land? Perhaps an examination of the enforceability of the model, of the voice and how it addresses the very issues that give rise to the misperception of unanimous support by all First Nations.  

Reform is essential, on that we all agree, but there needs to be room to consider and interrogate the array of models proposed by sovereign First nations, and which is more inclusive of our communities and Elders, not solely those that engage on a national level in the machinery of Indigenous affairs. We, as in all of us, are entitled to be provided with a granular understanding of how this model seeks to address our calls for justice, our calls for land rights and our calls for self-determination. Those are the questions that those with counter views at the Uluru dialogues were seeking clarity on, for the simple fact that it was our cultural responsibility to report back to our Elders and communities on what this means. 

Having our people and community understand this at the granular level is paramount. Appealing to white Australia should not be the priority.

Where is the justice my ancestors and Elders have fought for and never been afforded?  It was never in my ancestors’ vision to sit at the coloniser’s table and merely advise.  

My Elders demanded the seating at our tables – we are sovereign.  

A cease-fire to the hostility that has endured for two hundred years on just terms, our terms.  

This is the position of many First Nations and the justice that we seek.    The silencing and exclusion of such a standpoint raises concerns about the deliberateness of recent attacks on Black women whose opposition to such a campaign is telling.  Are the voices of Black women not worthy of articulating a pathway out of our shared struggle?  Who benefits from this violent uptake of (intra) colonising Black women even more so?

I remind those who seek to label sovereign Black women as divisive, as trouble-makers, as invalid, and invisible that it is these Black women who are doing the heavy lifting day in and day out in our communities.  These Black women are not afraid to stand up to the establishment and to the status quo uncompromising in their beliefs and politics out of fear of being unpopular with the latest government-funded campaign or co-design.   It is these very women who speak truth to power, that should be listened to and respected, for they do not just represent themselves, but our past and our future.  It is this fundamental issue that both major parties and its supporters do not quite enjoy accepting – the Greens do encompass growing support and a potential home base amongst Indigenous communities, especially in New South Wales and Victoria and more importantly Black women. Our voices won’t be silenced and will be reckoned with.

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