Prime Minister Turnbull’s dismissal of the key Uluru Statement claim for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to parliament should not deter us from that aspiration.
His ignorance should invigorate us because the dismissal demonstrates the importance.
The eminent 19th century African American human rights leader, Frederick Douglas, once said, “to identify the vanguard of your movement, you need only look to the uneasy dreams of an aristocracy and find what they dread most”.
Turnbull’s arrogant response reaffirmed what I already knew of his ilk. Turnbull, Abbott and Howard all have an ingrained dislike of organised collectives of grassroots people. We are their “uneasy dreams”.
The power of unity, structure, and accountable representation
I have been a member of the trade union movement since I commenced my working life at the port of Darwin. It is there that I learnt of the value of solidarity and unity, more, I learnt that unity must be worked on. To achieve the will of a collective, it must be organised to win.
The union movement has won many a battle for workers and social justice. We have brought our society from one where workers were slaves or mere servants, were punished for disobeying the master; we have come from a place where children were forced to labour in mines and factories to a society that now enjoys universal health care, weekends, various loadings, allowances and legislated rights. Each of these wins for the union movement were maligned by employers and politicians of the right-wing ideology. Their claims of Armageddon have since been thoroughly proved as selfish fear-mongering.
Workers and their communities have progressed so far because unions are organised at many levels: at the workplace level, across entire industries and nationally with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). In addition, since the establishment of the Labor party, we have had a political voice in parliament.
I have briefly described how unions have achieved so much for workers and society in general because this is how I understand the significance of a First Nations Voice to Parliament.
I envision that when First Nations representatives are chosen by, and therefore accountable to, their own First Nation Peoples, not appointed by the Prime Minister or the media; and when those representatives can come together regularly, able to hold informed debates toward determining collective positions on matters that are common: we will see major change because that type of Voice will be a force to be reckoned with. A Voice that is organised to win.
The regional dialogues and the Uluru Constitutional Convention didn’t miss the opportunity to again make a loud and clear call for Treaty. We are far behind our Maori neighbours, and many other Indigenous peoples across the globe.
As negotiations continue and commence, we should not underestimate the need for support and leverage in treaty making. Governments are powerful entities to negotiate against, and we should be conscious that while a party in government may enter negotiations for treaty in ‘good faith’, at the the next election that party may be replaced with a government that has a hostile ideology.
We should also be conscious of what a State government can consider in a treaty under our federal system. State governments share power with the commonwealth. Worse, for First Nations who will negotiate against a Territory government, the Territory Power in the constitution leaves agreements vulnerable to the over-riding whims of the commonwealth government.
A national framework negotiated with the Commonwealth by the collective Voices of authorised First Nations representatives is vital to the best possible treaty outcomes. And good outcomes will need a strong Voice to defend them and ensure adherence. Today, we are faced with ‘treaty how’, as much as the struggle for ‘treaty now’.
The Voice Protected in The Constitution
Mere symbolism changes little for an extreme minority that Australian democracy has so clearly failed. Therefore, symbolic constitutional recognition has been rejected. Instead, what emerged in the Uluru Statement is the call for constitutional reforms that will empower First Nations peoples. I have explained why the Voice will be empowering, though the question has been asked: why enshrine the Voice in the constitution?
ATSIC is an example of why constitutional enshrinement is important: ATSIC was established by legislation introduced by the Hawke Government in 1990. It was formed as a representative voice of Indigenous people, elected by Indigenous people. John Howard was the leader of the Opposition. He opposed ATSIC saying, “if the Government wants to divide Australian against Australian, if it wants to create a black nation within the Australian nation, it should go ahead with its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.” The legislation passed despite this divisive rhetoric, though when Howard won power in 1996, ATSIC was soon abolished.
Though ATSIC had considerable internal problems, the reason John Howard, with the support of the Mark Latham Labor Opposition, abolished it was because it was a representative structure that was vital to Indigenous empowerment. It had powers over service delivery, and it stood in the way of potentially damaging decisions. Removing ATSIC paved a much easier path to the Northern Territory Intervention, massively damaging social service funding cuts, and the return of ‘rations for work’ and protector era punishment through the Community Development Program (CDP).
The powers that be would prefer to maintain our structural absence. They oppose constitutional enshrinement because they want the ability to one day tear down what we build. As Dr Perkins noted decades ago,
“We pray eternally that the White authority structure will not turn on us and impede what little progress we have made.”
They seek to maintain our ‘otherness’ to exclude us, rather than enshrine our otherness as an improvement to our democracy.
First Nations need not fear our place in the constitution. As the Uluru Statement says, sovereignty is “the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty.”
Sovereignty has not and never will be ceded by First Nations. White man’s law cannot remove sovereignty, but white man law does oppress – so long as we are not organised to affect it, and so long as our cultural authority is not written into the rule books.
An Unprecedented Consensus
The Referendum Council conducted 45 days of dialogues involving more than 100 First Nations. The more than 1300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants from across our vast continent poured their hearts and souls in to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Never has there been such a proportion of First Nations Peoples deliberating on what is desired from constitutional reform; on its own, this fact is of historical significance; but also consider this: The Proportion of First Nations people (and women) involved was larger than the proportion of the (non-Aboriginal) population (and women) who took part in the constitutional convention debates of the late nineteenth century.
Not only was the process unprecedented, but so was the consensus. The participants reached this unique consensus because they put aside the various contentious grand outcomes that many of the delegates envisioned, such as the Michael Mansell idea of a separate Indigenous State. The Uluru Statement intelligently goes beyond a log of claims. Instead, it proposes that the Government, who has so viciously divided us since colonisation, meet an obligation to repair the divisions by bringing us together in a way that First Nations decide appropriate to them, and then commence the ancient process of Makarrata: the coming together after a struggle.
The Vanguard of our Movement
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is written to the Australian People. It is a nation building vision from an unprecedented process that cannot be dismissed on the peoples behalf by the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.
We cannot take no for an answer. It is time to establish the vanguard of our movement — a First Nations Voice – together we can lift our movement from the canvas painted in Mutitjulu, it is time to awaken our collective Voice from the uneasy dreams of the aristocracy.
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