5.8. Why is the Uluru Statement important?
- Mike Seccombe, ‘The Uluru Statement and Indigenous Recognition’, The Saturday Paper, July 29, 2017.
- Dani Larkin and Kate Galloway, ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart: Australian Public Law Pluralism’, Bond Law Review 30,2 (2018).
- Kim Rubenstein, ‘Power, Control and Citizenship: The Uluru Statement from the Heart as Active Citizenship’, Bond Law Review, 30,1 (2018).
- Megan Davis, ‘What happens next for the Voice?’ The Saturday Paper, August 6, 2023.
- Bronwyn Fredericks and Abraham Bradfield, ‘More than a Thought Bubble … : The Uluru Statement from the Heart and Indigenous Voice to Parliament’, M/C Journal 24,1 (2021).
Why is the Uluru Statement important?
Mike Seccombe, ‘The Uluru Statement and Indigenous Recognition”’, The Saturday Paper, July 29, 2017
In this piece for The Saturday Paper, Seccombe notes that the proposal to formally recognise Australia’s Indigenous peoples in our Constitution has had a long history, with change still waiting to happen. Striking a note of optimism Seccombe cites lawyer Mark Leibler, co-chair of the Referendum Council, saying that the Voice proposal both represents the result of a process to find out what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders want and that the proposal is simple and conservative. Seccombe also cites lawyers Anne Twomey — who says that the proposal is modest, pragmatic, and would be a living ongoing process — and Shireen Morris who notes that previous bodies such as ATSIC have been abolished rather than reformed and that is ‘why we need a constitutional guarantee’. Seccombe concludes that, up till now, the ‘countenancing’ of Indigenous recognition has been only that it should be seen but not heard.
‘”Well”, says Mark Leibler, who was co-chairman of the council, “this is the first time there’s been a rigorous process to actually find out what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples want. And what they didn’t want. And we found that out and, I must say, it came as a surprise to some. I was somewhat surprised myself”.
The constitutional reform Indigenous people wanted, it turns out, was not some rhetorical acknowledgement, such as that proposed by Howard. Nor, however, were they taken by legalistic and politically fraught suggestions that the race power under section 51 of the constitution, or the territories power of section 122, should be deleted or amended, nor that a racial non-discrimination clause should be inserted into the constitution.
“As the dialogues were proceeding”, Leibler says, “it became quickly clear that what people really wanted was a mechanism whereby they would be more effectively listened to”.
As articulated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart: “We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution”.
Perhaps it was the simplicity and conservatism that surprised people.’
Dani Larkin and Kate Galloway, ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart: Australian Public Law Pluralism’, Bond Law Review 30,2 (2018), p. 343
In this essay the authors provide an overview of the Uluru Statement and its importance in Australia’s legal landscape. Their key contention is that the Uluru Statement is a central pillar in a truly pluralistic Australian public law. Regardless of its political reception — at the time of writing the Australian government has rejected it out of hand — the Uluru Statement represents a milestone of Australian law offering a vital opportunity to integrate Indigenous law with an otherwise settler legal system.
‘The Uluru Statement is a grassroots, representative expression of self-determination. Its purpose is not to implement “inequality” in representation as the [then Coalition] government maintains, but rather (and finally) to remedy the deficit in equality of representation of Indigenous Australians. The impaired capacity of Australia’s present governance structures to provide equal representation to Indigenous Australians is illustrated through unequal political participation.’
Kim Rubenstein, ‘Power, Control and Citizenship: The Uluru Statement from the Heart as Active Citizenship’, Bond Law Review, 30,1 (2018), p. 27
‘Abstract: This article argues that the Uluru Statement from the Heart affirms a commitment to “active citizenship” that draws from a belief in the equal power of the governors and the governed. This understanding of the Uluru Statement from the Heart enables it to be promoted as a document for all Australians, both in the spirit of reconciliation and in its affirmation of a commitment to an equality underpinning Australian citizenship in the 21st century. By examining how citizenship in Australia has evolved as a legal concept and by reflecting on how law is a fundamental tool for providing a “meaningful limitation of the lawgiver’s power in favour of the agency of the legal subject”, this article examines the Uluru Statement from the Heart as a commitment to the importance of recognising the nature of the proper relationship between the lawgiver and those subject to the law — the citizenry. To exercise power within a democratic framework, as opposed to brute force or sheer will over the subject, involves recognising the agency of the citizenry. This idea not only enables reconciliation to be a meaningful and restorative act but one that recalibrates the exercise of power in Australia to benefit all Australians by affirming a commitment to all Australians’ equal citizenship as active agents.’
‘The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a rousing call to all Australians to rethink their own citizenship. It speaks to each of the ways we think and talk about citizenship: as legal status, human rights, as political participation and as identity. Each is essential to maintaining a democratic Australian society. Looking closely at the statement, it begins by recognising “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”. This recalibrates the story and acknowledges the foundational imbalance of power at the time of Federation — the failure to recognise the existing sovereignty, or power that the Indigenous community held over itself. This is an honest, transparent statement providing a foundation for moving forward. It also reaffirms Indigenous Australians’ continuing identity linked to the land. It then affirms: “It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown”. How fitting that a nation that saw Australian citizenship status sitting happily with British subject status (rights sitting side by side), is now also able to affirm the co-existing sovereignty with Indigenous citizenship.’
Megan Davis, ‘What happens next for the Voice?’ The Saturday Paper, August 6, 2022
This article critiques calls for more detail and explains some of the reasoning behind the lack of specific information about potential legislation. Davis describes a ‘hysteria’ over details and the deliberately ‘adversarial and acrimonious’ manner in which the Voice is discussed in the media. Media reporting on the Voice is largely guided by a misconception that this referendum will operate in a similar way to the referendum for a republic. However, the Voice is different to the republic referendum, and the ‘tenor’ for a national conversation is different, beginning with the Uluru Statement coming out of the regional dialogues which opted to speak directly to the Australian public. The current referendum seeks to enable the creation of a Voice to Parliament and would require minor editing of the Constitution; the two referendums are ‘apples and oranges’.
The article goes on to explain the benefits of holding a referendum before deciding on the exact structure and powers of the Voice. Through this process, details concerning the Voice will be determined by legislation, which may be changed by the government as it needs to be. Davis also suggests that determining specific functions of the Voice has been deferred to allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have more input. If Indigenous communities have a right to contribute to the formation of legislation that impacts them, they should logically be closely involved in designing the Voice, Davis reasons.
Calls for more detail are therefore useless and misleading and, according to Davis, result from those who ‘are disingenuous and predictably opposed’ to the reform. The article asserts that these are the same people who have ‘turned a blind eye’ to issues facing the Indigenous population in the past, and they are obscuring the progress being made towards reconciliation.
‘The hysteria over detail is shielding from view the incredible journey this nation has been on. It is ignoring the men and women of the constitutional dialogues who should be regarded as the heavy lifters of Australian democracy, who invested energy and effort to imagine that the nation that has let them down so many times can change. While media pundits have 1999 as their only reference point for the tenor of a national conversation, our dialogues privileged traditional owners and elders who experienced the 1967 referendum. Although they are not Pollyannas about the difficult road ahead, they believe earnestly in the goodwill of the Australian people. It is they who decided not to hand a bark statement or bark painting to the nation’s leader in the vain hope it may change Australian retail politics. They decided, in all their collective wisdom, to read out a plain statement to the Australian people instead. It was a simple A4 piece of paper with an invitation to the Australian people to meet us at the Rock and walk with us in a journey of the Australian people for a better future. It was an invitation to compel politicians in Canberra to act. The  federal election result confirmed Australians want a new way of doing things. On Indigenous affairs, the election result is the acceptance by the Australian people that there is a better way of doing things, and the Uluru Statement from the Heart provides a road map.’
Bronwyn Fredericks and Abraham Bradfield, ‘More than a Thought Bubble … : The Uluru Statement from the Heart and Indigenous Voice to Parliament’, M/C Journal 24,1 (2021)
This article discusses political reactions to the Voice, the way the media portrays the referendum, the need for a Voice and further reforms in the form of a treaty and truth-telling commissions. According to Fredericks and Bradfield, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was originally treated as a ‘thought-bubble’ by the government, but should be considered a ‘gift to the nation’. The article denounces misinformation spread by the media and claims from Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce that the Uluru Statement is not a viable proposal. The article emphasises the ‘decades of work’ (Fredericks & Bradfield, 2021) that has gone into the formation of the Statement, and explains the potential effectiveness of the Voice, despite its inability to veto legislation. Fredericks and Bradfield also describe parliament as existing within a ‘self-referential bubble’, where discourse revolves around non-Indigenous members. For this reason, they argue, parliamentary structure must be altered; the inclusion of a voice would mean greater and more informed discussion of the views of and issues facing Indigenous peoples. Despite ongoing debates about the structure and details of the Voice, the establishment of a Voice to Parliament is still a popular proposal among Indigenous communities.
The establishment of a Voice would mean a clearer and more effective path to treaty, wherein Indigenous voices would be better heard by parliament. The article discusses the use of the word ‘Garma’, meaning ‘knowledge is attained from a point where differences converge’ as an explanation of how the Voice may benefit future discussions. Fredericks and Bradfield conclude by emphasising the need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be included in discussion and decisions that directly impact the livelihoods of their communities.
‘Throughout the ongoing movement towards constitutional reform, extensive effort has been invested into ensuring that the reforms proposed are achievable and practical. The Uluru Statement from the Heart represents the culmination of decades of work and proposes clear, concise, and relatively minimal constitutional changes that would translate to potentially significant outcomes for Indigenous Australians.’