Kate Guilfoyle: Rejection of Uluru Statement leaves Indigenous in the cold

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Uluru, Northern Territory. PHOTO: Joanna Penn, cc by 2.0

Last week, the Federal Government rejected a proposal that the Indigenous community have a voice in the Australian Parliament.

Cape York leader Noel Pearson described the rejection as “devastating” for the community.

“I think Malcolm Turnbull has broken the First Nations Hearts of this country, expressed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart”.

Why was this rejection such a devastating blow?

In May 2017 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives gathered at Uluru to hold an historic First Nations Convention.

The meeting was the result of regional dialogues with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities around the country where the problems facing indigenous communities were articulated and the solutions, which they sought, were given a voice.

From these dialogues, representatives from each of the communities were appointed to the Convention. The result was an historic agreement, culminating in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

That statement provided:

In 1967 we were counted. In 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

The statement was part of a drive by which the Aboriginal and Torres Strait people (as expressed by the Referendum Council) called for indigenous representation in the Parliament by enshrining a First Nations Voice in the Australian Constitution, thereby enabling a say in affairs which affect the well-being of their communities.

Contributions regarding the mechanics of giving effect to the Constitutional provision were put forward by Constitutional experts, including Professors Rosalind Dixon and Megan Davis and Associate Professor Gabrielle Appelby of the University of New South Wales, building upon ideas proposed by Noel Pearson, and Professors Anne Twomey of the University of Sydney and Greg Craven of the Australian Catholic University.

The proposals include statutory provision for a mandatory voice on issues regarding the determination of Aboriginal people, together with an optional inclusion in other areas of legislation, with no power of veto.

Additional elements include the establishment of a Makarrata Commission. Markarrata is a Yolgnu word meaning “to come together after a struggle”.

A Makarrata Commission is one in which issues are addressed after a conflict. The Makarrata Commission was envisaged by the Aboriginal people as a means of supervising a process of agreement-making with the various Australian governments.

It was also seen as a mechanism by which truth telling could be effected about the history of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Referendum Council reported to the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition in June 2017.

And now the Government has rejected the Council’s proposals.

Noel Pearson did not mince his words in expressing how he felt about the move.

“The prime minister and his cabinet have abrogated to themselves the entire judgment of this fundamental issue of how we recognise Indigenous Australians,” Mr Pearson said.

“Why not just put it to the Australian people, as we are putting to a plebiscite the question about same-sex marriage at this very moment?”

Victoria’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Natalie Hutchins said the Federal Government had turned its back on Aboriginal people:

An Australian pilgrim looks on as Pope Benedict XVI leads a Mass for the canonisation of six saints at the Vatican on October 17 2010. PHOTO: CNS

“To have gone to the lengths of setting up an advisory council and then totally rejecting what has come forward, it just makes you wonder where their commitment to Aboriginal Australians is.”

The statement by the government said:

Our democracy is built on the foundation of all Australian citizens having equal civic rights – all being able to vote for, stand for and serve in either of the two chambers of our national parliament.

A constitutionally enshrined additional representative assembly which only Indigenous Australians could vote for or serve in is inconsistent with this fundamental principle.

It would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of parliament. The Referendum Council noted the concerns that the proposed body would have insufficient power if its constitutional function was advisory only.

The challenge was to find a constitutional amendment that would succeed and which did not undermine the principles of unity, equality and one-person-one-vote, the statement said.

The Government wants the national conversation to return now to work done over the past decade “largely with bipartisan support”.

The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, Attorney-General George Brandis and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, responding to the council’s report, said:

“The government does not believe such an addition to our national representative institutions is either desirable or capable of winning acceptance in a referendum”.

Cape York leader and education innovator Noel Pearson. Source: WikiMedia Commons

The 1967 referendum was successful in granting the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people constitutional recognition. It was supported by more than 90% of the Australian public. However, while it conferred constitutional recognition upon the aboriginal people, it did not provide a mechanism for them to be heard or to participate in decisions which affect their well-being.

The Uluru Statement Working Group co-chair, Josephine Crawshaw, said that the Prime Minister understood that a minimalist approach would not satisfy many Indigenous people.

“Our aspirations are high, but the Prime Minister appears to believe that the Australian people will not support those aspirations,” Ms Crawshaw said.

“This is a very unfortunate view for the prime minister to hold, particularly when he has the highest platform to inspire all Australians to achieve great things for this country and for all its people.”

The rejection of the proposal by the Government means that in the perception of the Indigenous communities their participation and request for a voice in the decisions affecting their communities has been ignored under a mantle of assumed equality in the governing process.

The justification given for rejecting the proposal – that our democracy is built upon the foundation of all citizens possessing equal civic rights – is one where the reality of the Indigenous voice is covered over by assumptions that do not operate for the Indigenous communities.

The Indigenous community is effectively silenced. At 3 per cent of the population, the it is unable to exercise political weight.

The Aboriginal cause for self-determination, its disenfranchisement and the shredding of its social and family structure is not given a voice in the mainstream media. Corporations do not adopt the Aboriginal cause as a flag to advertise their goods.

The Aboriginal community is truly disadvantaged – it does not have the spending power, by which it can use its muscle to pressure corporations to champion its cause. It cannot boycott corporations who do not adopt its claims. It needs the political pressure of the larger community.

The Indigenous community is a sector of our society which faces enormous and endemic challenges. The stresses facing them are reflected in statistics which reveal the highest percentage of incarceration in the world (2,346 per 100,000), and disproportionately high infant and child mortality rates.

The mortality rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 0-4 years was twice the non-indigenous rate (164.9 per 100,000 compared with 80.1 per 100,000), according to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework 2017 Report (pmc.gov.au).

Noel Pearson, speaking on Q&A, on May 29 2017, stated:

We’ve made progress in the last 50 years but some of the profound indicators of our problems – children alienated from their parents, the most incarcerated people on the planet earth and youths in great numbers in detention- obviously speak to a structural problem.

The Uluru Statement is the latest step in the long-running, indeed, endless and dispiriting requests by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for recognition by our community at meaningful levels and a say in the welfare of their own people.

They have made requests of this nature repeatedly throughout the twentieth century. They have repeatedly been ignored.

The Uluru Statement is the voice of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves, determined at a grass roots level and presented with the assistance of constitutional experts.

It has been presented to the Parliament with respect for the laws of this country and recognition of the many nationalities that form our citizenship. It has been presented in good faith and with courtesy.

It has not been divisive, but inclusive. It invites us to walk with them, to acknowledge them and the role they play within our community and their relationship to this country.

Australian governments, media and commercial organisations struggle to understand the history of the Aboriginal people, the structural discrimination and the potential cultural benefits that might flow from dialogue.

The latest rebuff from the Federal Government demonstrates a political response rather than a legal impediment.

Fundamentally, the response by the Australian political parties and lack of corporate engagement to identify and address the discrimination suffered by this community does not match the energy and financial resources devoted to the statutory and structural redress of other claims of discrimination within our community.

As such, it seems to beg the following question:

Can we, the Australian public, and corporations, congratulate ourselves on our claims to “fair go”, “inclusiveness”, and “egalitarianism”, if we adopt fashionable causes, while ignoring the dispossession that is within us?

It’s time to act and to get in contact with your parliamentary representative.

More information about the Uluru Statement is available at www.1voiceuluru.org