The Uluru Statement: An offer of redemption and reconciliation from the original sin that migrants all carry

Aug 27, 2020

May 26 2020 was the third anniversary of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It was also the day the news of George Floyd’s murder broke which explains why the Statement had fewer headlines and opinion pieces in the Australian media than in previous years

The Uluru statement gets much less attention than what such an historic document deserved, although it did ignite Black Lives Matter protests which, in Australia, were primarily focused on the plight of Indigenous Australians.

The Statement is arguably the most momentous in Australian history, a foundational document calling for a new Nation that is truly inclusive of all of us, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, radically different from the one constituted on January 1, 1901. While the constitutional amendment of 1967 nullified the myth of ‘terra nullius’, effectively acknowledging the humanity of Indigenous Australians and the 1992 Mabo Judgement recognised their Native Title Rights to Australian territorial land and waters, albeit to only 15% of it, they fell far short of recognising them as Sovereign Nations or establishing the ‘Voice Treaty Truth’ the Statement seeks.

While it is obviously of fundamental importance to Indigenous Australians, the Statement is no less so for the rest of us. The reason is that the invasion and seizure of the lands and waters they had inhabited, governed and looked after for at least 65,000 years, is the Original Sin that stains the souls of all of us migrants and descendants of migrants. The Statement give us an unprecedented opportunity of redemption from that Sin and also offers forgiveness and reconciliation for all the subsequent sins we have committed against Indigenous Australians, including enslavement, genocide, usurpation and exploitation of their continent, which have cumulatively reduced them to one of the most disadvantaged communities in the world, while making us one of the richest.

The generous spirit of the Statement is amazing, – not a log of claims that they have every right to make, but an invitation to walk with Indigenous Australians, “in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”. No call to war like the American ‘Declaration of Independence’; no Gandhian demand to the British to “Quit India”; no cry for ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ which unleashed the French Revolution!

The Statement’s three entirely reasonable and exceptionally modest requests, especially in the light of how much they have lost and suffered and we have correspondingly gained and enjoyed, are:

  1. Truth: “Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands. It has never been ceded or extinguished and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown”.
  2. Voice: “Establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution”
  3. Treaty (and Truth): “A Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history”.

The statement only mentions three reforms explicitly – parity in the rate of incarceration of Indigenous Australians in general and their youth in particular and a stop to the alienation of their children – leaving others to be raised and resolved by the Makarrata process.

Sadly, Prime Ministers Turnbull and Morrison have spurned the invitation, rejecting the call for a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution, arguing, entirely incorrectly, that it would be a ‘Third Chamber’. Ken Wyatt, Minister for Indigenous Australians, after several seemingly contradictory comments about the Voice, eventually announced on October 19 2019 a “co-design process that will develop models to enhance local and regional decision-making and provide a voice for Indigenous Australians to government”, a far cry from a Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution.

Adopting a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, Wyatt chose Indigenous leaders to help him develop this process without consulting the Uluru Leadership Dialogue Group (ULDG), which has said, “Noel Pearson, Professor Megan Davis, Pat Anderson AO and Roy Ah-See, on behalf of the Uluru Dialogue delegates, affirm today there will not be a compromised position on a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament as articulated in the “Uluru Statement From the Heart”. Another eminent Uluru delegate, Eddie Synot, in a UNSW release on October 31 2019 said “Ken Wyatt’s proposed ‘voice to government’ marks another failure to hear Indigenous voices.

The ‘voice to government’ is to be legislated and separate from the question of symbolic constitutional recognition. This type of reform was resoundingly rejected by the Uluru statement.” In another rebuff, the Minister has barred his advisory group from “making any recommendations on a Makarrata Commission, the forum meant to offer “truth-telling” and conflict resolution with First Australians.” (David Crowe SMH February 11 2020).

One must acknowledge progress relating to reduction in Indigenous incarceration and alienation of children through more ambitious ‘Closing the Gap’ targets, a key reason for this being that the new targets were negotiated with the authorised Indigenous ‘Coalition of Peaks’. However, postponement of an increase in the minimum age for incarceration from 10 to 14 seems unforgiveable, as is the target of parity in adult incarceration by 2093!

So, what next for the Uluru Statement? Clearly the Government must start a constructive dialogue on the entire Statement with the ULDG. We Non-Indigenous Australians must continue to support Black Lives Matter vigourously. Given Covid-19 restrictions the battle must be fought in all forms of media, especially social media, which has the capacity to galvanise the wider Australian community.

As the Government is likely to remain intransigent, Anthony Albanese and Labor, who have both committed to support the Statement, have the opportunity to keep the flame alive by immediately commencing negotiations with the ULDG. This will put great pressure on the Government and resonate positively with the electorate leading up to the next election.

If all else fails, the only hope for redemption and reconciliation may be Gandhi’s proven strategy of Non-Violent Civil Disobedience. After all, it helped bring about the success of the 1967 referendum, the end to the Vietnam War and the abandonment of the Franklin Dam!

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