The biggest issue for the 2022 federal election is the Uluru Statement from the Heart

Oct 1, 2021
Uluru Statement from the Heart, May 2017, Aboriginal Convention, Central Australia

There are many issues in contention between the major parties at the next federal election. The biggest question to be determined by that election is the nature of our response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

There are many conventional short- to medium-term issues which will be in contention between the major parties at the next election.

For example, there is likely to still be debate about taxation. Middle class people and rich and powerful people are always focused on taxation. Poorer people know that how a government spends its money is much more important to them.

There are, of course, also serious issues about the availability of child care and social housing which will be influenced by the choice voters make at the election. There will be an important contest about policy to deal with climate change. The election will also decide whether Australia gets a serious integrity commission, or whether we get one at all.

But over and above all these there is one set of issues with the potential to make an important and permanent change to the way we are governed and the way we see ourselves.

This is the suite of issues arising from the “Uluru Statement from the Heart”, including the issue of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Anthony Albanese has expressed his support for a bipartisan process to lead to a constitutional amendment to enshrine the voice of Indigenous people in all the issues which affect them. Scott Morrison has not.

To be fair, I have no reason to doubt the genuine commitment of the Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt, but I doubt his capacity to deliver his coalition colleagues. Some, such as Andrew Bragg, have expressed support. However, it is hard to see the Coalition overall giving up the opportunity to exploit such a potentially divisive issue. This is particularly relevant in Queensland, where Pauline Hanson is threatening to eat into their vote on this and other issues.

I have seen reports that Barnaby Joyce now supports a Voice to Parliament. I cannot validate this claim. He has certainly walked back his more extreme opposition. If it is true that he would support a constitutional change to this effect that would be very significant.

In parallel to the question of a voice is the issue of a Makarrata Commission to conduct national level discussions about a treaty similar to the processes under way in Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory.

The commission may well prove to be the most important part of the Uluru Statement but it has not had the same attention as the voice proposal.

As envisaged, the commission should be able to lead discussions on the rumours, allegations and established facts about massacres of indigenous people up to and including events of the 20th century. It could also follow-up on the unimplemented recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and any other historical incidents of interest.

Albanese has committed to establish such a commission. Morrison has not.

The proposed Makarrata Commission has the advantage that it does not require a constitutional amendment. It could probably be established initially without even legislation, although this would be important going forward.

This suite of measures has the potential to be as fundamental to our future as a country as Gough Whitlam’s commitment to the Gurindji and to land rights more generally. It would be comparable in significance to the Paul Keating Redfern speech or Kevin Rudd’s apology. Taken together with the Native Title Act and the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation it would begin the process of catching up with comparable countries such as New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

When I was shadow minister for Indigenous affairs almost 20 years ago the evidence showed that the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians was wider than in those three comparable countries. The data also showed that the gap was narrowing in USA, New Zealand and Canada but was continuing to widen in Australia. It appears the situation remains the same today.

Redress of historical wrongs and a Voice will not solve these challenges by themselves. But they are an essential part of a suite of measures Australia needs to take to reverse the trend of increasing disadvantage.

The next election will determine many things about our country going forward. As Paul Keating said: “When you change the government you change the country.” No consequence of the next election will be more profound than the question of whether we take next steps to redress historical wrongs and recognise the legitimate claims of our Indigenous citizens.

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