History and the Uluru Statement from the Heart - speech prepared for the Australian Historical Association Conference 2019 and the plenary on Voice, Treaty and Truth

Uluru Statement from the Heart Plenary, Voice, Treaty and Truth, Australian Historical Association Conference, 9 July 2019, Toowoomba, Queensland  

Below are my prepared remarks on the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the NAIDOC theme of Voice, Treaty and Truth that I presented at the Australian Historical Association Conference, 9 July 2019. The AHA Conference was hosted by the University of Southern Queensland and held in Toowoomba, Queensland. 

History and the Uluru Statement from the Heart

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Jarowair and Giabal people, elders past and present, and all other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

I’d also like to acknowledge Teela and Thomas, who I’m with today, and thank them for their work on ensuring the reforms called for by the Uluru Statement from the Heart – Voice, Treaty and Truth – become a reality. 

I’d also further like to acknowledge two people that aren’t here today but that are both very much part of the fabric of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and are key to us moving this reform forward – Aunty Pat Anderson and Professor Megan Davis. 

And I’d also like to thank Libby and the association for the invitation to talk about what I believe is the most important legal, and broader social reform, facing us as a community today, a reform that I believe will have positive repercussions beyond the narrowly defined field of Indigenous affairs. 

I, out of the three of us, have the somewhat ‘enviable’ task of talking to a room full of historians about the history behind the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the movement more broadly that has led to the reform sequence of Voice, Treaty and Truth. 

Considering that task, I’d also like to acknowledge the work of many of you on the history of our people and the foundational truth telling that you have all been part of that has further enabled our voices to be heard.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a momentous event in our history. I don’t believe there has been a greater consensus or amplification of Indigenous voices with regard to our hopes and desires. This is an authoritative document, premised in the authority of the participants at the regional dialogues across the country, and then at the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru, that continues the long history of advocacy of Indigenous people. The Uluru Statement from the Heart is an Indigenous document presented to all Australians – it represents our voices. 

It is a ‘statement from the heart’, from the ‘first sovereign Nations’ who have occupied the land, and that continue to exist today ‘according to the reckoning of our culture’. Very simply, but poignantly, the Statement asks, ‘How could it be otherwise?’ 

The question is a not so subtle reference to a history and practice that has indeed denied and claimed that the truth of our existence is otherwise. 

We know that history very well. 

It is a lived history of exclusion, denial, and erasure. Of the lack of agreement and recognition of our rights that inhere in us as a people, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, not just the narrowly defined rights that we have come to be known by about our continually produced low socioeconomic status. 

It’s a history of lamented failures and broken promises; of vague legal principles and instructions that support beguiled hopes of legal claims and protections, whether domestically or internationally, while real, affective, sovereignty and authority is remade every day without us; it’s a history of misguided progressiveness and inclusions, but inclusions that have always been circumscribed or limited, or that have required the high price of the death of our distinctive being. 

It is a history of the contemporary practice of a redemptive liberalism that apologises for its past deeds, extricates the ‘bad’ parts, and smooths its exclusionary edges, while keeping still that strict and circumscribed limit to our recognition and reconciliation. 

It is a history captured by the fabulous retroactive moment of justice in Mabo. The recognition of the great lie that became known as terra nullius, but with the simultaneous legitimation of that same system, that in the words of Justice Brennan, could not recognise our people more than it had due to the risk of fracturing the skeleton of principle that gives Australian land law – and Australia more generally – its shape and internal consistency. 

It is a history where Justice Brennan’s other descriptor of ‘the tides of history’ in Mabo, that had washed away the sins of the past, cleansed the Australian state of that unutterable shame, leaving no other questions to be answered, or none at least the High Court would be willing or able to address, too often rules the day. 

It is this history and practice that I believe many Indigenous people and allies have always understood. It is a history that has always shown where sovereignty and authority lie, despite proclamations and declarations otherwise. It is a history that has always shown that greater political will is needed across the entire community; that limited inclusions without substantive reform have never been enough.  

It is a history also that has shown that what is required is an understanding of, and an appeal to, that greater political will and sense of responsibility that I believe continues to speak loudest through the Uluru Statement from the Heart, one that Indigenous people have always appealed to and based our claims in, however different those claims have been over time. 

We have been held captive – never completely – to these histories. Despite all this however, we have always spoken, our Voice and voices has always been there, present even in the moments of our supposed erasure. 

We have always spoken of our claims and our rights; we have always based those claims in our existence as the first sovereign peoples. We have always spoken of sovereignty and self-determination, not in the abstract and reified ways those terms have too often come to be understood and used, but in the ways that they are instrumental to the meaningful control of our lives and resources to live those lives. Our claims have never been unreasonable. 

These are the voices and understandings drawn out and amplified by the Uluru Statement from the Heart. 

Constitutional reform of course is not a new phenomenon. Since our first exclusion from the Australian Constitution and continued relegation to the whim and authority of the states and territories, Indigenous people have advocated to address the structural power imbalance that exists and the special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

This notably included specific proposals during the 1930s and 40s that eventually lead into the advocacy that achieved the momentous 1967 referendum. Our people, I believe, have always implicitly understood where authority and power lie in the colonies and succeeding federation, and have always appealed to and attempted reform of our relations within that understanding. This is why the Australian Constitution has remained a target of reform.

Yet the recent history of constitutional reform, at least since the then Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd promised constitutional recognition in the 2007 election campaign, has been a micro-representation of this greater history where our structural powerlessness has continued to hinder the realisation of greater reform. We had the Expert Panel report in 2012 and multiple Joint Select Committee Reports since. All did important work; all moved this reform forward; but all failed to appropriately reflect the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

Thanks to our strong leadership that remained informed by our communities, however, a large group of our leaders met with then Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten at Kirribilli House in 2015. Perhaps, not historically, the best place to be seeking agreements, promises or succession plans from politicians, but our leadership were able to present community concerns and the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

The key message delivered was what the message from the Indigenous community has always resoundingly been. That is that substantive structural reform is needed, and that our community would support nothing less; that a new relationship could only be built upon the foundations of that meaningful change and that status quo inclusion would not work.  

The Referendum Council was born out of this process. The Referendum Council’s work wasn’t without its own challenges, but despite all of that, the Referendum Council was able to achieve something remarkable that had been largely missing from the reform process to date. That was an Indigenous led and authored process of deliberation, across the nation in multiple places, to flesh out and discuss what Indigenous priorities were. 

This was not an easy process; and Teela is going to discuss this process in more detail; but it was a successful, deliberative and legitimate process, one that is key to understanding the priority sequence of Voice, Treaty and Truth beyond mere slogans. These are substantive and meaningful reforms connected to and reflective of the priorities of Indigenous communities. 

It is this process that gives the Uluru Statement from the Heart its authority; a process that produced an authoritative representation to take forward to the Australian people and to ask all Australian’s to walk together in a movement for a better future. 

Of course we had former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s rejection of the Uluru Statement, but we shouldn’t make too much of this. Indeed, the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the specific reform sequence of Voice, Treaty and Truth, has outlived Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership and enjoys more support today, support that continues to grow. 

The Uluru Statement from the Heart and Voice, Treaty and Truth will hopefully not just outlive politicians but all of us. 

That question in the Uluru Statement from the Heart that I raised earlier remains key for me – ‘How could it be otherwise?’ 

This question acknowledges and places our histories where it should. It does not ignore them; it is aware of and informed by them; but it also refuses to be bound by past failures and injustices as we walk together in a movement for a better future. Truth telling in this respect remains the important challenge of work of us all to do and maintain as we work together to achieve Voice, Treaty and Truth.