OPINION: A Truth Telling Commission – not Constitutional Recognition – is the next step for Indigenous Australians

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Aboriginal Spokesperson for Common Grace and descendant of Waka Waka peoples Brooke Prentis says there can’t be a shared future for all Australians without an understanding of our shared history.

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The headline said it all. Ken Wyatt wants referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition within three years.

Many immediately applauded this call and on the surface it might seem like something to be applauded.  However, people need to understand the intricacies, need to assess their own faith and belief in a just system of government, and need to make sure they remember the journey of Recognise since 2012 and the rejection by Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull of the Statement from the Heart. 

We need to be aware and alert. Aboriginal peoples overwhelming rejected constitutional recognition through the Recognise campaign.  Ken Wyatt’s recent announcement only focuses on the third part of the Statement from the Heart, being Voice. This places the rejected Constitutional Recognition back on the table. 

The background is important

In the lead up to the gathering at Uluru, 12 Regional dialogues were held – 12 – for the whole of Australia and for over 300 nations of Aboriginal peoples.  Attendance and participation at the regional dialogues was by invitation only – invitation by the government.

Many Aboriginal peoples were campaigning for these to be open to the public and for more regional dialogues.  I desperately wanted to attend but was not invited or allowed. 

So, I spend my spare time reading Constitutions around the world.  

Did you know that the Ethiopian Constitution embeds self-determination? Or that South Africa rewrote their Constitution after Apartheid and the current Constitution is their fifth Constitution?  What about how the State Constitutions of Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, and New South Wales recognise Aboriginal peoples, and in some cases, Torres Strait Islander peoples, in preambles to their State Constitution? Do you know a preamble has no legal effect?  

Have you ever read Australia’s Constitution or your State’s Constitution?  If you haven’t – go and read section 25!  

I gladly welcomed the Statement from the Heart, but then of course, our hearts were broken with the Government’s immediate rejection.  A rejection that came because it was not the nicely packaged up Constitutional Recognition the Government had wanted and expected.    

I was discussing Minister Ken Wyatt’s announcement with a non-Indigenous friend.  They asked, “I wonder who will campaign for the no side?” Shocked and dismayed, I had forgotten that any no campaign would be funded equally by the Government.  

My worst fears were realised this next morning when I awoke to a new headline, “Craig Kelly says he could 'campaign for the no side' on Indigenous recognition”.  Craig Kelly, on the same side of politics as Ken Wyatt, his colleague, there at the ready to say no before we’d even got out of the gates.  I was reminded of how Senator Neville Bonner must have felt 48 years ago and when he voted over 20 times against his own Liberal Government.  And so the cycle continues. 

What we need in this nation of Australia is a Truth Telling Commission.  This is our next step.

In January, I got tired of waiting for the Government to hold a Truth Telling Commission. With Aunty Jean Phillips, and the support of the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand and Common Grace, we ran our own – a Truth, Justice, and Conciliation Commission. 

There’s an important reason why we need to start here. Until every Australian has a shared understanding of our shared history we cannot take the next step into a shared future together.

The Statement from the Heart has three components – Truth, Treaty, and Voice.  These have been spoken about for decades – from Jimmy Clements standing on the footsteps of Old Parliament House in 1927, to William Cooper’s Petition to King George VI in 1937, to the Yirrkala Bark Petitions in 1963, to the Barunga Statement in 1988, to the Statement from the Heart in 2017. 

If you don’t know these stories or have never read these documents, then that is further evidence that we need a Truth Telling Commission.  

The calls for Truth, Treaty, and Voice have been around for decades, if not for over two centuries.  The calls for the Government to take action on injustices and recommendations from Royal Commissions and Reports have been there for decades too.  This is not an either or discussion.

Australia, let’s love one another to tell the truth and to hear the truth 

The truth of stolen land, massacres, stolen wages, stolen generations, stolen lives – Aboriginal deaths in custody, over-representation in youth and adult prisons, the lack of Closing the Gap, the new stolen generation,  Aboriginal suicide rates, Australia’s breaking of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

Let’s tell our true history before colonisation as well (if you haven’t read 'Dark Emu' by Bruce Pascoe buy the book today).  If we have a shared understanding of the truth, the past and the present, I wonder if Craig Kelly would be so quick to lead the ‘no’ campaign.  

Out of truth I believe people will understand the need for Treaty and Treaties, and we must make sure these are internationally recognised Treaties.

Included in these is the need for a Voice to Parliament, which is embedded in Australia’s rewritten Constitution – a Constitution written by, we the peoples, for the peoples, and not a colonial document written by a handful of white men. 

This NAIDOC Week as we sang Yothu Yindi’s song 'Treaty', a song we’ve been singing for 28 years, we remember it’s truth – it is more than just a song, it was, and still is, a protest against the broken promise for a Treaty from Bob Hawke’s government following the 1988 Barunga Statement.  

As this 46th Australian Parliament, opened with a day of tribute to former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and rightly so, may we redeem Bob Hawke’s legacy by bringing action to his broken promise to embark on the journey of Truth, Treaty, Voice. 

Australia, it’s time to love one another enough for the truth to finally set us free.

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