• (L-R): Michael Mansell, dancer at the opening ceremony, Gracelyn Smallwood (NITV)Source: NITV
The Referendum Constitutional Recognition forum has been underway in the heart of the nation, Uluru, with 250 Indigenous delegates coming together to discuss the best way forward for the country's future and its First Peoples.
26 May 2017 - 4:37 PM  UPDATED 19 Oct 2017 - 3:59 PM


"I'm here as part of the Torres Strait delegation and I feel very fortunate and grateful to be part of this opportunity for First Nations people to come together and decide on the best way forward with this very significant opportunity we've got to reform our constitution, not just for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people but for the nation.

We came with a strong message from the Torres Strait that fighting for rights and recognition is something we've been doing for a long time. We stand on the shoulders of giants, our forefathers before us and we're here to respectfully engage with other First Nations representatives and groups to work as a coalition to find the best deal or way forward for our First Nations peoples across this country.

The milestone anniversaries of the '67 Referendum, as well as the 25 year anniversary for the Mabo decision emphasis the importance of this gathering but they also remind us that these opportunities don't come very often. Significant change happens from generation to generation so I guess people feel that getting this opportunity right and working and building on that good work made by our ancestors before us.

We have to remind ourselves that there are different approaches to different issues, in this particular case, we've got a chance to come up with a proposal to [put to] the Australian government and the Australian people that assists us to work more effectively, strategically and wisely in our own regions and in our own community settings. There's not a 'one solution that fits all', it's what do we put in place that empowers our leaders, our families, our communities to work together to bring about effective outcomes for our families and communities."  

- Kenny Bedford, Erub Meuram man from the Torres Strait Islands. 



"Many people around the country were a bit disillusioned because a lot of grassroots people were not given the opportunity to have their say and as we know, we don't want to just be on the Preamble in the constitution.

1967 was very clear, very precise, to take us off the Flora and Fauna Act, to make us citizens. First Nations people have been here for 60,000 years. This one is a bit confusing and there's such a high calibre of people with different views; lots of activists, lots of young people and lots of locals here. We can't just say, 'we don't want to be part of the process' because we're in the minority and the government will just go ahead and do what they want.

We do know we've got a long way to go with educating white Australia because of the conspiracy of silence and the suppression of our true history. Many people have talked about 'truth and reconciliation', treaty, bill of rights with a constitution. People are discussing treaties around the world, at the stroke of a pen [things] can just change. Any Colonising Western Government can do that, that's how their legislation and constitutions work so we need to get this one bite of the cherry right because we may never get together again for the future of our children."

- Professor Gracelyn Smallwood AO


"There's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from right across Australia here at this meeting making that footprint on history in the making. I live in the Northern Territory where the NT Intervention was brought in by the federal government so the 'race power' in the Australian constitution stands out as a problem for Aboriginal people here."

- Barbara Shaw, Central delegate.



"I think Australia owes us a whole raft of things that could be encompassed in a treaty but all the people here may not agree with all of those things. I could do one of two things, I could walk away and say 'well, I didn't agree to that, so I'm going to walk away' or I can say, 'that's ok, Aboriginal people from around the country said this is our collective view.'

I will endorse what the people come with and I will back it all the way. Everybody accepts that three days of discussions and workshops means that we have to come out with something that is understandable, that is substantial in a sense of potentially delivering really good [outcome] to Aboriginal people and which is capable of being adopted by the politicians and the people of Australia that they can get behind.

A policy position and a strategy to back-up the policy could be that we believe constitutional recognition will make a difference to Aboriginal people. Therefore, we're asking the people of Australia to vote for it or alternatively people may say, as a matter of policy we want a 'national body'. We want three per cent of GDP. We want a land settlement. We want a whole range of empowerment, therefore constitutional recognition might deliver it or it might be delivered through legislation as a strategy so they are the two real options are available."

- Michael Mansell, Palawa (Tasmania). 



"We're hear to listen to what everyone has to say, so we can get the information to discuss amongst ourselves and make a decision.

You almost have to be a lawyer to basically understand all this stuff. In saying that, we give our thoughts to those that have an understanding to that degree. We put our trust towards them. There's always going to a bad side of it and there's always going to be good side of it. Our big thing is to look at what the bad things [are] in relation to the constitution and try to find the best way forward."

- Craig Woods, Mutitjulu delegate.



"The reports from the regions [show] people are all on the same page, coming through is recognition of Sovereignty and obviously Treaty. There's debate going around that, but it's like a high school reunion for me. We 'dusted off the shelf' working towards histories like the Bark Petition of 1963 from Arnhem Land, obviously the '67 Referendum. We're talking about Koiki Mabo, the Barunga Statement, the Kalkaringi Statement, the Mukarata, things like that. Even the [United Nations] Declaration of Indigenous Rights."​

- Vincent Forrester, veteran Aboriginal rights campaigner from Mutitjulu/Uluru.


All photography by Steve Hodder Watt (Dibirdi Nyarambi Kumerungi Bunbadgee)

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