• Shadow Assistant Indigenous Affairs Minister Pat Dodson described the IAS under Nigel Scullion as a disaster for communities. (AAP)Source: AAP
OPINION: Can Julian Leeser, Patrick Dodson and the Joint Select Committee propose anything more substantive than that of the First Nations' referendum council?, writes Uluru delegate Thomas Mayor.
By
Thomas Mayor

10 Apr 2018 - 12:39 PM  UPDATED 10 Apr 2018 - 12:46 PM

On 26 May last year, at the culmination of 13 regional dialogues that involved more than 1300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, we answered a very important question about what we would support as recognition in the constitution.

The participants unequivocally proposed that to be recognised, we must be empowered so we are heard. We asked to be consulted and engaged on policies and legislation that affects us through a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice. The call for a constitutional voice was also the most popular reform in submissions from the wider public.

The proposal was a line in the sand for constitutional recognition. In all 13 regional dialogues with participants from more than 100 First Nations, mere symbolic recognition, which would change nothing for our people, was rejected. The Referendum Council heard us, and they informed Government that the substantive recognition we asked for through a constitutional Voice was a “take it or leave it proposition”.

And when Malcolm Turnbull dismissed the proposition for a First Nations Voice in October last year - we did not take no for an answer. Public pressure saw a new Joint Select Committee established that includes the Uluru Statement in its Terms of Reference. The Committee is now taking submissions.

The Uluru Statement carries the weight of an unprecedented First Nations process that was more proportionately representative than any other constitutional dialogue in the nation’s history. Therefore, it must be respected for what it is: the majority will of the First Nations of Australia on how we want to be recognised.

We did not ask for tinkering with the race clauses. We asked for a constitutionally guaranteed voice. Not a veto. Not a third chamber. Just a voice.

The current Joint Select Committee co-chaired by Julian Leeser and Patrick Dodson must understand this fact. We did not ask for symbolic words in the Constitution. We did not ask for tinkering with the race clauses. We asked for a constitutionally guaranteed voice. Not a veto. Not a third chamber. Just a voice. This is a modest, yet profound request. We can still make this happen, and polling shows the Australian people believe we can too. 

My people have been asking for a voice in our affairs for a long time. The history of our struggle includes William Cooper’s petition for Aboriginal representation, which was sent to the King but never made it past parliament. The 1938 Day of Mourning called for Aboriginal representation, the Yolgnu Bark Petitions in the 60s called for fairer consultation and the right to be heard, the Larrakia Petition in the 70s asked for political representation and a treaty, and the 1988 Barunga Statement asked for an Aboriginal representative body and a treaty. The Uluru Statement is the first time a national First Nations consensus position has been achieved. It, too, asks for a voice and a Makarrata Commission.

The Uluru Statement is the first time a national First Nations consensus position has been achieved. 

The Uluru Statement’s call for a voice is modest, because it respects parliamentary supremacy. As the Referendum Council makes clear, no veto is proposed and Parliament would determine the design and details of the voice, in consultation the First Nations. This reform is also profound. I explain my view of why the Voice can make a difference in an article published in IndigenousX. In short, a constitutionally enshrined Voice has the ability to change Indigenous affairs for the better. Together we can improve outcomes. 

If this Committee fails we will have wasted another opportunity for direly needed systemic reform, and another generation will be lost. Suicide, family violence, incarceration rates, unemployment, all ultimately come from one root cause — systemic powerlessness. We can’t properly work with government to fix these things unless we have a fair and empowered voice in decisions made about us.

An article last week in The Australian, reported the Committee’s co-chair, Julian Leeser, saying “there was no point persisting with a proposal that would not win government support.” He said “we should aim for this to try and be the last committee on this issue.” I hope it will be too, but the only way to achieve this is to implement the Uluru Statement. Either it is a constitutionally guaranteed voice, in a form that should be properly discussed and negotiated between the First Nations and government, or there can be no referendum. Indigenous people will reject mere minimalism, and the Australian people will too – just like in 1999.

Julian Leeser and Patrick Dodson both need to understand this. There is a way through here, and it will only happen if we work together. I believe we can achieve the Uluru Statement in a way that takes on board political concerns. We are willing to work with you. But government must also hear us: we want our voices to be heard, and this needs to be constitutionally guaranteed. We have waited too long already.

The Prime Minister’s rejection got it wrong, and two lots of polling have showed that the Australian people do not agree with him. But there is an opportunity now to salvage reconciliation, and this country’s soul.

The Prime Minister’s rejection got it wrong, and two lots of polling have showed that the Australian people do not agree with him. But there is an opportunity now to salvage reconciliation, and this country’s soul.

Senator Pat Dodson put it like this to the ABC last week: “The parliament now has a real challenge, it cannot come out with a weak-kneed response, it has to come away out of this period with something clear which will give heart not only to First Nations people but also to the nation of Australia.” I agree.

Anything less than what is requested in the Uluru Statement from the Heart is a “weak-kneed” response. Anything less will not give heart to the Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians who support a constitutionally enshrined Voice and a Makarrata Commission.

The line was drawn in the red sand of Mutitjulu. Our claims were endorsed with standing acclamation and the tears of so many First Nations leaders at Uluru.

Now the LNP and the Labor Party must step up. Leeser and Dodson individually must step up, because Indigenous people are not letting you off the hook, and nor are Australians.  I believe Dodson’s heart is in the right place. I think Leeser’s heart is probably in the right place too. Let us now put our political heads together and find a way to achieve the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

 

Thomas Mayor is a Zenadth Kes man who lives on Larrakia land in Darwin. He is the elected branch secretary for the Northern Territory Branch of the Maritime Union of Australia and the President of the NT Trades & Labour Council. Thomas was elected from the Darwin Dialogue on Constitutional reform to participate in the Uluru Convention. Follow Thomas @tommayor11