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Walk the talks

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In the three-and-a-half years since the birth of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, support for its ambitions of First Nations constitutional recognition continues to grow.

In May 2017, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people representing communities across Australia met at Uluru to endorse what grassroots dialogues had decided was the best way forward for constitutional recognition.

Seven years earlier, then prime minister Julia Gillard established the Expert Panel on the Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution.

Co-chaired by Patrick Dodson and Mark Leibler, the Expert Panel reported in 2012.

In 2013, prime minister Tony Abbott established a Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

It would be co-chaired by Senator Ken Wyatt and Senator Nova Peris. This committee reported in June 2015.

Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition leader Bill Shorten established a Referendum Council in December 2015.

Co-Chairs Pat Anderson AO and Mr Leibler stated in the June 2017 final report:

"We were required to consult specifically with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on their views of meaningful recognition.

"The 12 First Nations Regional Dialogues, which culminated in the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru in May 2017, empowered First Peoples from across the country to form a consensus position on the form constitutional recognition should take".

First Nations people who took part in those regional dialogues and the national convention developed a reform framework of "Voice, Treaty, Truth".

In terms of constitutional change, First Nations people wanted input in Parliament on matters affecting them.

Instead of politicians making decisions about them and for them, they wanted to be consulted first and at least have the chance to offer their own suggestions.

And they wanted these conditions embedded within Australia's Constitution, not merely legislated, as they didn't want future governments striking a red pen through these hard-fought amendments at a whim.

This was real-life self-determination in action.

The National Convention produced the Uluru Statement from the Heart to explain to ordinary Australians why change is needed.

It was aired in public for the first time through a reading by Professor Megan Davis, who tightly held a hastily printed-out copy of the statement in her hand while it flapped in the wind as the late-afternoon sun started to set.

"In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard," she said.

"We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country.

"We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future."

In late 2017, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull set up a parliamentary Joint Select Committee on the Referendum Council's report and the Uluru Statement.

The Dodson and Leeser report handed down in late 2018 found there was no other form of constitutional recognition that would receive support from Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The brilliant piece of artwork featuring the signatures of Uluru Convention delegates makes Beatles-like appearances at lectures and cultural events, but three-and-a-half years after it was written, where do the statement's ambitions sit?

In the months and years since the Convention, Uluru delegates have been meeting most Friday nights. Then they are busy through the week and on weekends carrying out community engagement work â€" the bread and butter of law reform.

The Uluru Statement has also been translated into multiple languages, increasing its reach within the wider Australian community.

Two thousand Australians were surveyed in a nationally representative poll carried out in February by CT Group.

"Forty-nine per cent said they would vote in favour of a constitutional change to underpin an Indigenous Voice advising the Parliament," media reported.

On the back of those positive numbers in early October, advocacy group From The Heart took to social media to highlight that support for the Uluru Statement has never been stronger.

"Research undertaken by From The Heart in June showed that 56 per cent of Australians support changing the Australian Constitution to provide for a Voice to Parliament â€" a seven per cent increase in four months," they said.

Critically, the office of Ken Wyatt, now the Minister for Indigenous Australians, has recently stated that no option for a Voice is off the table.

In this year's annual Closing the Gap speech, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would be looking into what form a referendum on constitutional recognition would take after the Voice co-design process concludes.

Another reason for optimism is that funding allocated for the Voice referendum in 2018 is still recognised as an unlegislated Budget measure, with a current value of $188 million.

It has been seven years since Ms Gillard established the expert panel on the constitution.

Seven years and four prime ministers.

The good news is that many, many Australians are walking with Aboriginal communities in this movement â€" even though it can still feel like the nation is stuck at base camp.

For more information, visit:

By James Smith


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