Another year draws to an end. Like all years prior, it has been one step forward, two steps back with the very occasional unimpeded step forward. Our struggle has not been much different in 2017 than it has been since Cook landed up on Cape York 247 years ago.
Ours has always been a struggle for recognition. From 1770 onwards, our very existence was denied. According to the official records of the time, Cook landed on Terra Nullius – a land belonging to no-one. As we moved through the 20th Century, the slow and insidious stain of the White Australia Policy moved us even further off the historical map.
The passing of the Migration Act in 1966 by the Holt Government marked the beginning of the end for formal discrimination based on race, for migrants at least. The First People were not beneficiaries. We remained second-class citizens, or more accurately, non-citizens.
In 1967, to borrow from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, we were counted. Much has been written of that historic 1967 referendum that gained the largest majority in history, but what it did mean was that we were counted, for the first time, as Australians. Or, more accurately, it was made more difficult for the states to not count us.
Now in 2017, again I borrow from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, we seek to be heard.
This year, the First Nations gathered in unprecedented numbers across the land, and asked ourselves a most important question – how do we want to be recognised in the Australian Constitution. When the Constitution was drafted, we were not part of the discussion. Our national birth certificate was silent on our very existence. We were not at the table.
As we moved toward the end of the 20th century, more and more Australians viewed the absence of the First Nations in our Constitution as a glaring and grievous omission. Momentum built for the recognition of the First Nations in the Constitution. Political bipartisanship swung behind the broad idea.
But, as is so often the case, we were not asked what we wanted. We were not given any meaningful opportunity to think through and decide how we want to be recognised. It was largely accepted that Constitutional recognition would take the form of a simple acknowledgment in a preamble. Although it was always clear to any engaged observer that such minimal and merely symbolic recognition was never going to cut it for us, the idea persisted and became the dominant direction, until this year.
Despite the proposal for recognition in a preamble being rejected in the 1999 Republic Referendum, somehow the notion persisted. Although never directly articulated, I am sure that the many goodwilled Australians and corporates who supported the Recognise campaign thought that this is what they were supporting.
The next major events on this long and tiresome road was the Expert Panel on the Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution, which reported in 2012, and a Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, which reported in June 2015.
Somehow, despite the Expert Panel making it very clear that a minimal recognition in the preamble was not going to fly and the Joint Select Committee, albeit after their report, coming to a similar conclusion, minimalism hung around as a bad idea.
It was not until the Referendum Council was jointly appointed by the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten in late 2015 that minimalism met its match. The Council, against resistance from the Abbott government, insisted that there be a series of Indigenous dialogues leading to a First Nations convention – what is now known as the Uluru process.
History will show that the dialogues and convention were an unprecedented process of consultation with First Nation’s people – more than 1300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates, an average of 100 delegates from each region. Indeed, as the Referendum Council report points out, the dialogues “engaged a greater proportion of the relevant population than the constitutional convention debates of the 1800s, from which First Peoples were excluded”.
Then there was the National Constitutional Convention which was held at Uluru between 23 and 26 May 2017. Over 250 delegates drawn from the dialogues gathered, seeking to find a consensus on how we, the First People want to be recognised in the Constitution.
I feel confident to speak on behalf of all the delegates at the dialogues and conventions when I say that top-of-mind for all was that whatever form recognition would take it must be about improving the lot of Indigenous people. After satisfying that bottom line, all delegates accepted that any reform would need to be in keeping with the Constitution. We understood that anything we proposed must work within our nation’s ‘rule book’, as the experts explained.
Through all of that, through that unprecedented democratic process, we arrived at a Constitutionally entrenched voice to Parliament. This, and this alone, would make a real difference for our people while ‘upholding’ the Constitutional rule book.
History will be very kind on the Uluru process. It was representative, it was democratic, it was a mature and reasoned process, and it arrived at exactly the right answer. That is why the Referendum Council, resplendent with the cream of Australia’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous thinkers and leaders, adopted the Indigenous Voice as their singular Constitutional reform recommendation.
On that front, and up to that point, I declare 2017 to have been a wonderful year for the First Nations. And it would have remained so as we closed the year, if it were not for the Turnbull Government’s egregious rejection of the Referendum Council recommendation.
That “kick in the guts” on October 26th, one day after the cowardly leak to the media the day before, will go down in history as one of the great acts of political bastardry. As has been commented on by many, it was not just the rejection that stunk, it was also the way it was communicated that marks it for infamy.
The statement announcing the rejection is, to me and many other thinking people, one of the most dishonest government communications. Full to the brim with dog whistles, beset with great lies and slurs, it will hang around the neck of this current government till they depart, which is likely within the next 18 months. It will then tarnish the reputations of all involved and will be a lingering and lasting memory of their failed leadership.
But the greatest sin committed in that despicable press release is that Turnbull and his cabinet of lack lustre leaders insisted that they rejected the Voice because the Australian people will not support a referendum on the Indigenous Voice.
Which brings me to 2018.
I believe that we will be able to prove Turnbull wrong. We already have significant evidence that casts more than reasonable doubt on the claim. First, we have an OMNIPOLL that found that 61% of Australians polled would support the Voice. It is important to view that this level of support is with lack of leadership and support from the Prime Minister.
Then we have the open letter at supportfirstnations.com.au, organised by Fiona Stanley and ACOSS. It already has more than 8500 signatories. That is without any significant campaign to promote the open letter or the cause.
I will certainly be going into 2018 with renewed energy and a determination to activate and build on the community support for a constituently enshrined Indigenous voice to Parliament. I know that many other Indigenous leaders will also be doing so. I am also aware of a growing determination across corporate Australia to back us. I am supremely confident that many more Australians will come behind us.
I am very confident that we will be able apply enough pressure on the government to force them to accept the truth – Australians will support our cause – and to overturn their decision and put the question to the Australian people.
The plebiscite on same sex marriage demonstrated that Australians do have an appetite for reforms that go to fairness and equality. The national jubilation sparked by the passing of the same sex marriage legislation speaks to the national desire for a fair go for all.
I believe that 2018 will be the start of the campaign that will, in time, lead to a successful referendum that enshrines an Indigenous voice to Parliament in the Constitution.
- Sean Gordon is CEO of Darkinjung Aboriginal Land Council. NIT recently revealed Gordon’s plans to form a new political party after quitting the Australian Liberal Party.