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From the Heart

May 30, 2019 • 16m04s

Having once been rejected by government, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is readying for referendum.

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From the Heart

04 • May 30, 2019

From the Heart

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

ELIZABETH:

After years of negotiation, the Uluru Statement, from the Heart, is the clearest ever consensus for recognition of Indigenous Australians in our politics. It’s already been rejected once by government, but there is now money in the budget for a referendum.

Stephen Fitzpatrick on what’s next for the Uluru statement.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

Stephen, I wanted to start by asking you where you were on the afternoon of May 26, 2017.

STEPHEN:

So, on May 26, 2017, we gathered at Mutitjulu, the small township at the foot of Uluru itself, to have formally read by Professor Megan Davis, the text of the Uluru statement from the Heart - which was an offer to the Australian people, for a new coming together for a resetting of relations.

[Music]

ELIZABETH:

Stephen Fitzpatrick is the former Indigenous affairs editor at The Australian. He now works in the newly established Uluru Dialogue at the University of New South Wales.

STEPHEN:

So, the day was building, and there was always going to be this dusk ceremonial reading out of the declaration itself, so there was a sense of anticipation. We were all taken out to the place where the ceremony would be held. There was 250 odd Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates, there would have been half dozen or dozen of us who were journos, there were various groups dancing and some special artefacts were handed over in this ceremonial dish, a copy of the statement to Aunty Pat Anderson, who was one of the co-chairs of the Referendum Council and to Professor Davis. And there was something extraordinary about the afternoon, if you've ever been by Uluru there, at Mutitjulu it's quite a special place to begin with, but then the fact that you had this group of 250 odd First Nations people, who'd spent the past almost three days debating what sort of a form this statement would take …

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Noel Pearson

"And the challenge for this week was, will we be able to pull the pieces together and come up with a common statement … and we’ve been able to do that."

STEPHEN:

They were there assembled for it to have its first public reading which was being done by Professor Megan Davis, who was one of the key architects of the statement. You know, it was so solemn …

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Megan Davis talking

STEPHEN:

And it had been put together over essentially an all nighter by her, by lawyer Noel Pearson, by a handful of other delegates.

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Megan Davis

"We believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood."

STEPHEN:

This was literally the first time that she had read it in public for the Australian people. And so there was this absolute silence that settled on the group.

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Megan Davis

"We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country and we invite you to walk with us, in a movement of the Australian people for a better future."

[Music ends]

STEPHEN:

There had been quite fierce disagreement as you'd expect out of a group of you know, 250 people, and let's remember they were 250 people representing hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations. But it certainly did feel like, I'm present at a moment in history that only a couple of hundred people are at and that in the future kids at school will read about in history books.

[Music starts]

STEPHEN:

I was conscious of the fact that around the corner at Uluru, every night you go to a mass assemblage of all of the foreign tourists and backpackers, and you know, people on grey nomads and whatever and they're all roped off and they watch the sunset and the rock does that beautiful colour change that it does every evening. And and they were really only five minutes around the corner. They were seeing none of this. They were they were looking at something that happens every night and has happened every night for thousands and thousands of years. And there we were just around the corner watching something that was happening for the very first time that could utterly change the nation.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

So, you’ve had the privilege of witnessing the Uluru statement being read for the first time at the foot of Uluru. In brief terms, what does the declaration itself actually say?

STEPHEN:

So, I suppose the really important thing, is it talks about the torment in our powerlessness. It talks about child removals, it talks about being the most incarcerated people on the planet, which we know is statistically the case. It then says we seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and to take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny, our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country. It says we call for the establishment of a First Nations voice enshrined in the Constitution. Anyone who thinks about it can see that's the “aha” moment – it's the point where you've been led through the absolute torment of 200 years plus of powerlessness to a solution which is being offered to the Australian people, which is to say: you wrote this constitution without us. And here's a way that you can put us in it.

ELIZABETH:

Why is it that these that this voice to Parliament needs to be included in the Constitution and not in some other form?

STEPHEN:

Okay. So, that's key to the entire question – if it's not in the Constitution then the government of the day can get rid of it. It's that simple. If a body such as this such as this is not in the Constitution, a government can't simply get rid of it with the stroke of a pen. If it wants to get rid of it, of course it can but it would need to give pretty good reason why it was doing that and it would constitutionally be required to replace it with something similar. And this voice to Parliament would be establishing natural justice.

ELIZABETH:

And what is natural justice?

STEPHEN:

It’s the idea that if there are laws that can be made about you then you ought to have a chance to comment on those laws. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are the only Australians about whom there are specific laws made.

ELIZABETH:

Okay. So once the Uluru statements been declared in May of 2017, by the middle of that year, what is the view for the sequence of reforms that's going to see this declaration take its next steps?

STEPHEN:

Very importantly, one of the things that the Uluru statement does, is it says essentially we're offering you this proposal, this voice to Parliament, but actually you're the Parliament you need to come up with the detail. That is after all your job. And it's worth pointing out here that whilst the voice to Parliament is the only constitutional reform that it mentions, it also recommends what it calls a Makarrata commission to oversee truth telling and treaty making, which is where we get what's now become the sort of the overarching voice, treaty, truth, rubric of the entire project.

[Music]

STEPHEN:

It was to come up with an idea for how does Indigenous constitutional recognition look. That’s what it did.
And the hope, of course, was that the government would respond by saying, you know we are grateful for this gift that you've offered us of a way forward.

And after all it was, it was something that had been requested jointly by Malcolm Turnbull and by Bill Shorten, this referendum council to go out for the first time and to genuinely ask Indigenous Australia what does Indigenous constitutional recognition look like. And this was the first time that this answer had been brought back ... it was certainly expected that the government then would say, well great you've done the work we asked you to do. We'll now get on with actually implementing it ... but it didn't.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back …

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Stephen, by later in 2017, this declaration makes its way to then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull ... what happens next?

STEPHEN:

There was a drop to the Courier Mail newspaper on the 26 of October, 2017 which is the traditional way of not having to make a formal announcement yourself, out of the blue. But then there was the formal announcement the following day by Malcolm Turnbull, which included that the Uluru statement had been rejected. It was described as being essentially unAustralian and undemocratic.

ARCHIVED RECORDING – unidentified journalist:

"The government has responded to the Uluru statement with a firm no."

ARCHIVED RECORDING – unidentified journalist two:

"They’re backing away from the call from Indigenous people right around the country to make sure that their voice is front and centre in decision making here in Parliament."

ELIZABETH:

So this wasn't made in person as such, it was through a written press release?

STEPHEN:

That was the other issue of it, yeah, it was not a personal response to the Referendum Council to which he'd appointed. There was nothing of the sort. The Uluru statement was described as being a third chamber of Parliament, something that could rival the House of Reps and the Senate which was never what was proposed and isn’t proposed in fact.

ELIZABETH:

How do some of the members of the Referendum Council respond to this, as you point out there's 250 of those people so I don't mean to simplify the response, but one can imagine they were understandably upset?

STEPHEN:

Yeah look, I know a lot of those people and I know some of them very well. They were absolutely devastated.

ARCHIVED RECORDING – unidentified journalist:

"How do you feel as one of the architects of this proposal?"

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Noel Pearson:

"I think Malcolm Turnbull has broken the First Nations hearts of this country."

ELIZABETH:

Noel Pearson was a fairly outspoken critic of this response after Malcolm Turnbull rejected it in the way that he did.

STEPHEN:

Noel wrote a long essay in The Monthly delivering a fairly well-aimed kick at the whole process.

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Noel Pearson:

"The most voiceless and powerless people in the country being set up as some kind of third chamber in Parliament when all that they're asking is to have some say in relation to the laws and policies that affect them."

[Music]

STEPHEN:

Certainly, Pat Anderson, I recall talking with.

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Pat Anderson:

"We told him and he said nup, we’re not doing that. Why ask us? Just do it, like you know, generations of decision makers have been doing to us. Do not ask us if you don’t want to hear what we have to say."

STEPHEN:

And she’s said this countless times since, her line having worked her entire career in Aboriginal public health is: “We are actually dying, if this doesn't happen we will keep dying.”

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

So at this point, with Malcolm Turnbull having responded in the way that he did, do First Nations representatives on the Referendum Council understand why he didn’t take this issue to a referendum?

STEPHEN:

No, I'd have to say there was confusion, it was not clear. And in fact I happened to be the first journalist at a press conference a couple of weeks later at Kirribilli House to ask him would he reconsider that rejection. And I recall his answer to me being quite angry and belligerent and how dare I ask him whether he'd made a bad call.

ELIZABETH:

So really, Malcolm Turnbull wasn't clear about the grounds for his rejection of a referendum based on this declaration?

STEPHEN:

Both Turnbull and Nigel Scullion and other senior members of the coalition government have admitted it wasn't on the numbers, it was just on the gut feeling that they threw it out. There's a language that goes on there which says that if you fail at this referendum, then you've put reconciliation back by a generation. And that goes to the issue that we've only had eight successful referendums out of 44 in all of the referendums we've had. You have to have a referendum to make any alteration to the Constitution. The very fact of that is, we haven't had a referendum in decades. We don't know what a referendum now might look like. We've never had one in the era of social media. But that question about setting back the cause of reconciliation would seem to say, well don't even bother. And that seems to itself to be a disservice to Indigenous Australia.

ELIZABETH:

What do you think we can expect that the Coalition might do with the Uluru Statement in this next term?

STEPHEN:

We actually have surprisingly bipartisanship on a referendum on this matter. So, in Josh Frydenberg’s first budget, he in fact announced that a Coalition government would take the matter to referendum. Although there was a certain and inexplicable reluctance to actually talk about that - it’s an extraordinary case of policy announcement by budget paper …

ELIZABETH:

Buried somewhere in the bylines …

STEPHEN:

[laughs] More or less … it’s in two sections: there’s $7.3 million for further exploratory work, but elsewhere in the books there’s $160 million actually allocated for a referendum next year.

ELIZABETH:

Hmm, Stephen, if this Uluru Statement from the heart does indeed go to a referendum for the Australian people to vote on, what is it that, that question might say. How would it be phrased?

STEPHEN:

So, it could be as simple as “Do you approve of a First Nations voice to the Parliament?” This could be a new section 129, which would say for instance “there shall be a First Nations voice to Parliament”. It would have some sub-clauses that might say what it does, how it's made up. And in a way there'd be a certain symmetry to this because it would be an addition to the Constitution, in a way that perhaps had this been included in the Constitution in the first place, might be right where it had been.

[Music]

ELIZABETH:

Stephen, you're obviously so invested in this story, you've covered it for many years, and what is it that you wait for now, what do you watch?

STEPHEN:

[laughs] I just watch for a Yes vote in a clean referendum. I'm just enormously hopeful that we'll we'll actually get this up and that it will be an issue for all Australia. I mean, it can't be repeated often enough. This isn't Indigenous Australia asking for something. This has to be viewed as all of Australia recognising, this is a lack in our entire body politic that we can all rectify.

ELIZABETH:

Stephen, thank you so much. I so appreciate your time.

STEPHEN:

That’s no worries, thank you.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

The Morrison government has indicated that its so-called "Big Stick" laws on energy pricing will be a priority when Parliament returns in July. The laws would force power companies to cut prices. Industry has described the proposed changes as “draconian”.

And Peter O'Neill has resigned as prime minister of Papua New Guinea. The timing of his resignation avoids a no confidence vote on the floor of the Parliament. O'Neill says there is a mood for change in the country. His time as prime minister has been clouded by concerns over the nation's economy and over corruption.

This is 7am.
I’m Elizabeth Kulas.
See you Friday.

After years of negotiation, the Uluru Statement from the Heart represents the clearest ever consensus for recognition of Indigenous Australians in our politics. It was rejected by government, but there is now money in the budget for a referendum. Stephen Fitzpatrick on what is next for the Uluru statement.

Guest: Journalist and former Indigenous affairs editor at The Australian Stephen Fitzpatrick.

Background reading:

A fresh canvas for Indigenous politics, in The Monthly
Betrayal in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein and Ruby Schwartz. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio.

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04: From the Heart