Com­ments by Me­gan Davis and Don Wat­son, plus Richard Cooke, Dar­ryn King, Chloe Hooper and Patrick Wit­ton

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - BY ME­GAN DAVIS

In March, two months be­fore the na­tional con­sti­tu­tional con­ven­tion at Uluru, the No­bel Prize–win­ning Saint Lu­cian writer Derek Wal­cott passed away. The sin­gu­lar poet’s work de­fined my ado­les­cent search for iden­tity as I clum­sily nav­i­gated the priv­i­leges and an­guish of walk­ing be­tween “two worlds”. Wal­cott’s epic poem ‘Omeros’ pro­vided me with a lu­mi­nous and chal­leng­ing ac­count of this an­tecedent strug­gle. His po­etry made me feel not so alone in that dawn­ing re­al­i­sa­tion of the dilem­mas fac­ing cul­tures like mine. In those ex­haust­ing weeks lead­ing to Uluru, Wal­cott’s prose about the colo­nial ex­pe­ri­ence was of­ten in my mind, and the themes of ‘Omeros’ – dis­place­ment, co­ex­is­tence and re­demp­tion – res­onate in the Uluru State­ment from the Heart.

The Uluru State­ment, de­liv­ered at the heart of the na­tion, at the base of the Rock, at Mu­titjulu, the home of the chil­dren of Uluru, was the cul­mi­na­tion of a Ref­er­en­dum Coun­cil– led process of de­lib­er­a­tive di­a­logues across Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der com­mu­ni­ties over six months. It was a dra­matic de­par­ture from the con­ven­tional wis­dom on “recog­ni­tion”. Indige­nous peo­ple called in­stead for “voice, treaty, truth”: a sin­gle al­ter­ation to the text of the Con­sti­tu­tion en­shrin­ing a voice, and ex­tra-con­sti­tu­tional re­forms in leg­is­la­tion en­abling a Makaratta and, con­se­quently, truth-telling. The winds of dis­con­tent in the Indige­nous com­mu­nity about the recog­ni­tion pro­ject had been swirling for half a decade, as had the irony of dis­place­ment in a na­tional cam­paign to be “recog­nised”. Uluru brought clar­ity and co­her­ence to a dis­cur­sive process that has ram­bled on for ten years. Even so, I found it jar­ring to hear the out­come de­scribed as “un­ex­pected”. The re­form pro­pos­als are not new, just newly ur­gent. The Uluru State­ment sits in a con­tin­uum of Abo­rig­i­nal ad­vo­cacy for struc­tural re­form: the Yir­rkala Bark Pe­ti­tions of 1963, the Barunga State­ment of 1988, the Eva Val­ley State­ment of 1993, the Kalka­ringi State­ment of 1998, the re­port on the So­cial Jus­tice Pack­age by ATSIC in 1995 and the Kir­ri­billi State­ment of 2015.

“Is­land af­ter is­land pass­ing. Still we ain’t home.”

The Uluru con­ven­tion dis­rupted the recog­ni­tion pro­ject: it was de­ci­sive and left no doubt about what peo­ple wanted. It talked di­rectly to the peo­ple, avoid­ing the very Aus­tralian rit­ual of prime min­is­te­rial cer­e­monies where state­ments that Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple have toiled over, with hope and pur­pose, have been re­duced to the uned­i­fy­ing sta­tus of Par­lia­ment House relic. The haughty con­de­scen­sion of the po­lit­i­cal elite about “over­reach” was to be ex­pected, given that it is they and their pre­de­ces­sors who have presided over this state of af­fairs. It’s un­sur­pris­ing that their pre­ferred form of recog­ni­tion was a mere ac­knowl­edge­ment, a state­ment of fact in the Con­sti­tu­tion, a pro­posal that had al­ready been re­jected by the Aus­tralian peo­ple, in­clud­ing the ma­jor­ity of Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der peo­ples at the time, at ref­er­en­dum 18 years ago. This is the tin ear of the Aus­tralian state: How can it be oth­er­wise?

The one thing my peo­ple have never given up on, despite foren­si­cally doc­u­ment­ing in our col­lec­tive mem­ory the ca­pac­ity of law to op­press, is the ca­pac­ity of law to re­deem. These re­forms have been a long time in the mak­ing. The di­a­logues built upon the con­sti­tu­tional ap­pren­tice­ship of a 2011 ex­pert panel and a 2015 par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee that fo­cused pri­mar­ily on non-dis­crim­i­na­tion. But six years is a long time in Abo­rig­i­nal years: four prime min­is­ters, four con­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion pro­cesses and a rapidly de­plet­ing Abo­rig­i­nal do­main. 2017 is an­other coun­try. Time does not stand still. Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties are not the same as they were in 2011.

The word “recog­ni­tion” and its min­i­mal­ist form were over­whelm­ingly re­jected by the di­a­logues. Nor did the di­a­logues find per­sua­sive the idea that in­sert­ing the word “ben­e­fit” into one of the Con­sti­tu­tion’s heads of power could in­con­tro­vert­ibly bind the fed­eral par­lia­ment to pass only ben­e­fi­cial laws. The Aus­tralian polity does not want to sur­ren­der par­lia­men­tary sovereignty. Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples don’t want to cede sovereignty. The di­a­logues ne­go­ti­ated a way through these two points. In the ab­sence of an iron­clad guar­an­tee that any re­form of the race power or the mul­ti­ple vari­a­tions of re­place­ment power could ban the fed­eral par­lia­ment from pass­ing dis­crim­i­na­tory laws or an­other Northern Ter­ri­tory in­ter­ven­tion, the di­a­logues threw up a novel idea that not a sin­gle con­sti­tu­tional lawyer had con­tem­plated: that a “voice” to the par­lia­ment could mon­i­tor the use of the race power and the ter­ri­to­ries power. And, more prac­ti­cally, the voice could have mul­ti­ple func­tions, the most im­por­tant be­ing di­rect in­put into de­ci­sions that are made about law and pol­icy that af­fect Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der peo­ples.

The need for this struc­tural re­form was voiced at the re­gional di­a­logues, which also pro­vided a con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous con­fir­ma­tion that pub­lic ser­vants are in the driver’s seat on Indige­nous af­fairs. As in the pro­tec­tion era, we are ren­dered child­like fig­ures, side­lined play­ers in our own lives, in a era of new pro­tec­tion­ism where our dis­ad­van­tage sus­tains a bil­lion­dol­lar in­dus­try of which very lit­tle hits the ground or changes the di­rec­tion of the in­di­ca­tors known as Clos­ing the Gap. The Com­mon­wealth’s Indige­nous Ad­vance­ment Strat­egy gut­ted an al­ready vul­ner­a­ble sec­tor. We are go­ing back­wards.

Pro­por­tion­ally, we are the most in­car­cer­ated peo­ple on the planet. We are not an in­nately crim­i­nal peo­ple. Our chil­dren are aliened from their fam­i­lies at un­prece­dented rates. This can­not be be­cause we have no love for them. And our youth lan­guish in de­ten­tion in ob­scene num­bers. They should be our hope for the fu­ture.

These di­men­sions of our cri­sis tell plainly the struc­tural na­ture of our prob­lem. This is the tor­ment of our pow­er­less­ness.

The pas­sage of time, the pass­ing of old peo­ple and the pres­sure of forced as­sim­i­la­tion preyed on the minds of many at the di­a­logues and at Uluru. We fre­quently heard that this was the “last throw of the dice”. The ur­gency of the sit­u­a­tion is why the Uluru State­ment was is­sued di­rectly to the Aus­tralian peo­ple. Our fel­low Aus­tralians share our peo­ple’s cyn­i­cism about the ca­pac­ity of our lib­eral demo­cratic state to ef­fect re­form. If our demo­crat­i­cally elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives won’t lis­ten to us, then maybe the peo­ple who elected them will. The sur­pris­ing, or per­haps un­sur­pris­ing, quiet con­tem­pla­tion in the re­gional di­a­logues was about “truth”.

Our Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der tribes were the first sov­er­eign Na­tions of the Aus­tralian con­ti­nent and its ad­ja­cent is­lands, and pos­sessed it un­der our own laws and cus­toms. This our an­ces­tors did, ac­cord­ing to the reck­on­ing of our cul­ture, from the Cre­ation, ac­cord­ing to the com­mon law from “time im­memo­rial”, and ac­cord­ing to sci­ence more than 60,000 years ago.

Re­gion af­ter re­gion, this word “truth” came to the fore. The di­a­logues spoke of the wound caused by the si­lenc­ing of the Abo­rig­i­nal ex­pe­ri­ence af­ter the ar­rival. In North Queens­land they spoke about how their an­ces­tors saw Cook, telling one an­other with smoke, yet the his­tory books still say he “dis­cov­ered” us. Fron­tier wars, mas­sacres and forced ra­cial seg­re­ga­tion on re­serves and mis­sions are not com­monly known by fel­low Aus­tralians. Some spoke of stat­ues be­ing erected to hon­our early Aus­tralian ex­plor­ers, one in north Aus­tralia hold­ing a gun to com­mem­o­rate the open­ing up of the fron­tier for the tele­graph line, while the de­scen­dants of the mas­sa­cred fam­i­lies suf­fer only sad­ness and hurt at hav­ing to see it. They spoke of the sen­si­tiv­ity of these “one way” com­mem­o­ra­tions of Aus­tralian his­tory.

Anangu el­ders did not lightly give us per­mis­sion to use the name “Uluru” in the State­ment from the Heart. Yol­ngu el­ders did not lightly give us per­mis­sion to use the word “Makar­rata”.

Makar­rata is the cul­mi­na­tion of our agenda: the com­ing to­gether af­ter a strug­gle. It cap­tures our as­pi­ra­tions for a fair and truth­ful re­la­tion­ship with the peo­ple of Aus­tralia and a bet­ter fu­ture for our chil­dren based on jus­tice and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion.

We seek a Makar­rata Com­mis­sion to su­per­vise a process of agree­ment-mak­ing be­tween gov­ern­ments and First Na­tions and truth-telling about our his­tory.

As my Ref­er­en­dum Coun­cil col­league Galar­rwuy Yunupingu wrote last year in his pow­er­ful Monthly es­say ‘Rom Watangu’, Makar­rata is a peacemaking event, it is a process to bring about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, it is a quest for peace and har­mony. Our peo­ple are get­ting old. Too many bark pe­ti­tions, too many state­ments. This is bad faith. The rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process has stalled be­cause it failed to do what rec­on­cil­i­a­tion should do: talk about the truth. As Galar­rwuy ex­plained, Makar­rata is about the ag­grieved party call­ing out an­other party for an al­leged wrong. On 26 May 2017, a day be­fore the 50th an­niver­sary of the 1967 ref­er­en­dum, an ag­grieved party as­sem­bled at Uluru and called upon the Aus­tralian peo­ple to meet with them. The Uluru State­ment

pro­vides a frame­work for these griev­ances to be re­solved peace­fully, but they must be worked through. Then we can have peace. The ex­i­gency of Uluru was for Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple to have a voice in the land of its an­cient ju­ris­dic­tions.

We seek con­sti­tu­tional re­forms to em­power our peo­ple and 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.

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