Uluru Statement has lit a fuse that cannot go out

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2010, we need practical, not symbolic reconciliation. 2017, can we think of something more symbolic than the Ulurua Statement? Cartoon by Fiona Katauskas

On Sorry Day, marking the tabling of the Bringing Them Home report, a historical event occurred in the heart of Australia. Following months of consultation meetings around the country, a delegation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians handed down the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The statement is one page long and its language is simple, but it carries significant weight. It is spiritual, social, emotional, legal, and political. It is a document for our times, a declaration both of defiance and self-determination, and of generosity and love. It draws a line in the sand with a demand that Indigenous Australians be heard, while setting out the way forward and inviting all Australians to create our future together.

The statement establishes the authority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to declare such a pronouncement as a matter of spiritual connection to, and as first possessors of, this land. The law is replete with methods by which to establish right, and these are two known examples. Stripped of legal jargon, the statement's claim to authority nonetheless represents a pluralistic expression of law.

We are left in no doubt of the anguish experienced by peoples whose children continue to be taken away. This is not only an emotional response to personal loss and the rending of the social fabric of Indigenous Australian communities, though it is that. It is also a political act that challenges the destructive exercise of state power over our fellow citizens according to their race.

In a flurry of goodwill in recent years, campaigns have been mounted and politicians and lawyers deployed to answer questions that had not been asked. The statement's affirmation of Indigenous Australians' sovereignty, concomitant with that of the Crown, and its pronouncement of political aspiration, now set the benchmark for reform aimed at giving political voice to Indigenous Australians on their own terms: nothing less than makarrata.

Makarrata is a Yolngu word meaning the restoration of peace after a dispute. The terms on which this will be achieved include substantive constitutional reform, a formalised political advisory body, and treaty. A Makarrata Commission would oversee the treaty process.

The statement is one of a collection of pronouncements of high pedigree, petitions, statements and declarations, made by Aboriginal leaders over centuries. Each has made its own impact, without any one being a direct path to settlement. This statement, too, offers no quick fix. But it ignites a fuse that cannot be extinguished. It is now not possible to ignore substantive constitutional reform, or treaty.

 

"The Uluru Statement is entirely consonant with international law — for politicians and commentators to suggest that the proposals are somehow unattainable, or abstract aspirations, is disingenuous."

 

Political response to the statement has been ambivalent at best — where ambivalence sounds a death knell for mainstream engagement by a tentative public. The Prime Minister pointed out, for example, that any claim must be acceptable to the general public to succeed. In the next breath he moved on to discuss the success of the 1967 Referendum.

The Prime Minister's failure to embrace the statement was disingenuous in light of the political reality of 67, where there was no case presented for a no vote. In other words, based on the experience of 67, if politicians choose to accept the aspirations voiced by the Uluru Statement, the public will likely be brought along too. The public deserves to know also, that the Uluru Statement is entirely consonant with international law — for politicians and commentators to suggest that the proposals are somehow unattainable, or abstract aspirations, is likewise disingenuous.

It is too soon to know, of course, the fate of the institutional change proposed in the statement. But our elected politicians already have a long way to go to meet the standards of leadership embodied in the Uluru Statement. The nation deserves better.

 


Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.

Cartoon by Fiona Katauskas

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, Uluru Statement, referendum


 

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Existing comments

People "whose children continue to be taken away" in modern Australia are not all indigenous. The reason for "stealing" children from their parents today is a different paradigm from that which applied half a century ago to the Aboriginal population. Parental abuse or irresponsibility today justifies removing non-indigenous children from their families and, of course , no-one objects to that. So why do we object to removing Aboriginal children suffering with the same predicament? The Aboriginal population has access to all the facilities that should help them get on in this country as do the non-indigenous population, eg access to free education, university, social benefits, free health care, sporting representation at the national level and election to parliament. Words will not change any of that. Some historians and anthropologists would also suggest that the Aboriginal people are not the "first possessors of this land", that title belonging to the people they displaced when they migrated south across the land bridges between Asia and the south land.
john frawley | 31 May 2017


Politicians of all persuasions need to consider what constitutes the good life for indigenous Australians. They need to consider the rights of indigenous Australians to be in this place and on this land. They need to consider if they can do something more. And they need to consider if they are being perceived as trustworthy. The Uluru Statement from the Heart is being presented to our parliamentarians and now is the time for action.
Pam | 31 May 2017


As I said in a post to another article, now is the time to listen, and when we do begin to speak to do so only to ask questions with the aim of understanding, when eventually we understand what has been said and what is desired, then will be the time to exercise our imaginations to find ways of realising the aims of the statement, and after that will be the time for persuading the electorate to accept the changes.
Ginger Meggs | 31 May 2017


I find the comments by Mr Frawley to be almost, dare I say, Trumpian. To contend that 'stealing children' is different today compared to yesterday; that Aboriginal people 'have access to education, health etc the same as other Australians' and that there was a supposed pre-cursor population longer than 50,000 years ago almost beggars belief. Why then, by any evidence measure, are these people the most under-privileged in the country? Why are they incarcerated at greater than 20 times the rate of others? Why do people such as yourself absolve themselves from any sense of human solidarity with others who existence is based on historical and current oppression? These are voices crying in the wilderness! I have been and lived amongst them and briefly seen the reality, not in the urban areas but out in the deprived country areas.
Brian Larsson | 01 June 2017


Brian Larsson. I would be more than happy to accept your criticism of the above post If you could point out to me where I have erred with the truth and established fact. Could you please give an example where today's Aboriginal children are removed from their families simply because they are Aboriginal. If the Aboriginal children do not have access to the government services I listed could you please explain which ones they do not have access to and who is responsible. Perhaps something needs fixing and we might be able to help. Could you also outline how in remote areas the lack of access for white children is any different. As to the anthropologists views you will have to take their error up with them. Surprisingly, unlike Trump and like you, (although not "briefly"), I have also worked for and lived with the Aboriginal people in remote communities. Perhaps lack of parental responsibility in some cases escaped your notice.
john frawley | 01 June 2017


I would be very happy to see our Aboriginal citizens recognised in the Constitution as having been a diverse set of communities living in this land before Europeans arrived, and deserving of a particular regards as such. I am not sure there is even now such a thing as THE Aboriginal community, but I would be happy to have a formal advisory assembly, representative of diversity, that can give advice on Aboriginal issues to Parliament. Even more, I would dearly like to see Aboriginals fully integrated into Australian life and society with equality of access in all things. This is indeed happening, but too slowly. I would not want to see anything come about that would further divisiveness, and some of the suggestions around could lead to that, and worse. There are many different communities in Australia, and they all need a voice and a respectful hearing. I would see the Aboriginals as being the first in respect among these. But this has to be a two way thing, with all Aboriginals buying in to Australia where it is, and fully contributing to making it even better.
Eugene | 01 June 2017


The Uluru statement, a game changer, a cry for help, a message to be heard. Our ability to listen remains severely compromised by the values of the market place. Those values inevitably constrain the nation's ability to engage with things of the spirit. And the Uluru call is one of bold spirit content. Arguments over earliest occupancy, however contentious amongst scientists, remain largely irrelevant. They were and still are “the peoples of contact”. These were the people our colonial ancestors so violently dispossessed, dispossessed of land, of children and of equal importance, loss of basic human dignity. Abused as “uncivilized savages”, words, like prison chains, become instruments of pain. Loss of dignity is a powerful loss. Another event taking place later this year will help restore that loss. After 43 years bondage in Canberra and 40,000 years after his death on the shores of Lake Mungo, the physical remains of Mungo Man are coming home. On his return in November, we acknowledge the debt we owe to Aboriginal people for the spirit strengths they retain. We need their example to help identify with our own more scientific story of creation. Following the spirit of the Uluru statement, we acknowledge Aboriginal Australia has something we need. In acknowledgement of their rich example, we return to them with Mungo Man that sense of dignity so drastically dispossessed.
Jim Bowler | 01 June 2017


I think Brian Larsson did a hatchet job on John Frawley, who is, I believe, a medical doctor and just might have a worthwhile insight into social welfare and all - not just ATSI - child removal and the reasons why. I have worked with disadvantaged Aboriginal people in both Western Australia and NSW, particularly six and a half years in Mt Druitt, which has the largest urban Aboriginal community in Australia, including Redfern. I have had the pleasure of having close Aboriginal colleagues, who, in a quiet and understated way, have done as much for Australia as anyone. I wonder what they, or distinguished Aboriginal Australians, such as Cathy Freeman, would think of the Uluru Statement? Would they be all of one mind, or would there be dissenters, or those at least with reasonable doubts? This statement came right out of the blue. You present it as if it were like Moses bringing the tablets down from the mountain. I don't think it is. I think everyone - including all ATSI people - need to have a good look at it before legal enactment. It is possible to dissent without being 'disingenuous'.
Edward Fido | 01 June 2017


We can all describe instances of parental irresponsibility and failure to enculturate children with the attitudes and skills necessary for their flourishing. However, we do need to ask why these failures are more endemic in Aboriginal communities. Critical analysis of their present and historic circumstances shows that those communities are largely powerless, and have become so in the last two hundred years. Powerlessness is the problem that this statement is urging us to address. I'm not sure why John Frawley included his final paragraph as a negation of the claim to be 'first peoples' of Australia. I haven't heard of any anthropologists who claim they weren't - perhaps John could supply a reference? As it is, it sounds like an attempt to remove one last example of Aboriginal authority to speak to white power.
Joan Seymour | 02 June 2017


I am unsure whether the first reaction of many posters on this thread to John Frawley is not 'Shoot the messenger!', which, bizarrely, is one interpretation of what they say he is saying. Hardly an approach which leads to a discussion, but, then again, I think some of them might have intellectual tunnel vision. Perhaps they could read John's post on Frank Brennan's excellent piece on the Uluru Statement and where we need to go from there as a united nation and how to proceed. I remember first hearing a young Aboriginal woman calling herself 'an Australian First Nations person' a few years ago. That is a nomenclature appropriated from Native Americans in the USA and Canada who first used the term. Canada seems, as far as I understand, to have given their First Nations people: Native Americans; Inuit and Metis more official legislative recognition on paper, but I am not sure how this has practically worked to their situation, which often seems fairly parlous to me. What we need is not empty talk or jobs for a few Aboriginal leaders on official or semi-official bodies but real progress at street level for 'ordinary' Aboriginals who are not as well educated or connected.
Edward Fido | 02 June 2017


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