I’ve come to learn pretty quickly that many Australians know very little about the constitution. I didn’t, until 2017. I first read it, from cover to cover, on the flight to Uluru from Darwin for the First Nations National Constitutional Convention in May 2017. It isn’t terribly long, and it is far from an inspiring document. Without poetry or passion, it basically establishes how the States share power with the federal government. Importantly to the First Nations discussions we were having, the constitution also provides the parliament the power to make special laws for Indigenous people — section 51 (xxvi) — the race power.
Three days after that flight to Uluru, after debate, passionate discourse and moments of profound solidarity, I stood with 250 other First Nations people to endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It was an unforgettable moment — the joyful tears and embraces. All of us smiling from ear to ear as we lined up to sign the Uluru Statement canvas that would soon be imbued with the song-line artwork of Anangu law-women: Rene Kulitja, Charmaine Brumby, Happy Reid and Selena Kulitja. We had achieved an unprecedented consensus. We invited the Australian people to walk with us to establish a First Nations Voice in the constitution.
Most Australians I have discussed the Uluru Statement with are unaware that in the foundational constitutional dialogues in the late 19th century, Aboriginal people were excluded on the basis that we were a dying race. The forefathers of Australia were wrong to exclude us. Their decision reverberates in the Closing the Gap report. This is important for Australians to learn. Constitutionally recognising First Nations is the start to righting this past wrong.
Then there are those who argue against a Voice, because it will introduce “race” into the Australian constitution. Most of these people are oblivious to the race power. Though a few, the “child soldiers” of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) as Noel Pearson described them, are purposely misinforming the public on this point because they defend the status quo — First Nations structural powerlessness.
The race power was carefully considered in the constitutional dialogues. Our people acknowledged that, because it can be used positively, removing the race power may detrimentally affect some beneficial legislation. It was also understood that if we were to pursue an amendment to make the use of the power specifically for making special laws that are “beneficial”, the parliament, and if challenged, the High Court, would determine what is beneficial to us. The outcomes were by definition uncertain. With these factors in mind, at Uluru, we called for a constitutionally guaranteed Voice, in part, to deal with the parliaments use of the race power, and any other laws and policies that affect us. A political power to affect the decisions made about us.
Almost two years after we forged the Uluru Statement from the Heart, I returned to Uluru to interview my friend, Sammy Wilson, the “head” of the Uluru family. He is the important final interview in my book, Finding the Heart of the Nation, containing the voices of twenty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who tell their stories, and why they support the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Sammy, or Tjama Uluru traditionally, explained to me why his little remote community strongly support a constitutional Voice. The first reason was to provide his people with a consistent voice that will be heard by the decision makers. Secondly, the community wants the political strength, a Voice that is loud enough, to defend against interventions like the Northern Territory Emergency Response.
Leaders like Sammy understand that remote, regional Indigenous communities often struggle to be heard in our democracy. The leaders of Mutitjulu certainly weren’t heard during the intervention. After all, if our communities were heard, would we be failing to meet the Closing the Gap targets for the twelfth consecutive year?
These Indigenous communities are not being heard because they are struggling to participate in Australia’s democracy. We are few, and the polling booth is much harder to access to cast a vote. I have witnessed this while following the Australian Electoral Commission around the Northern Territory leading up to the 2019 federal election. A world away in the major towns and cities, hardly a thought is cast to our plight when they hit the ballot box in exponentially higher numbers.
For these reasons, we must continue to vigorously pursue the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution. We must work to show all Australians that until First Nations have a rightful place in the rule book — the constitution — our democracy is terribly flawed. It’s time for change.