The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a document created by the 2017 National Constitutional Convention in Uluru. The delegation of more than 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders resolved in the statement to call for the establishment of a “First Nations Voice” in the Australian Constitution and a “Makarrata Commission” to oversee “agreement-making” and “truth-telling” between governments and indigenous people. The statement was in response to a lack of recognition of indigenous people in the Constitution, and the widespread and persistent challenges and structural problems they face in areas such as health, housing, suicide, education, and imprisonment.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar has said of the Uluru Statement:
“The Uluru Statement recognises the need for an entrenched constitutional voice on the one hand whilst maintaining the long term aspirations of our peoples for a treaty on the other. One change can be achieved with constitutional change, and the other outside of the constitution through new legislation and the creation of Makarrata or Treaty Commission. Both have the potential to be meaningful and both represent the collective vision of our peoples … The Uluru Statement carves out a path for change and we need that to be embraced by our fellow Australians and our political leaders.”
First Nations National Constitutional Convention
The convention met for four days to decide on an approach to constitutional reform to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
A 16-member Referendum Council appointed by the Government and Opposition in 2015 had produced a discussion paper for the convention after consulting indigenous people around the country for six months. The council recommended a Declaration of Recognition be enacted, which it said would provide a symbolic statement of recognition to unify Australians, but outside the Constitution. This recommendation was rejected on the grounds it would be predominantly symbolic and minimalist and not involve substantive change.
The convention delegates agreed to a set of 10 guiding principles. These are that any change:
- does not diminish Aboriginal sovereignty and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty;
- involves substantive, structural reform;
- advances self-determination and the standards established under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
- recognises the status and rights of First Nations;
- tells the truth of history;
- does not foreclose on future advancement;
- does not waste the opportunity of reform;
- provides a mechanism for First Nations agreement-making;
- has the support of First Nations;
- does not interfere with positive legal arrangements.
A working group of members nominated by the delegates and other interested parties was formed to work on the implementation of the Uluru Statement.
First Nations Voice
The form of this representative body is not stated in the document but proponents have suggested a group that sits alongside Parliament to provide non-binding advice on matters affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Details of the changes would need to be agreed by Parliament and the move to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander body in the Constitution would then need to be passed by referendum. A majority of voters in a majority of states would need to support the proposal for the proposal to be passed.
In October 2020, an interim report was provided to the Federal Government on this body, outlining options for the “National Voice”, including its structure, membership, functions and operation.
The word Makarrata is a Yolngu word that means two parties coming together after a struggle, healing divisions. It is about acknowledging that something wrong has been done, and to seek to make things right. The word has often been used in place of “treaty”.
The first goal of the commission is a process to allow First Nations to negotiate agreements with federal and state governments on how to work together. The second goal is a truth-telling process to allow indigenous experiences to be shared and heard in order to forge a path for reconciliation.
The formation of a Makarrata Commission would not require constitutional change but would likely require legislation to be passed by Parliament.
Similar commissions have been formed in countries including New Zealand, Canada and South Africa.
Sovereignty never ceded
Besides the two key aims of a First Nations Voice and a Makarrata Commission, the statement also emphasises the fact indigenous ownership and control of the country was never ceded or extinguished. It states:
“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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