At the heart of the Australian identity is a fundamental conflict.
On one hand, as our national anthem until recently stated, we are a ‘young’ nation officially formed only last century. On the other hand, we are a geologically ancient continent and home to the oldest continuous culture in the world dating back over 60,000 years.
This is a conflict we have never effectively or honestly addressed. And while this issue remains unresolved, it is difficult to define what it truly means to be Australian or to chart a path forward confidently and cohesively as a nation.
We need the courage and wisdom to come together and address this outstanding issue, to accept and respect our past, and to create a foundation for a better and more inclusive future.
The original Australian Constitution, which came into effect 1 January, 1901, did explicitly recognise the presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Sadly, it did this by excluding their rights to be recognised as citizens under this Constitution or even to be counted as part of the Australian population. It took 66 years for this gross injustice to be remedied via referendum.
And now, 55 years later, it is well past time to take the next step and, in the spirit of Australian fairness and equity, positively recognise the rights of the original inhabitants of this land within our national Constitution.
Importantly, we have guidance for how to do this in the form of the thoughtful and generous Uluru Statement from the Heart – a statement signed by over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates from across Australia after an extensive national consultation process. This is a moving and evocative statement and one that invites Australians to walk together to build a better future for our country by establishing ‘a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution’ and forming a Makarrata Commission for the purposes of truth-telling and agreement-making between governments and First Nations people.
For me personally, the enshrining of a First Nations voice in the Constitution is about both symbolism and the need to drive real and needed change.
Symbolically, it is only right that the First Nations people who lived on, cared for, and were spiritually connected to our lands for 2000 generations before the arrival of European settlers are formally recognised in our national Constitution. This is a gap, an open sore, in Australia’s history and identity and something we must address if we are to truly come together behind a shared and powerful national narrative.
Symbolism at this level matters because it sends an important signal of change, but symbolism by itself is not enough and the First Nations Voice should also be a catalyst for positive and substantive action. The sad truth, despite billions of dollars and much well meaning and hard work, is that we have barely moved the dial over the past half century on the health and safety of Indigenous communities in terms of key factors such as incarceration rates, disease and life expectancy. This is an extremely complex and difficult issue, but we need to accept that what we have in place today is not working. In such circumstances, providing a constitutional voice for First Nations people on matters that directly affect them is a logical and appropriate way to challenge the status quo and drive more informed and effective policies for Indigenous communities across our nation.
While the case and general support for the concept of a First Nations Voice might be strong, we must recognise that getting constitutional changes accepted in a referendum is challenging and requires thoughtful preparation and careful handling. History shows that only 8 out of 44 proposed constitutional changes have been successful since Federation. What provides some hope is that the most successful referendum in our history was the 1967 referendum when almost 91 percent of Australian voters approved a constitutional change allowing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be counted as part of the Australian population and for the Commonwealth to make laws on their behalf.
So, what can we learn from that experience and what do we need to get right this time around? First, we need a clear and compelling narrative for why this matters and sufficient time and effort must be spent to build public awareness of the case for change. Second, it is important to have strong and visible support across Indigenous leaders, the political spectrum and the broader community. Third, the public debate – and there is always a debate – should be conducted civilly, constructively and inclusively. And finally, the proposals should be easy to understand, and seen to be a positive and meaningful change to how things have traditionally been governed or managed.
I sit here today hopeful that we will be up to this challenge and will take this opportunity to come together as Australians to accept the generous invitation inherent in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Enshrining a First Nations Voice in the Constitution will require collective courage and faith but, simply put, it is the right thing to do. It’s time for us to properly recognise and embrace our rich and ancient history, redress a fundamental gap in our national Constitution, and create a platform for genuine and practical reform.
At the heart of this proposed constitutional change are the principles of respect, equity and inclusion. These principles are core to our Australian identity and they should guide us to reach the right outcome so we can truly bring the ‘one’ to life in our national anthem and move forward as a proud, authentic and united nation.