It had a host of high-profile endorsements. Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten were onboard. But on Friday, a surprise message emerged from the heart of the nation – and the tone of the conversation about constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians changed.
After a three-day Referendum Council convention at Uluru, 250 delegates representing the nation’s Indigenous people declared that constitutional recognition should mean more than “simple acknowledgement”.
“In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard,” they wrote in what is being referred to as the ‘Uluru Statement’ and the ‘Statement from the Heart’.
The statement calls for the establishment of an Indigenous council, protected by the constitution, to advise the Federal government.
And that idea has already ruffled feathers.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said that while he supported “constitutional recognition”, he was wary of the proposal for First Nations having a legislative voice.
“It just won’t fly,” he told the ABC on Monday.
“If you are asking for a new chamber in the federal parliament, some of the articles I see are heading in that direction, that’s not going to happen. I am going to be fair dinkum with people.”
His Nationals colleague George Christensen went further, saying it would be “dangerous to democracy if we start giving one group special privileges”.
But Indigenous people aren’t asking for a new chamber of parliament, according to prominent constitutional law expert Professor Cheryl Saunders, who said the body would act in an advisory role and would not have veto power.
“I don’t know what on earth you would fear from it?” she told The New Daily. “It is a body with considerable status that will give Commonwealth parliament someone to consult when it’s making policies specifically for Indigenous people.”
“We know that this has been a real problem for Australian public policy for a really long time. This is a really sensible mechanism for that.”
Shireen Morris, a constitutional reform adviser at Noel Pearson’s Cape York Institute, told The New Daily the statement represented a rejection of “symbolic and minimalist recognition”.
Instead, it endorsed “substantive recognition”, in part by calling for a First Nations’ voice to parliament to be embedded in the Constitution.
What’s the proposal?
The result of last week’s First Nations National Constitutional Convention was the ‘Statement from the Heart’, a one-page document outlining the delegates’ ambitions for constitutional change.
The statement called for constitutional reforms, the establishment of a voice for Indigenous people enshrined in the Constitution, and endorsed a treaty. Such an agreement could legally recognise Indigenous people’s prior occupation of the land and past injustices.
Uluru went further than the high-profile ‘Recognise’ campaign, which was focused on recognising Indigenous people in the Constitution and removing sections that allow for racial discrimination.
At the weekend, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned that Australia is a “constitutionally conservative nation”. Labor leader Bill Shorten said only that Labor would look at the recommendations with an “open mind”.
The two major parties’ most prominent Indigenous politicians, Liberal Ken Wyatt and Labor’s Linda Burney, spoke in lockstep of the need for bi-partisanship on Monday.
Ms Burney said the parliament would need to “make a decision that meets the aspirations of Indigenous Australia”.
“But it has to be successful in a Referendum,” she told the ABC on Monday.
The Greens backed calls for a treaty, while Indigenous Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie has called for dedicated seats for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in parliament, similar to New Zealand.
“Indigenous people should create Indigenous policy, they need their own independent voice in parliament,” she told The New Daily.
The Referendum Council, charged with the task of investigating a way forward on constitutional recognition, will present a report to Parliament on June 30.
“We now know what Indigenous Australians want constitutional recognition to entail,” Ms Morris said. “I really can’t overstate the significance of that. We’re talking about remote, regional, urban people, all collaborating, coming to a unified position on the reforms they want.”
“We owe it to their hard work to take the time to consider carefully what they’re saying.”