By Jim Hayes
The Uluru Convention of 250 leaders of Australia’s First Nations has ended up rejecting the focus on constitutional recognition, in favour of working to secure a sovereign treaty.
A second proposal taken up, concerning Indigenous voice in parliament was more controversial. Some delegates were concerned that this might compromise sovereignty.
Despite this, the unity was remarkable and it sends a strong message to the rest of Australia.
Delegates and experts had come together after six months of dialogue around Australia and the result marks a significant departure from symbolism that has been put forward by non-Indigenous politicians and a turn towards securing a treaty that will bring about tangible results.
The 2010 bipartisan statement from Canberra that led to towards constitutional recognition has been soundly rejected.
Professor Megan Davis won support, after delivering a powerful statement from the group asserting that sovereignty had never been ceded or extinguished.
“All of the dialogues, including the one-day information session in Canberra, rejected totally outright having some sort of acknowledgment in the constitution,” Davis said. “That was totally rejected by all of the meetings and everybody we’ve spoken to over this six-month period.”
A statement issued at the end of the Convention said that the high rates of incarceration, youth detention and child removal showed the need for a significant practical change, not a symbolic reform. This document is referred to as the statement from the heart of the nation.
“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,” it says.
The statement adds that a makarrata, a Yolgnu word for treaty, was “the culmination of our agenda” hitting the point home with the words, “In 1967 we were counted,” and: “In 2017 we seek to be heard.”
The essence of the argument is that those who were here before white settlement are sovereign peoples and this is what must be acknowledged. Constitutional recognition on its own denies sovereignty and can therefore not be accepted.
“This sovereignty is a spiritual notion … It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the crown,” the statement reads. “With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.”
The proposed treaty commission would be given the dual task of working towards a treaty and engaging in a public truth-telling process.
Canberra has yet to respond. The unity of purpose at Uluru cannot be ignored. The question now is whether the politicians are prepared to listen. Even if they do not, a game changer has taken place that has shifted the focus of the debate on reconciliation across all parts of the Australian population.