Talk is easy. Political change is hard. In Australia, it’s more than two centuries overdue.
Claiming victory in last month’s election, new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s first words were a vow to redress the unfinished business from the colonial invasion of 1788. His promise to “commit to the Uluru Statement from the Heart” — a set of political demands from Indigenous groups, first outlined in 2017 — puts Australia on the path to the most substantive constitutional change it’s seen in more than half a century. If the resulting referendum succeeds, the country may wind up with a new First Nations elected chamber, an array of treaties with state and federal governments, and a truth and reconciliation commission.
The symbolism of Albanese’s words echoed his Labor predecessor Kevin Rudd, whose first major speech to Parliament after winning the 2007 election was a long-delayed apology to Aboriginal children removed from their families. Politically, however, Albanese’s task is far more challenging. No referendum has passed in Australia since the 1970s. If such a vote succeeds, it will mark just the beginning, rather than the end point, of Australia’s reckoning with its dispossession of First Peoples.
Adopting the Uluru Statement would ensure Indigenous people are “given a seat at the decision-making table where it comes to laws and policies that affect us,” Dani Larkin, a legal lecturer at the University of New South Wales and Bundjalung and Kungarykany woman, told Seven News this week.
In contrast to the US, Canada and New Zealand, Australia’s first colonists didn’t agree to any treaties with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people whose land they took. Until the second half of the 20th century, many Indigenous people in rural areas worked for nominal wages that were little different from slavery; they couldn’t vote in federal elections until the 1960s, and weren’t counted in the census until a 1967 referendum. To this day, Indigenous household income is about half that in other homes and life expectancy is about eight years shorter.
Conventional politics has been ill-suited to addressing this injustice. At roughly 3.3% of the population, Indigenous Australians lack either the force of numbers that helps give the Maori a larger role in New Zealand’s public life, or the legal recognition of sovereignty through which many Native Americans exercise a measure of self-government.
“Public policy no longer requires the imprimatur of the Aboriginal people; Aboriginal participation in the decisions taken about their lives is negligible,” Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble woman and constitutional lawyer instrumental in the drafting of the Uluru Statement, wrote in a 2015 essay on the halting process of reform. “It is a distraction, an indulgence even.”
Opinion polling on the main elements of the Uluru Statement shows consistent, but relatively shallow support for its measures. That makes it politically risky ground for Albanese. Referendums must be backed by a majority of people in a majority of Australia’s six states to pass. They stand the best chance of succeeding when they’re supported by both sides of politics, as in the 1967 vote.
There’s no guarantee that will happen this time. The new opposition leader, Peter Dutton, boycotted Rudd’s 2007 apology speech, and stands on the right of a party that lost many of its moderate legislators at last month’s election. He’s not yet committed to a position on the Uluru Statement, but his Liberal-National Coalition government blocked moves toward a referendum over five years in power. Should he turn a “no” vote into an issue to rally Australia’s tattered conservative forces, he’d likely have the support of right-wing media organizations who’ve historically opposed improvements to Indigenous rights.
The most likely model for the constitutional change would include brief clauses establishing an Indigenous representative body, but allow the chamber’s precise form to be worked out by Parliament. That will save the referendum process from getting hung up on technical details, but also raises the prospect that future governments may pass fresh legislation to diminish the body.
It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. Former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised a treaty with Indigenous people at the time of the country’s bicentenary in 1988. The proposal was described as “utterly repugnant” by conservative opposition leader John Howard, and ultimately went nowhere. An elected Indigenous representative body established in its stead in 1990 was dismantled 15 years later by Howard, who was by then prime minister. The Rudd government set up a new representative chamber in 2010, only to have it defunded when the Coalition returned to power in 2013.
Achieving change with the advisory chamber envisaged by the Uluru Statement must also contend with a long history of impressively researched, diligent Indigenous advice to government that’s been comprehensively ignored by those in power. The thousands of pages of parliamentary reviews, agency reports, books and articles already written on the statement during a time when political action has been all but non-existent are a fresh example.
And yet, there are signs that Australia is finally changing. Acknowledgements of Indigenous land ownership, still relatively rare when I migrated here 13 years ago, are now routinely given at the start of public performances, parliamentary and legal hearings, as well as on websites and email signatures. Many of the more than 600 Indigenous languages once thought to be destined for extinction are being robustly revived. An Indigenous cultural renaissance of literary, artistic, musical and theatrical works goes from strength to strength each year.
A lackluster revision to the heritage laws that allowed Rio Tinto Group to blast a 46,000-year-old cave site in 2020 suggests there’s a long way to go on land rights, arguably the most insidious and lingering injustice bequeathed by colonial invasion. But recent legal cases have even marginally enhanced the limited rights afforded under Australia’s native title regime.
That gives reason to hope that the current push will succeed where others have failed. The 1967 referendum is remembered now as a high point of Indigenous advancement — but its actual text made relatively minor changes, acting more as a symbol and catalyst for wider reform than as the mechanism which brought social change about.
The three decades of progress that vote ushered in were followed by three more decades of reversals and retrenchments, but the arc of history may finally be bending again. Indigenous people have been calling out for their rightful place in Australia for two centuries. The country may finally be ready to listen.–Bloomberg
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