From 23-26 May 2017, around 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people gathered at Uluru to hold an historic First Nations Convention. The meeting was the culmination of a series of First Nations Regional Dialogues held across the country. All of these gatherings were designed and led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and organised by the Indigenous Steering Committee of the Referendum Council. 

The Uluru Statement is only the latest step in a long-running debate on constitutional reforms relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and what such reforms might look like.

What were the Regional Dialogues?

The First Nations Convention and the Regional Dialogues were landmark moments. Although the Expert Panel and the Parliamentary Committee consulted extensively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, they also consulted with non-Indigenous Australians. The views of Indigenous Australians were only a small part of their briefs.

As Patrick Dodson wrote when he was co-chair of the Referendum Council, ‘Strong support by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for the referendum proposal is absolutely essential. If Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do not support the referendum proposal, there is little incentive to proceed to a referendum.’

The significance of the Referendum Council process lies in it being a wholly Indigenous designed and led process; and the first-time Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were being asked to deliberate collectively and report back on possible constitutional reforms.

In each location, the Referendum Council partnered with a land council or another local host organisation. The host organisation and convenors invited around one hundred participants according to a formula of 60 per cent representation of the land-owner base (traditional owner groups, native title bodies and so on), 20 per cent representation for local community organisations, and 20 per cent representation for key individuals. Gender and demographic balance, and representation for the Stolen Generations was also a focus.

The Dialogues were conducted as a deliberative forum. Each took place over three days, and included opportunities for large and small group discussions.

The Referendum Council assisted delegates by providing information on the Constitution and the history of constitutional reform. This allowed delegates to discuss and assess different reform options in an informed manner, and to explain what meaningful reform would look like for their communities.

At the end of the three days delegates confirmed a statement of their discussion, and selected representatives for the Uluru meeting.

The Dialogues and the Convention represent the most comprehensive consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about what they want from constitutional reform.

What is the Referendum Council?

The Referendum Council is a body established with bipartisan support by the Turnbull government in December 2015. The Council’s job is to advise the Prime Minister and the opposition leader on progress and next steps towards a successful constitutional referendum in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. The Council was also tasked with leading a process for national consultations and community engagement. This had to include series of Indigenous-designed and led consultations.

The Council will report to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition by 30 June 2016 on the outcomes of its consultations as well as options for a referendum proposal, steps for finalising a proposal, and possible timing for a referendum.

Are the reforms called for in the Uluru Statement new?

The Uluru Statement comes at the end of decades of advocacy, campaigning and thought by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Since first contact their aspirations have been consistent, they have fought for: a voice in government; agreement-making with non-Indigenous Australians; and truth about the colonial past. The following is only a small selection of this struggle.

  • In 1927, Fred Maynard, President of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, wrote to the New South Wales Premier calling for the return of Aboriginal land.
  • In 1937, William Cooper, secretary of the Aboriginal Advancement League, gathered 1,814 signatures in a petition to King George V that called for Indigenous representation in the federal parliament. The petition was passed to Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, but cabinet refused to forward it to the king.
  • In 1949, Doug Nicholls wrote to Prime Minister Ben Chifley arguing for Indigenous representation in federal Parliament;
  • In 1963, the Yolngu people in eastern Arnhem Land sent a series of bark petitions to the parliament. In these they called for recognition of their land, resource and cultural rights, and their sovereignty. The government had transferred their land to a bauxite mining company without consulting them. The Yolngu people explained that that land ‘has been hunting and food-gathering land for the Yirrkala tribes from time immemorial’, and the ‘places sacred to the Yirrkala people, as well as vital to their livelihood are in the excised land. They expressed their concern that ‘their needs and interests will be completely ignored as they have been ignored in the past’.
  • In 1971, more than 1,000 Indigenous Australians signed a petition organised by the Larrakia people. They described themselves as “refugees in the country of our ancestors”, and called for land rights, a treaty, and political representation.
  • In 1979, the National Aboriginal Conference, an elected Indigenous body with the power to advise government, called for a Makarrata and argued for ‘the reservation of several seats in the Commonwealth, State and local governments’;
  • In 1988, the Barunga Statement called on the federal parliament to ‘negotiate with us a treaty recognising our prior ownership, continued occupation and sovereignty and affirming our human rights and freedom’.
  • In 1998, the Aboriginal Nations of Central Australia released the Kalkaringi Statement. Here they called for rights to land, recognition of their sovereignty, and effective participation of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory Parliament.
  • In 2016, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations united in the Redfern Statement to again call for federal government policies to be made with Indigenous Australians, rather than for and to.

What about the previous reports on constitutional reform?

In 2012, the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians recommended a package of reforms. This included:

  • A statement of acknowledgment;
  • A modification to the wording of the Commonwealth’s lawmaking power in Indigenous affairs;
  • A constitutional prohibition on racial discrimination; and
  • The removal of a provision that contemplates states disqualifying people from voting based on their race.

The Referendum Council also built on the work of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples that reported on the issue in 2015. Like the Expert Panel, the Parliamentary Committee consulted extensively with Indigenous peoples and communities, and recommended a similar suite of reforms.

The Parliamentary Committee also discussed some options that had emerged since the expert panel’s report. These included a proposal for an entrenched body to advise parliament on proposed laws that affect Indigenous people.

Both the Expert Panel and Parliamentary Committee recommendations encountered political roadblocks. While there was bipartisan agreement that the provision that contemplates states disqualifying people from voting based on their race should be abolished, other proposals were more contentious.

For many, a statement of acknowledgement by itself was seen as not doing enough. But disagreements arose as to how best to word changes to the Commonwealth’s lawmaking power in Indigenous affairs, and the appropriate role of the High Court in enforcing limits under a reworded power. A similar concern was aired over the proposed constitutional prohibition on racial discrimination. Ultimately, whether a law was discriminatory or not would be decided by the High Court under this proposal, and this raised concerns for some commentators and political leaders.

The political roadblocks forced a shift in thinking around constitutional reform. The result was that a series of Regional Dialogues held around the country where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would have their say.