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In May 2017 over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people[1] gathered in a National Constitutional Convention at Mutitjulu near Uluru and put their signatures to a Statement from the Heart. The statement was read by Professor Megan Davis, constitutional lawyer and member of the Referendum Council and was addressed to the Australian people: it invited the nation to create a better future.

The Statement called for the establishment of a Voice enshrined in the Australian Constitution and “the establishment of a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement making between governments and First Nations and truth telling about our history”. The Statement included the words, “In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard”. The Statement was the culmination of a series of regional dialogues held across Australia.

First Nations’ sovereignty was never ceded and coexists with the Crown’s sovereignty today but it comes from a different source to the sovereignty claimed by the Crown: that is from the ancestral tie between the land and its people. The situation of First Nations life in Australia today, termed a “crisis”, was described as “the torment of our powerlessness”

The statement represents the latest claim by Australian First Nations for self-determination. It follows 240 years of forced European occupation of Australia, alienation of lands and removal of people from them, massacres as “settlers” gradually spread over the countryside, strongly resisted by Indigenous people from the beginning. Exploitation of labourers and domestic servants, especially in agricultural enterprises was rife, language was suppressed and children forcibly removed from families. Those that resisted occupation were often gaoled. In cities freedom of movement and access to public facilities such as cinemas and swimming pools was restricted. Until the 1960s Indigenous Australians required government permission to marry. This history is as in many other colonised countries.

Archaeological studies documenting 65,000 years of occupation and anthropological studies of traditional life, as well as recent studies of the urban situation, are substantial. The academic and non-fiction literature, art (including paintings, dance, music, etc) – books, articles, film, TV programs – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous authored and directed, is acknowledged worldwide. Academic studies on archaeology, anthropology, First Nations society and, history have flourished.

The last almost 100 years has witnessed a gradual increase in government funding in the context mostly of social welfare. Programs have been determined by governments with little or no consultation with those affected. The last 50 or so years has also seen “The Outstation Movement”, a return by many groups to traditional lands or Country, many remote.

High Court judgements in the 1990’s overturned the myth of the land being “terra nullius”, that of any system of ownership by Indigenous peoples was absent when European contact first occurred.

Funding has been mostly inadequate, health and housing poor, leading to family instability, substance abuse and minor crime, including by juveniles to which the response has been harassment by police and imprisonment, including of children as young as 10. But increasing education and employment has led to increasing engagement in the economy, not least in education, the law and politics. In recent years “Closing the Gap” programs of government intended to reduce the disparities between First Nations People and others have been introduced but progress has been limited at best.

There has lately been a rejuvenation of language, recognition of identity and connection to Country, not least through return of land to many nations through land rights legislation following the High Court judgements. The Indigenous Ranger program has increased connection with traditional lands and associated ceremonies. A statement by a traditional owner in the form of a “Welcome to Country” is standard procedure at many public events.[2] The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags fly in prominent places, the former on the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge, a decision of the NSW Premier.

The Uluru Statement is the latest effort to gain the right to self-determination, to introduce policies being developed with, instead of for, First Nations. ALP leader Anthony Albanese, in the lead up to the 2022 federal election, committed his party, in the event of being elected to government, to implement the recommendations of the Uluru Statement. He reaffirmed that on election as the first commitment.

There is majority support within the Australian electorate for the Constitutional Change through a Referendum, consistent at around 60%, according to Guardian Essential polling, which is especially strong amongst young people and Labor and Greens voters. There is also a significant level of opposition. In particular the National Party stated it would oppose the proposal. The leader of the Coalition Opposition and leader of the Liberal Party, Peter Dutton, questioned the formation and operation of the Voice and asked for detail. Several other Opposition politicians echoed that call. Support amongst Indigenous people is not universal.

Several people, especially Megan Davis, have written extensively on the Statement and the Voice. Noel Pearson in his 2022 Boyer Lectures spoke of how the many factors of the proposals represent a significant issue for the people of Australia.

At the launch of the ‘Yes’ case in Adelaide in late February 2023 a donation of $5 million from the Paul Ramsay Foundation was announced. The launch called for widespread community discussion of the proposal. The referendum to amend the Constitution is intended for late 2023.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton toured northeast Arnhem Land in later February 2023. The NT News (and associated media) reported that he was “heartened by remoted land of Indigenous opportunity could positively influence opportunities for every Aboriginal child in Australia.”


The enshrinement of the Voice will give a significant degree of influence to Indigenous people over their lives and provide empowerment in many critical areas, as demonstrated in recent times in the health area at the Federal level. It will especially give authority in the negotiations about the Makarrata and treaties. It will not be possible to disband the Voice as happened to the representative body ATSIC. Though an increased number of Indigenous people now sit in the Federal Parliament, they represent the constituency that elected them: it is not representation of First Nations at a national level.

The mechanism for functioning is very likely to be found in the several important reports commissioned by the Parliament and they comprise an example of detail called for by some. Articles published by the ABC summarise the recommendations of the two major inquiries relating to the Voice and outline possible ways of establishment and function. That the Parliament will determine the final detail is axiomatic: that is what it is there for. To imagine that the population at large will determine the detail is more than naïve and completely ignores the complex nature of choice and decision-making. Similarly history shows that administration and policy cannot continue without meaningful involvement of First Nations people if it is to advance First Nations.


Former Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Ken Watt has pointed out that reports of the inquiries were tabled twice at cabinet meetings which were attended by Peter Dutton and David Littleproud (leader of the National Party).

There are numerous examples of initiatives by Indigenous People which address the present state of communities. The ABC outlined three initiatives by Indigenous people which have delivered significant benefit, not least children, and also quoted the opinions of three community people involved in those initiatives.

Note: The colonies of Australia became self-governing in the mid nineteenth century through consent of the British Government. The Federation of Australia in 1901 involved agreement by those governing the independent colonies.


“The Secret River is a difficult story to tell. For all the beauty, dignity and depth of this tale, it keeps leading into dark places.

“Four weeks into rehearsal it is hard to direct with your eyes stinging with tears. It takes us back to a moment in our country’s narrative when a different outcome, a different history, was possible. “Or at least imaginable, where those who came might have listened and learnt from those who were here, might have found a way of living here on this land with respect and humility.

“Instead, enabled by gunpowder and fed by ignorance, greed and fear, a terrible choice was made. It is a choice that has formed the present. Nine generations later, we are all living with its consequences. The lucky country is blighted by an inheritance of rage and of guilt, denial and silence.”


[1] Since 1978 the “Commonwealth definition” is applied: to be acknowledged and identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander a person must be able to prove descent, community acceptance and outward self-identification.

[2] In New Zealand, public events commence with a traditional challenge, haka, and the first speaker at least speaks first in te reo Maori, the official language of New Zealand along with English. Classes in the Maori language are in high demand, mainly by Pakeha (non Maori)