Uluru Statement to define Albanese Government as Garma Festival opens

The voices of First Nations peoples – so long silenced in Australian democracy – may soon speak very loudly as the 2022 Garma Festival opens in Arnhem Land this week.

Image: Michael Franchi, ABC News

First Nations people such as myself are accustomed to being left at the back of the queue during election campaigns, which typically shrug off the shameful inequalities experienced by many Indigenous voters.

So it was an encouraging shift to hear then-incoming Prime Minister Anthony Albanese open his May victory speech with what he spelled out as a key ambition — creating an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

It means we might be making some progress after decades of protracted debate over whether the nation should amend the constitution to give First Nations people more say over our lives.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart will likely define the Albanese government – still in its nascent stages – and possibly the future of the Peter Dutton-led opposition. The coming years will tell us much about the state of our democracy and where we’re headed as a nation.

This May marks five years since Indigenous people from across the nation gathered at Uluru to come to a consensus on the best way to change the constitution and bridge the divides between Blak and white Australia.

It lands at the crossroads of political upheaval shaking democracies worldwide, and now here, in Australia. This federal election has broken our political landscape wide open. Does this make such a referendum harder to pass, then?

It is already an uphill climb. A successful referendum must win both a majority of voters and a majority of states. Only 8 of 44 referendums have ever carried, with the last Yes vote in 1977.

However, if the new government can get support for a Bill in both Houses of Parliament, we would see our first referendum in more than 20 years – the last taking place in 1999.

History tells us that without bipartisanship, a referendum is dead on arrival. And when it comes to a First Nations Voice, we know where the Liberal-National coalition sits: it has already rejected it twice, under both the Turnbull and Morrison governments.

Albanese’s government is sailing into fierce political headwinds. When asked during the election campaign whether he would take the Voice to a referendum, Scott Morrison replied: “Why would I?”

So, why would Peter Dutton?

At first glance, Australia’s political history does not bode well for supporters of the Uluru Statement. In 2007, Peter Dutton, then Shadow Minister for Health, led a public boycott of Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations.

In a party room largely stripped of moderates, Dutton could play to his conservative base and see this as an opportunity to inflict political damage to Albanese.

Building consensus on a path towards a referendum is likely to be one of the major challenges for the Albanese government, but it will be helped by a wave of new independent MPs who support the move.

Albanese faces pressure from Aboriginal leaders, who are pushing for a Voice referendum to be held in May 2023, or January 2024 at the latest.

Labor’s Linda Burney, the nation’s first Aboriginal woman to take on the Indigenous Affairs portfolio, is acutely aware of the scale of the challenge before her. The Wiradjuri frontbencher has said there must be a comprehensive public education campaign to explain the Voice to millions of Australians before a referendum is held.

Victorian Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe – a key player in a growing political force – says she would prefer to see action on a Treaty and a truth-telling process before a referendum is considered.

“People want a Treaty. It’s not about the Voice. People don’t want a Voice to Parliament. People are sick of being an advisory body on the side,” she told me.

She would rather see a national truth-telling process and a pathway towards treaties prioritised by the federal government.

“It means that there’s unfinished business, and that unfinished business is a treaty,” Thorpe says.

But those who back the Uluru Statement – a movement which has predominantly been led by Indigenous women – argue there can be no genuine change in any area of policy without the input of a Voice.

Leading Indigenous academic Professor Marcia Langton of the University of Melbourne says there is a clear plan for a Voice to Parliament that the government needs to act on.

“What we’ve set out in our report for a Voice is very straightforward and clear, and is the preferred option of most First Nations people,” Professor Langton says.

“When people say they want more detail, all that tells me is that they refuse to read our report, because all the detail is there,” she says.

“I do wonder if some of them can read and write.”

Close to two thirds of Australians back a referendum according to the ABC’s Vote Compass, and although a third of Coalition voters oppose it, another 43 per cent support it.

While many Indigenous people support the government’s commitment to a referendum, they’re now waiting for details on what a Voice to Parliament would look like.

Lead Convener of the Coalition of the Peaks, Pat Turner, says many Indigenous people need to see a proposed model for its role and function.

“The Australian public isn’t just going to vote wholesale for something that they don’t understand,” she says.

“My understanding is that the Voice should be there to vet all legislation that is coming before the Australian Parliament to ensure that it does not have any unintended consequences that are going to impact badly on our people.”

Indigenous leaders have said they want the Prime Minister to spell out a path towards Australia’s first referendum in 20 years, as he travelled to north-east Arnhem Land to make a significant address to Aboriginal communities.

Torres Strait Islander man and advocate for the Uluru Statement from the Heart Thomas Mayor says there is a “great expectation” that the government will announce the next steps towards a referendum.

“With Garma, you always look forward to some big announcements, there’s some very important people from around the country going,” Mayor says.

This great expectation was, for some, met by the Prime Minister during his address to the 2022 Garma Festival. Albanese pledged to settle “as soon as possible” on the referendum question that will be put to the Australian people, which could be as soon as next year.

Currently, the proposed question: “Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?” will be put to the Australian people sometime within Albanese’s term.

The Prime Minister delivered this landmark announcement during Garma’s opening ceremony, expressing to the crowd how privileged he feels to live alongside the world’s oldest continuing civilisation.

“We should cherish it. We should be proud of it. We should celebrate it and we should recognise it in our national birth certificate,” he said.

The four-day Garma Festival highlights the cultural traditions and history of the Yolngu people, including art, story-telling, song and dance, alongside discussions on contentious political and social issues for Indigenous people.

The theme for 2022 is ‘Nhana Nathilyurra’ — meaning ‘look ahead towards the future’.