CEO’s Report from Garma

I have spent the last few days at Garma, the annual Indigenous culture and politics festival held near Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory on the land of the Yolngu people. Each year, thousands gather from around the country to celebrate and deliberate. This year the theme of the festival was the constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples, following the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Referendum Council's report.

The Referendum Council's report was handed to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on June 30, and makes two modest proposals. The first proposal is that there be a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice, which would advise Parliament on the laws and policies that are made for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

This proposal has been on Indigenous advocates' wish-lists since at least the 1920's. Yet, its contemporary form has been designed to take into consideration the conservative nature of Australian politics; it would grant no veto, nor would it allow the advisory body to hold up legislation. It would serve simply to improve, by advising, on policies by involving the people who are being legislated for. 

Because it is consistent with our democratic way of life and constitutional traditions, this proposal has found support even with the conservative right. This is not a cause exclusive to the progressive left, as argued in The Forgotten People, a recent book by conservative lawyers Damien Freeman and Shireen Morris. Following this cue, Uphold & Recognise believe that it is important to recognise Indigenous Australians while upholding the Constitution. For this reason, Julian Leeser, a constitutional conservative and now federal member for Berowra described this proposal as one that "Griffith and Barton themselves would have drafted, had they turned their minds to it". A record of the growing support for the advisory body on the political and legal right can be found here

The report's second proposal is for a declaration of recognition outside of the Constitution. This is intended to be the kind of document which describes a new kind of Australian identity. One where the differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians has been settled. Where our Indigenous heritage, our British institutions, and our multicultural achievement exist alongside one another. All Australians ought to be proud of these things, and we feel this is an eminently sensible way of addressing the need for symbolic recognition, without inserting such language into the constitution. After all, lawyers would need to look at any such words, and they should be able to give full, unfettered expression to our highest goals and aspirations for what it means to be Australian in the 21st Century. Damien Freeman and Julian Leeser published an essay discussing this proposal, available in the Uphold & Recognise monograph series (link here). 

My reason for providing this background is that Garma represented the next step in accomplishing these goals. It was, to be fair, a frustrating few days. Tensions were high. Tears were spilt, especially at the opening ceremony which marked the passing of Dr G. Yunupingu to liver disease. It was a moving ceremony, where Lucy Turnbull, wife of the Prime Minister, joined in the Yolgnu elders in their public expression of mourning at the loss of one of Australia's greatest artists and leaders.

It was also, however, a moment for optimism. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition committed to progressing this agenda. Granted, other constitutional matters harry the government at present, and many feel that the Indigenous agenda has been set aside. But in advocating for a parliamentary committee to determine a possible referendum question, a practical and timely outcome for constitutional recognition may be resolved "by the end of the year", as Bill Shorten suggested in his opening remarks to the festival. A committee is a sensible and practical next step as part of the Parliamentary process, and a necessary one to set the machinery of government in motion.

Non-Indigenous Australians should reflect on the historically unprecedented consensus expressed in the Statement from the Heart.

So, from my perspective, Garma was a qualified success. It was no big win. But there are no big wins in Indigenous affairs. In fact, the Closing the Gap reports haven't delivered us a win in a long time. But this is serious business and we need to be hard-nosed and pragmatic about how we go about it: this is the business of fixing the heart of the nation.

Where to next? It's simple: when someone is asking you to, it is polite to listen. I encourage you to read the one-page Uluru Statement From the Heart (link here). I encourage you to at least skim the Referendum Council's report (link here). You will see that they do not ask for much: a voice in their own affairs, and to be recognised.

The rest of us non-Indigenous Australians stand only to gain from recognising that this country has a troubled, but beautiful past. In fact, this is an unprecedented moment in Australian history: never before have Indigenous leaders spoken so clearly, with a unified voice. Some real good can come of this process. So, I encourage you, have the conversation in your homes, your workplaces and your social organisations. Get in touch with me if you want to have a chat. It is as simple as that, but it affects us all.

David Allinson is the Chief Executive Officer of Uphold & Recognise. He is available at: or you can find us on Twitter @UpholdRecognise  and Facebook.

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