Sean Gordon: Finding the COMMON GROUND for Indigenous Recognition, Empowerment and Development.

My Atlantic Fellowship Journey

My Atlantic Fellowship as taken me on a journey of discovery, reflection and renewal. The experience of the Fellowship has had a profound impact on me personally and professional, challenging me to question every aspect of my leadership, purpose and practices to date.

The fellowship has provided me the opportunity to take 90 days over a twelve month period to reflect on critical aspects of both my personal and professional life to re-assess what has and hasn’t worked in advancing the cause of Indigenous people. The past twelve months has become less about my project and more about what I can change and improve in my life to create great focus and impact on those things that I believe are important to me. This is reflective in My Atlantic Fellowship Journey.

To properly inform the reader of how profoundly the fellowship has impacted me, I must first inform the reader of my life story.

A Simple Man, a Wangkumarra Man

I have lived in Newcastle for the past eighteen years. I know Newcastle Beaches are absolutely beautiful, however I probably only went to the beach a dozen times. I’m a simple man, a muddy-water man, a Wangkumarra man: I like to feel the mud in my toes and not the sand. I grew up on the banks of the Barwon River out on the Old Brewarrina Mission, freshwater country. I’m just not connected to the ocean.

The Wangkumarra people first came into contact with white settlers in 1864 out on the corner country and the impact of this contact had an immediate and devastating impact on my people setting the terms of the relationship for the next 150 years. My people were dispersed and forcibly loaded onto the back of trucks like cattle and transported to Missions in New South Wales and Queensland. Many of my people ended up on the Brewarrina Mission. The concentration of Aboriginal people of different tribal groupings onto centralised reserves may have been cost efficient for the Protection Boards of N.S.W. and Queensland, but the psychological impact on tribal customs and practices was devastating. The forced removal to Brewarrina was made easier for the Government officers, because the majority of Wangkumarra men were working on outlying stations and only the old people and young children were in the camp at the time. The men followed their families when word reached them of the unannounced actions of the Government officers.

The administration of Brewarrina Aboriginal Station left a lot to be desired as the 1938 inquiry into the Aboriginal Protection Board demonstrated. A report in the (Sydney Morning Herald of 8th January 1938) stated “that the Manager admitted he habitually carried and fired a revolver to frighten the 'blacks.” The Manager also broke any strike action by stopping all rations to Aboriginal men and their families who refused to work or carry out his instructions. Historically, the conditions on Brewarrina Aboriginal Station had more in common with the Nazi concentration camp than a government operated reserve for the "protection of Aborigines".

The powers and duties of the Aborigines Protection Board of N.S.W. in 1937 are listed in the (N.S.W. Parliamentary Papers, Volume 7 of 1938-39-40). The informed and concerted attack on the Aborigines Protection Board by William Ferguson of Dubbo at a Parliamentary Select Committee of Inquiry, which heard evidence from 17th November 1937 to 17th February 1938, as well as the newspaper coverage of the ‘Day of Mourning’ demonstration, which coincided with the 150th anniversary celebrations of British settlement, secured the leading members of the Aborigines Progress Association a meeting with the Prime Minister and the Minister for the Interior.'

Brewarrina is a small community in Western NSW with a population of 1,200, with Indigenous people making up about 85%. Connections matter in life, and Brewarrina connects me with some of the most painful aspects of Aboriginal life, and some of its most inspiring aspects. I lived in Brewarrina up until the age of 20. It’s a pretty good little town. It’s full of good people. It’s had some tough breaks. If you look at where Brewarrina is today, it’s probably a very black and white community - bits of grey, but very black and white. Brewarrina’s history’s been hard. There was a lot of division between blacks and whites.

Brewarrina connects me with one of the first and largest Missions established in the 1920s, forcibly relocating 100s of Indigenous people off their countries and dumping them on an unfamiliar patch of dirt 10 kilometers of out the Brewarrina Township. It also connects me to the black deaths in custody which are some of the darkest aspects of the Aboriginal community. In August 1987, Brewarrina erupted into a riot that was triggered by the death in police custody of Lloyd James Boney. On the 10th August 1987, the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, announced a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Brewarrina also connects me to the fish traps known as Baiame’s Ngunnhu, which are one of the oldest man-made structures on the planet an engineering marvel, which are believed to have been shared by the Ngemba, Ngampaa, Barkindji, Wangkumarra, Murrawari, Weilwan and Gamilaroi people for thousands of years. They consist of stone arrangements to form small channels in the river, which direct fish into small areas from which they are readily plucked by hand providing a valuable food resource. This complex net of linked weirs and ponds along 500 metres of the river provided an abundance of fish and made Brewarrina one of the great inter-tribal meeting places of pre-European eastern Australia. It remains a source of light for all of us.

These memories of growing up on the Old Brewarrina Mission underpin my commitment to advocate for proper and meaningful recognition, empowerment, and development of our people. We have a right to develop cultural, socially and economically and for all Australians to embrace Indigenous peoples rightful place in the country.

I am the product of five decades of political combat between the Indigenous people of Australia and the Commonwealth of Australia, which, in turn, was built on the billions of tears that flowed from the diseased eyes of generations of Indigenous over the preceding 200 years. We all know that where we are today falls way short of where we need to be. We know that the terrible gap between the life outcomes of Indigenous and white Australians is completely unacceptable. We know that continuing to do what we have done to date is not going to get us anywhere. Nothing changes if nothing changes.

That is why I engage in movements such as Empowered Communities and Uphold and Recognise that are committed to real and lasting change that will end this madness of doing the same thing and expecting different results. We can’t do that. This is truly a life and death matter. My people are dying out there. Sorry business is business as usual in our communities. Those of us left behind are growing sadder with every passing. In this time of crisis, we need to get very serious about solving the so-called “Indigenous problem”. Things can get a lot worse from here, if we do not act quickly.

Yes, in many ways, things are getting better. Recently, Stan Grant pointed to the rapidly increasing Indigenous middle class. He pointed to the steadily rising ranks of Indigenous millionaires (The Narrm Oration, University of Melbourne, Nov 2016). So the lot of my people is improving. But as you move out from the urban centres, through the outlying suburbs, across the rural expanse and into the remote communities, the picture grows dark. There are many who still suffer. We all want this to change, and change quickly.

I believe that empowerment and constitutional recognition of Indigenous people has a role to play in making these changes happen. It has to contribute to such change, otherwise it is a hollow gesture and a waste of everyone’s time. But it also has to be done in a way that respects where we are as a country today and uphold the integrity of the Australian Constitution. Whatever change needs to be made, it needs to be change that builds on the things that work about how Australia is governed, in order to improve the parts that are not working as well as they should be. Only a model that provides meaningful recognition and real change, but which also upholds the Constitution, can win a referendum.

I also believe in Indigenous self-determination and the reform work being undertaken by Empowered Communities, which is a new way of working. Empowered Communities is a transformational reform that aims to empower communities by empowering people. It is led by Indigenous peoples, as it is Indigenous people themselves, those whose lives are directly affected, that should be empowered to have a greater influence and control over their decisions that impact on their lives.

The Indigenous Empowerment framework is based on the premise that Indigenous Australians have a right to development, which includes our economic, social and cultural development as families, individuals and communities. It recognises the primacy of the local nature of peoples and places, and is aimed at the empowerment of the families and individuals connected to those peoples and places.

The genesis for the Empowered Communities work was that, despite any unique circumstances, all Indigenous communities labored under the same fundamental burden - the unfair power balance in our relationships with governments – and that this sits at the very heart of our challenges. It is called the ‘elephant and the mouse’ problem. Indigenous people are the 3% mouse and government being the 97% elephant.

Taking Pride in Culture

Brewarrina’s fish traps are a reminder that Australia is home to the world’s oldest continuing living culture. To have the oldest of anything is a big thing. An ever-growing number of tourists seek out anything that can make such a claim. Before the horror of war in Syria, tourists flocked to Dura-Europos Church, the world’s oldest church built around AD 235. St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, built in AD 333, attracts millions of visitors every year. Remarkable though these oldest places are, it is also remarkable that they were built thousands of years after the Indigenous built the fish traps at Brewarrina that are still functional today.

Brewarrina’s fish traps are part of our living culture. I stress living culture. Across Australia, the Indigenous are actively engaged in the cultural practices that they have been practising for millennia. They are still talking in ancient languages.

But our culture and languages are disappearing as we speak. Every year, we are losing the last speaker of another language. We are losing the old people who know the stories and ceremonies passed down over thousands of years. We must protect our ancient culture and languages as an intrinsic good for our country, but also for the economic benefits of tourism. We know that international visitors are seeking Indigenous experiences and that many Australians would love to make their own “first contact”.

Apart from that, surely it is our most valuable right to live long and prosper on this earth, and to have our culture live on, be revitalized, and be shared with the rest of world. We must protect and energize our culture and languages because they are central to our personal wellbeing. Our ongoing connection to culture and languages is what has allowed us to survive, despite everything that has been thrown at us. It is our pride in our culture that has allowed any of us who have survived to overcome the inter-generational trauma embedded deep in our psyches.

Our Indigenous heritage is something uniquely Australian. Together with our British institutions and multicultural society, it is part of the national patrimony of all Australians, something in which we can all take pride. It will also be the thing that allows our Indigenous to step up and take responsibility, to accept recognition, and overturn the dreadful misery besetting so many of our people.

We must protect, preserve and energise our culture and languages because they are central to our personal wellbeing. Our ongoing connection to culture and speaking our languages is what has allowed us to survive, despite everything that has been thrown at us. It is our pride in our culture that has allowed any of us who have survived to overcome the generational trauma embedded deep in our psyches.

Taking Responsibility

We should never lose sight of our national aspirations, but in doing so, we also need to remain mindful of the painful memories of the past. Since colonisation, our Indigenous people have been disempowered. For much of the time, they have been completely bereft of power. Our elders past, and some still present, lived under the complete control of governments, churches and, in many places, lawless mobs of white settlers.

In the 1970s, we saw the oppression begin to be replaced by what we might call the “rights agenda”. Winning some rights was important, but it came with a rise in social dysfunction. To understand how that rolled out, I recommend Peter Sutton’s book, (Sutton 2012), The Politics of Suffering. It is a comprehensive, first-hand account of the unintended damage caused by the rights agenda, which has guided Indigenous people’s policy across the last three decades. Sutton’s book details how the tunnel vision around rights robbed our people of the very thing we needed to be doing: taking responsibility. We were disempowered, robbed of the basic human right to chart our own course. As the saying goes, we ended up having things done to us, not with us, because the rights agenda did not encourage us to take responsibility.

One dreadful outcome of the rights agenda has been the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” At the core of the endless failed policies and programs are low expectations. It is where compassion becomes our peoples’ poison. It is where the good intentions of others become our prison, trapping us in poverty and despair. The constant effort to save us from our “problems” has created a narrative of low expectations that casts my people as perpetual victims with little personal agency to solve our problems by ourselves.

To address these low expectations, we need to raise the bar. We need to set our sights much higher. We need to move from rights to responsibility, as Noel Pearson argues (The Australian, 17 Feb 2018). “Indigenous people and our communities need to be empowered to take responsibility for the policies and programs that are supposed to be helping us.” Right now, we have little power to do this.

Alongside many Indigenous leaders across the country and top thinkers in the corporate world and public service, I was heavily involved with the development of the Empowered Communities: Empowered Peoples Design Report, released two years ago. It is a comprehensive plan for how governments can empower Indigenous communities.

Indigenous Development

There is nothing I want more than economic development for our people. I want them to enjoy the same opportunities as everybody else. But there needs to be structures in place for this to happen. In many cases we are doing everything we can to get ahead, but there are still many structural and social barriers to success.

I was the CEO of Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council for nine years, one of the lucky Indigenous entities. Who are well resourced and receive little government funding. Darkinjung are pursuing economic development in their region. There is no better feeling than driving into a Darkinjung-owned residential development site and seeing the communities’ contribution to the local economy. For every $1 million Darkinjung spend, they create ten jobs. Ten per cent of their development is retained by Darkinjung for affordable housing for our members at no cost to taxpayers.

I want to see more Indigenous communities achieving this kind of independence. For this to happen, communities need to be able to tell government how to get rid of the barriers to their development. If there is no structural interface to allow our people to communicate with government, then there is no way they can succeed.

Designed properly, a Indigenous advisory body could vastly improve the way we operate. Our small and under-resourced communities would not be so alone and isolated. They could have this national body, with local connections, taking their concerns and aspirations to Canberra. It could be a structure to empower the first people to work together more effectively.

We all know that the nation faces the challenge of closing the gap between Indigenous and white Australians. But the current debate goes on at such a high level. There is no structural connection between government and community. The question is: how do we empower communities to take ownership of solutions? The answer lies in an Indigenous Voice to Parliament connecting the high-level political debates to the local knowledge of our people on the ground.

When turning my mind to the question of Economic Development in the context of Australia’s Indigenous, I ask myself what is the “end game,” and what should be the underlying principles for achieving this.

With that in mind, I am reminded of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in conjunction with the Empowered Communities, Empowered Peoples vision; ‘we want for our children the same opportunities and choices other Australians expect for their children. We want them to succeed in mainstream Australia, achieving educational success, prospering in the economy and live long, sage and healthy lives. We want them to retain their distinct cultures, languages and identities as people and to be recognised as Indigenous of Australia.”

The Declaration sets out a body of Principles to guide Governments in their approach to develop relations with Indigenous Peoples including those relating to Empowerment and Economic Development matters. The Declaration was adopted by the United Nations in 2007 after decades of negotiations between governments and Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Arguably it forms the basis of Normative International Law.

Australia acceded to the Declaration in 2009.

The paramount guiding principles of the Declaration are found in Article 3; “Indigenous peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

By the Declarations use of the words ‘determine’ and ‘freely pursue’ I take to mean ‘to actively and effectively choose’.

Surely there is no other reason for economic development than it being the platform for people to have options and opportunities that allow them to build lives that they value.

The UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states in Article 20;

1.    Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and develop their political, economic and social systems or institutions, to be secure in the enjoyment of their own means of, development, and to engage freely in all their economic activities.

And Article 21;

1.    Indigenous peoples have the right, without discrimination, to the improvement of their economic and social conditions, including, inter alia, in the areas of education, employment, vocational training and retraining, housing, sanitation, health and social security.

2.    States shall take effective measures and, where appropriate, special measures to ensure continuing improvement of their economic and social conditions. Particular attention shall be paid to the rights and special needs of Indigenous elders, women, youth, children and persons with disabilities.

Of course, what I choose to value is going to be different to what someone else chooses. In that, Indigenous are no different than anyone else. There will be as many ideas about what life one would value as there are people.

For some, it will be a middle class life in the suburbs. For others it may be living the high life. For many, it will be living in secure, safe, stable communities where they have steady and secure employment, own their own home, get on with their neighbours, are able to send their kids to school and watch them get a good education, have time to enjoy life and are able to provide for their needs themselves without being unduly stressed with money worries.

Watching a recent Q&A program, I was struck by the words of one of the panelists, Sir Michael Marmot, President of the World Medical Association, when he described; “the opposite of poverty not being wealth, but justice.” (Croakey, 20 August 2016).

That speaks to the point that economic development based on justice will lead to vastly improved circumstances for people being able to choose lives they have reason to value. Again, we need to be clear that wealth is not the end-game for everyone. And, even so, wealth is a relative matter. For many, richness is about the relationships they have with family and friends, and finances or money is not the key driver.

However, despite any differences in what we value, we all share the basic need for a home, a roof over our head and a place to raise our family. Security and safety is a common feature for all of us.

Indigenous Empowerment

The Empowered Communities model was designed around both the Commonwealth and state governments being on board. One of the model’s foundational objectives is to drive better results for Indigenous people from the significant existing bucket of funds currently directed to that end. The Productivity Commission reports that every year upwards $33 billion is spent in the name of Indigenous people. Of this, $6 billion is Indigenous specific expenditure.

If we are to address Indigenous disparity, then we need to get significantly more of this $6 billion on the table for local decision making, linked to regional development and investment plans. And we need to push hard for a mechanism that brings both the Commonwealth and the states to the table with us so we can talk about the policy settings for the bigger funding pool. We have started work with the Commonwealth to set up pooled funding to support regional budgets, and we have not given up on our reform concept of a longer term Productivity Dividend to support regional planning.

Successful implementation relies partly on the Commonwealth using its levers and influence with the states through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) or otherwise to arrive at an agreed whole of government approach in Empowered Communities regions. This could tie in with the Closing the Gap refresh process or a broader shift towards regional governance arrangements. Whichever path is agreed, some mechanism to move forward together is now critical; the current situation of states not being on board, or only on board on a project basis (e.g. Victoria and Western Australia), has been debilitating and too hard.

The Empowered Communities, Empowered Peoples report is the culmination of 24 months of engagement and design work by Indigenous leaders, communities and organisations across the eight Empowered Communities regions. In it, we propose a range of reforms that build on decades of effort by Indigenous people to reclaim control in driving our own priorities for development.

It is a living breathing example of the exercise of the right contained in Article 32;  

1.    Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resource.

And, we are yet to see however a Government response that accords with the responsibilities in Articles 32;

2.    States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.

3.    States shall provide effective mechanisms for just and fair redress for any such activities, and appropriate measures shall be taken to mitigate adverse environmental, economic, social, cultural or spiritual impact.

Empowered Communities, Empowered Peoples call for a fundamental shift away from the traditional social policy framework in which Indigenous affairs has been conducted, to a comprehensive Indigenous Empowerment agenda.

Where Empowered Communities differs from the Innovation Agenda is its vision for the ongoing role of governments. Instead of ‘leading by example’, Empowered Communities calls on governments to “enable” Indigenous-led reform and innovation. The cultural shift required is large but achievable if governments are determined to enter into this higher purpose relationship with fist nation peoples.

It is a long-term reform that requires a new relationship, a partnership of Indigenous leaders, governments and corporate leaders in order to succeed, with all partners prepared to play their roles in a very different way.

The combined experience since the eight regions first joined forces in mid-2013, and in particular over the last two and a half years of implementation has confirmed the view that:

1)    The place based, Indigenous led Empowered Communities model is the right model to succeed in closing the gap on Indigenous disparity.

2)    The model will not achieve its full potential without parallel structural change

  • Both Indigenous agency and structural change in government are required to close the gap. 

3)    The legislation proposed in the Design Report is crucial to provide the necessary authority and scaffolding to regional structures, and enshrine empowerment and closing the gap as the priorities of a regional Indigenous and government partnership.

  • The Empowered Communities model will not work without a legislative framework. A policy commitment is not sturdy enough. Only legislation can provide the structure needed for stability and sustainability.

4)    There is a need for a body similar to the proposed IPPC, or the Makarrata Commission proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, enshrined in legislation, to oversee and support the parties to agreement making in regions

  • This will become more urgent as Empowered Communities Development and Investment Plans are further developed through the next 12 months.

  • There are already lessons from the regions experiences that point to this.

5)    They are in this for the long haul.

Empowered Communities Leadership

Empowered Communities National Leaders, are those Indigenous leaders who originally designed the EC model and submitted the Design Report to governments in 2015. They are Empowered Community leaders in their own regions but hold a particular place in Empowered Communities history and development. They remain involved currently as the guardians and drivers of the reform vision across the regions. They are each reformers in their our own right and many of them have been working over decades, both with their communities and with governments to achieve better outcomes for their people. It was on the basis of this considerable experience and knowledge that they believed Empowered Communities was the right model for its time.

The national leadership group has no formal recognised status and operates on a totally voluntary basis. It stayed together after submitting the Design Report because leaders considered it essential in the face of equivocation from government, and to guide work in the regions, that even then did not stop. There was a determination to keep pushing for a response to the Design Report no matter how long it took. In the meantime the regions were asked to keep moving forward under their own steam with broader engagement and action on first priorities.

Once a response was received the decision was made to keep the national leaders group in tact to oversee implementation, act as a united, national advocate on Empowered Communities matters and ensure that regions were supported and set up for success.

It is fair to say that the full potential of the national group as an advocate for Empowered Communities and related matters has not been fully tested. It can be a powerful role given the substantial experiences of its members. They have extensive knowledge to share about what works and what doesn’t.

While not one of leaders has stepped away, there is recognition among them that an intrinsically complex task has been made much more difficult without parallel structural change, through legislation.

Finishing 1967’s Unfinished Business

I ask myself, “How much has changed in Brewarrina since 1967?” In 1967 we were counted, in 2018 we seek to be heard!

The 1967 referendum stands as the most successful ever. Considering that only 8 out of 44 referendums have been passed, the overwhelming ‘yes’ vote in 1967 was extraordinary with 90.77% support.

The general attitude of Indigenous people today towards the 1967 referendum is that it was a great moment and an important step away from the brutality and indifference that we have laboured under. But it was not the great turning point that some would have us believe it to have been. Let’s face it; there is not much evidence that suggests the 1967 referendum really changed the lived experience of most Indigenous. If anything, things got worse. At the very least, the changes in 1967 left unfinished business. The referendum gave the Commonwealth a power to make laws about us, but it didn’t give us a say in the exercise of that power. We still have no voice in the compact. They still haven’t shared any power with us. And so we are still an incomplete Commonwealth. That is why constitutional recognition is important. As the birth certificate of our nation, the Constitution is largely silent on the original people of this continent. It does not afford the Indigenous who lived and thrived on the continent for tens of thousands of years a fair place.

Of course it is inappropriate to retain racially discriminatory provisions. The races power should be changed to be called what it really is: an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander power. It is widely accepted that, although the Commonwealth Parliament needs to retain the power to make laws concerning Indigenous affairs, such as native title and heritage protection, it should no longer make laws that depend on the idea of “race”. We are not a “race” - we are Indigenous. Indigenous people should have a fair say in the exercise of Parliament’s power with respect to our affairs.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart

Fifty years after 1967, my people in Brewarrina are having a bit more of a say. I was one of our mob to be invited to the Regional Dialogue that the Referendum Council held in Dubbo earlier this year, and I subsequently represented our mob at the national convention that the Referendum Council held at Uluru from 24th to 26th May, on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of 1967’s unfinished business.

At the national convention we heard, for the first time in Australian history, a unified voice of not just the Brewarrina people, but all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. That voice, expressed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart called for an Indigenous Voice to be enshrined within the Australian Constitution and for a Makarrata Commission to be established by the Australian Parliament. (Makarrata is Yolngu for ‘peace talks after hostilities’.) These are the means by which Indigenous seek to have their ancient sovereignty recognised, and through which we can start to deal with this unfinished business begun in 1967.

The ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ marks a new line in the sand, a new benchmark of what Indigenous people expect in the relationship with non-Indigenous Australia.  

There was an idea floating around before Uluru that recognising Indigenous people in the Constitution is a matter of inserting some poetry up the front of the Constitution, in the form of a preamble. Some flowery words about how we were here first.

After Uluru, I think I am on safe ground when I say that Indigenous people have completely rejected any proposal that reduces recognition to poetry in the Constitution. Indigenous people don’t only reject it because it is simply not enough recognition, they reject it because it would not pass, or pass only after being edited into a completely meaningless statement.

The constitutional conservatives - the very people that can mount a successful “no” campaign - have made it patently clear that they will fight tooth and nail to ensure that there is not a single word in the preamble that could be used by “activist” High Court judges to usurp the power of the Parliament. So Indigenous people have rejected the “minimalist” model because they know it will end up being either worthless because it says too little to satisfy the Indigenous people, or rejected by those who think it says too much, at least in the eyes of the constitutional conservatives who would then resist it at all costs.

While rejecting minimalism, what has emerged through the Regional Dialogues is a consensus amongst our Indigenous people that they need a voice to Parliament. There is a long history of advocacy for such a voice. Noel Pearson picked up on this history in his Quarterly Essay, A Rightful Place, in which he suggested that the Constitution provide for an Indigenous advisory body. Professor Anne Twomey then drafted a clause that could be inserted into the Constitution to provide that the Parliament shall establish such a body, whose advice it shall consider when making laws with respect to Indigenous affairs.

More recently, Warren Mundine (Mundine 2017, Practical Recognition from the Mobs Perspective) has offered his own spin on such a voice to Parliament. In his essay, Practical Recognition from the Mobs’ Perspective, he writes that the Constitution needs to enable our mobs to speak for country. This, he believes, requires the establishment of local representative bodies, rather than a national Indigenous body. Warren and Noel offer us two different ways of thinking about how a Indigenous voice to Parliament might be achieved.

Being voiceless is the epitome of disempowerment. Indigenous people have such little power to influence the policies and programs that are designed to benefit them, and they have so little power precisely because of the way they have been treated for the last 200 years. Indigenous Australians want full recognition, which includes recognition that the future must be different from the past. True constitutional recognition requires a sharing of power: it requires empowerment. The Constitution needs to provide some kind of guarantee that our Indigenous won’t be disempowered in future.

For all the shortcomings that our Constitution currently has in the eyes of our Indigenous people, we should not forget that, in many ways, the Australian Constitution provides us with a system of government that is the envy of the world, and this is something to be proud of. Sir Samuel Griffith, Sir Edmund Barton and their colleagues did something remarkable when they drafted the practical and pragmatic charter of government that is our Constitution. It is a rulebook that provides good rules for government.

But there is one respect in which they failed to make necessary rules. They didn’t include any rules that empowered the Indigenous or ensured they were treated fairly. An Indigenous advisory body of the kind we discussed at Uluru could provide the necessary constitutional rules for Indigenous empowerment. As Julian Leeser MP has written (The Australian, 19 July 2017), such a proposal “sits most comfortably with the nature of the Constitution. It is the kind of machinery clause that Griffith, Barton and their colleagues might have drafted, had they turned their minds to it.”

It is an understatement to say that it is a pity that they did not turn their minds to it. But I agree with Julian that a machinery clause like this “can sensibly sit in the Constitution, where it can have its intended practical effect.”

Although it is crucial that recognition of Indigenous people brings with it empowerment, through a constitutionally guaranteed Indigenous voice to Parliament, I should say that I do not underestimate the power of poetry. Poetry alone cannot empower our Indigenous people, but poetry and symbolic statements are still important for our national life. Symbolic statements of recognition should happen outside the Constitution, where they can reduce the risk of unintended legal consequences.

If we can establish an Indigenous voice to Parliament in the Constitution, then I am also excited about the idea of an Australian Declaration of Recognition outside the Constitution. This would provide Australia with a powerful and poetic statement of all that matters about Australia - our Indigenous heritage, our British institutions and our multicultural achievement - as well as an opportunity to recognise those aspects of the past that will always be painful memories for our nation.

But perhaps more importantly, recognising these painful memories could provide the basis for our reciting in the Declaration of Recognition our aspirations for the kind of nation that we hope to become in the future. As the Referendum Council’s Professor Megan Davis has written (Quarterly Essay, 2018) the Declaration “approach is compelling… It would create a defining moment in a way that a Commonwealth referendum cannot.” The merits of this approach have also been grasped by non-Indigenous people, such as Australians for Constitutional Monarchy’s National Convenor, Professor David Flint. He commended the approach in ACM’s submission to Parliament’s Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

Signatories to Uphold & Recognise’s Charter include Major General Peter Arnison, Dame Marie Bashir, Colin Carter, John Fahey, Nick Greiner, Dr Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Mackerras, Andrew Robb, and Sir David Smith.

On 17 May 2017, Uphold & Recognise organised a panel discussion at the Australian War Memorial in which a former governor-general, Major General Michael Jeffery, and a former defence force chief, Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston, participated in a discussion about constitutional recognition with current and former Indigenous servicemen and women.

Stephen Fitzpatrick wrote in (The Australian, 17 May 2017);

“They are the most senior establishment figures yet to acknowledge the mood at Indigenous consultations nationwide against minimalism, which is said to be preferred by politicians, calling instead for “a full and dignified reconciliation” and “tangible, positive results” from the outcome... The intervention by Sir Angus and General Jeffery ... could be pivotal in building support among conservatives for a more far-reaching referendum question.

“I strongly support establishing an Indigenous body to advise the parliament on Indigenous matters,” Sir Angus said. “It is vital that the voices and opinions of Indigenous Australians are heard in the processes of parliament.” This, and the declaration of recognition, he said, “would deliver tangible, positive results for Indigenous Australians and allow the nation to move forward in a spirit of reconciliation and unity”.

General Jeffery said Corporal Richard “Dickie” Bligh was “one of my best junior battlefield leaders in Vietnam” and a friend to this day. “In the trauma of war, we all learned that it was not the colour of one’s skin that mattered, it was the colour of one’s heart,” he said. “Although we cannot undo the injustices of the past, we must as a nation seek a full and dignified reconciliation, based on mutual understanding and respect, and the ability to compromise where necessary.”

My personal conviction about this approach, and its prospects for success, is emboldened by the fact that so many eminent Australians across the political spectrum have formed ranks under the banner of Uphold & Recognise.

 Overcoming Conflict

In Brewarrina, I saw how tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians can lead to appalling conflict. Yet one of the remarkable things about my role as Chairman of Uphold & Recognise has been watching how the movement for recognition is transcending conflict.

Uphold & Recognise’s approach finds expression in a collection of essays called The Forgotten People, which was launched by Jeff Kennett last year. He said the book “is a wonderful building block because it brings together some people that you would not expect to support constitutional change, to a point where they either support or they are prepared to consider...” The launch was hosted by Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle, who said, “I read The Forgotten People with enthusiasm” because the authors have “achieved something noteworthy here. They identified that strong leadership and support for Indigenous affairs and Indigenous recognition has often come from the conservative side of politics.”

University of Melbourne’s Professor Cheryl Saunders praised it as “a valuable contribution to this important question at a critical time when events also are moving fast.” Dr Janet Albrechtsen wrote that it is “a marvelous collection of considered and passionate responses from leading Australians. Whether you agree with the proposals or not, each demands our thoughtful attention and reflection.” University of NSW’s Professor George Williams wrote in a review for The Australian, “The Forgotten People is a further important contribution to this debate. It signals an ongoing commitment and intellectual contribution by a leading cast of conservative figures to the goal of changing the Australian Constitution to recognise Indigenous peoples...”

What we are also finding about our approach to this issue is that it is gaining support amongst Indigenous leaders across the divide. A couple of years ago, Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson were diametrically opposed over constitutional recognition. With the publication of Warren’s essay, he and Noel have found common ground in the call for an Indigenous voice to Parliament. Of course they still have different views about how this voice would be best achieved in the Constitution, but there is no doubt that the common ground is growing.

Some commentators have written pessimistically that no progress is being made in this debate and that the consensus necessary for a successful referendum is still a long way off, but this is simply not true. Uphold & Recognise’s work proves that support on the right and the centre-right of the political spectrum is growing, and it looks set to converge on something approximating the consensus that emerged at Uluru.

Thus, there is every reason to believe that our approach to finding the common ground will spread across the political divide in federal politics, so long as the Prime Minister, and Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, continue to hold fast to their bipartisan commitment to Indigenous recognition.

 Finding the Common Ground

This year we marked the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 referendum. It is a symbolic moment in our history, but it is also one that brought about real change. It was able to do so because the advocates for change took seriously the fair and reasonable concerns that potential opponents voiced about change. The result was that the movement for change was able to claim the common ground.

I’m proud to lead Uphold & Recognise, an organisation committed to upholding the Australian Constitution and recognising Indigenous Australians. We see that, fifty years on from the 1967 referendum, we have the opportunity for another symbolic moment in our country’s history. It is an opportunity that is only worth pursuing if doing so will make a real difference to the plight of our Indigenous peoples by enabling them to take responsibility for their own destinies. It should also capture our shared aspirations for our nation’s shared future by recognising the Indigenous, British and multicultural aspects of our nation’s history.

We have a road map for getting to a successful referendum within the next twelve months. The road is marked with various signposts. First, we passed the signpost that announced Indigenous aspirations for recognition in the Expert Panel’s report. This told us that we needed to find a guarantee that the future of Indigenous Australia would be different from the past. Then we passed the signpost of the constitutional conservatives, which warned us that the guarantee would have to provide constitutional certainty, and that of the liberals, which warned us that the guarantee would also have to be credible.

Today I can see that we are heading for common ground. When I left Brewarrina all those years ago, I couldn’t have imagined that I would be part of such a remarkable journey, on which fellow travelers overcome conflict to reach the promised land of Indigenous recognition, empowerment and economic embrace. I now look forward to planting the flag of recognition in this common ground.


Undertaking the Atlantic Fellowship over the past twelve months as encouraged me to rethink my proposed project on Indigenous Economic Development as the key driver for self-determination. I strongly believe that Indigenous self-determination will come from three key elements, these being; Recognition, Empowerment and Economic Development.

If you read (It’s Our Country Too, Davis and Langton 2016), my chapter on ‘Constitutional Recognition is Not a feel Good Exercise, argues why we must address all three elements.

“Symbolic recognition of Indigenous people in the Constitution will not be enough to drive reform, deliver development and build sustainable communities. If all recognition is going to do is make Australians feel good, then this debate is heading in the wrong direction and not going far enough.”

“On that basis, I am attracted to the proposal for an Indigenous body in the Constitution. I think it could help enable Indigenous empowerment and development. Such a body could drive law reform and advocacy at a national level, removing the burden on individual Indigenous organisations to battle alone.”

“This kind of structure would enable Indigenous Australians to communicate and collaborate with government in order to find appropriate solutions – an alternative to constant litigation. Government would have an efficient way to hear Indigenous views about what needs to happen to encourage Indigenous economic success. It would also provide an avenue to encourage and recognise the Indigenous contribution to the economic future of the nation.”

“There is no better feeling then driving into a Darkinjung owned residential development site and seeing our contribution to the local economy. For every one million dollars we spend, we create 10 jobs. Ten percent of our development is retained by Darkinjung for affordable housing for our members at no cost to tax payers. I want to see more Indigenous communities achieving this kind of independence.”  

“For this to happen, communities need to be able to tell government how to get rid of the barriers to their development. If there is no structural interface to allow our people to communicate with government at all levels, then there is no way they can succeed.”

“Designed properly, a representative body could vastly improve the way the Indigenous space operates. Our small and under-resourced communities would not be so alone and isolated. They could have this national body, with local connections, taking their concerns and aspirations to Canberra. It could be a structure to empower Indigenous people to work together more effectively.”

“We all know that the nation faces the challenge of closing the gap between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians. But the current debate goes on at such a high level. There is no structural connection between government and community. The question is: how do we empower communities to take ownership of solutions? The suggested Indigenous body could connect the high level political debates to the local knowledge of people on the ground.”

“Of course, economic development is not the only important thing. In New Zealand, there are structures for Maori representation in parliament and settlements under the Waitangi Tribunal, both of which increase potential for effective economic development. But they also have the Maori Language Commission to promote and revitalise Maori language and culture. We could have this type of institution in Australia too.”

“I would want to see the representative body not only drive economic development in the regions, but to also help with language, culture and place name recognition. Everything depends on how the structure is designed and what else makes up the proposed package of reforms. Indigenous Australians need to engage with this proposal. We need to start discussing the possibilities.”

“Future law reform should be properly informed and led by Indigenous people. Real, on the ground Indigenous involvement and communication with government will be crucial if we are going to close the gap and revitalise and maintain Indigenous heritage.”

Uphold & Recognise