Date posted: 31/03/2023 10 min read

Straight from the heart

Adopting the Uluru Statement from the Heart would give First Nations Australians a say in the laws that impact them, but first, it must pass a referendum.

In Brief

  • It seems likely Australians will vote in a referendum later this year, to decide whether to adopt two changes outlined in the Uluru Statement from the Heart: a Voice to Parliament and a Makarrata Commission.
  • Supporters say this will give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples a say in the laws and policies that impact them.
  • CA ANZ supports the statement, and encourages members to get involved and share their views.

On 26 May 2017, First Nations peoples issued an invitation to all Australians in the form of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The culmination of a long,painful journey toward recognition and self-determination, it seeks to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples a say in the laws and policies that impact them.

The Uluru Statement was developed via a series of regional dialogues held across the country and was delivered at the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru in 2017. It calls for two substantive changes: a Voice to Parliament for First Nations peoples to be enshrined in the constitution, and the establishment of a Makarrata Commission for treaty-making and truth-telling.

A referendum for the Voice looks set to be held in the second half of this year, so how would it work?

“The idea of a Voice to Parliament, and having it enshrined within the constitution, creates a system and a structure to achieve better outcomes.”
Karen Mundine, Reconciliation Australia

Changing the system

When the Australian Constitution came into effect on 1 January 1901, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not recognised as part of the country’s population, despite occupying the mainland for more than 65,000 years. In a referendum in 1967, Australians voted for change, so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be counted as part of the population. However, structural inequalities have continued to create a gap between First Nations peoples and non-Indigenous Australians around issues such as health care, education, employment and life expectancy. A history of discriminatory policy has also left scars that continue a cycle of disadvantage.

“I believe that Australians are of goodwill,” says Karen Mundine, chief executive officer of Reconciliation Australia, the lead body for reconciliation in the nation. “They want to see things change and I think there’s an agreement that things haven’t changed as quickly as we would like them to.“The idea of a Voice to Parliament, and having it enshrined within the constitution, creates a system and a structure to achieve better outcomes.”

How would the Voice work?

The Voice would provide a mechanism for Indigenous Australians to give advice on the design, development and implementation of the policies and programs that affect them.

The Indigenous Voice Discussion Paper, presented to the federal government in 2021, provides the most comprehensive idea of what the Voice would look like and how it would operate. However, if the referendum vote is passed, this will ultimately be a matter for parliament to decide.

The report recommends the Voice have a broad scope to advise on “nationally significant matters of critical importance to the social, spiritual and economic wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia”. Parliament and government would be obliged to consult the Voice on matters that overwhelmingly relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, such as native title, heritage protection, employment and housing.

The report has recommended the Voice have 24 members and a gender balance. There would be two members from each state, the Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory and Torres Strait, as well as five members representing remote communities and one representing Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland.

Local and regional Voice groups would also provide input to the national body, and two advisory panels would be established on disability matters and youth.

Mundine notes that a Voice to Parliament presents considerable social and economic benefits for all Australians.

“We know from international research and from our own experiences in Australia, that people within the communities know best about what’s happening in their communities and how issues can be best addressed,” says Mundine.

“I think the general Australian public understands that if we give First Nations peoples a say and if they can actually influence the development of how things will play out in community, you naturally get better outcomes.”

Standing for change

Uluru, NT

Data from the Australian Reconciliation Barometer shows 80% of Australians believe the creation of a nationally representative Indigenous body is important and 79% believe it should be protected under the constitution. Among Indigenous Australians, support is at 86%.

Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand supports the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the First Nations Voice to Parliament. Hayley Angell, CA ANZ’s senior manager, diversity, equity and inclusion, says to be truly inclusive, the organisation must be “explicitly inclusive”.

“It’s important we leave no question or confusion that we stand with First Nations peoples and we stand for reconciliation,” she says.

“We recognise that we have a social, economic and community responsibility to do this, as an organisation of influence that represents 135,000 members. We also want to increase First Nations participation and representation in the profession.”

Hayley Angell, CA ANZ’s senior manager, diversity, equity and inclusion

“We recognise that we have a social, economic and community responsibility to do this, as an organisation of influence that represents 135,000 members.”
Hayley Angell, CA ANZ

CA ANZ completed the first stage in its four-part Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) last year and is preparing to embark on the second stage. Its aim “is to strengthen trust, lower prejudice, acknowledge Australia’s true history, and celebrate the rich cultural diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, places and communities”.

“The first stage involved getting a sense of our cultural competency: what were our internal capabilities and where are our gaps,” Angell explains. “We’re now at a good starting point of understanding our relationships with Traditional

Custodians of the places where we have offices, for example.”

Recognition and respect

Not all Australians support the Uluru Statement and political debate surrounds the Voice. However, Deanne Firth FCA says disagreement should not create division.

A Jagera woman, Firth is the founder and director of Tactical Super, a chartered accounting firm specialising in the audit of self-managed super funds, and a member of CA ANZ’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Member Panel. She says it simply makes sense to receive advice from those in the community who understand their own challenges and needs.

“The key point is the Voice would allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to provide advice on projects and policies that impact their lives,” she says. “The advice is not binding and the government doesn’t have to take it. Demands can’t be made. Laws can’t be vetoed by the Voice.

“Another important point to note is that the structure of the Voice seeks to ensure that it is representative of the whole country, including representation from rural and remote areas,” adds Firth.

“This means parliament would be getting a picture of the whole of Australia.”

For accountants who support the Voice, Firth encourages candour. “A positive, open stand of support might help to shut down some of the nastiness that was expressed during Australia’s marriage equality campaign,” she says.

Karen Mundine encourages all Australians to read the Uluru Statement from the Heart to become educated about its purpose.

“Then, start talking about it,” she says. “Have those conversations with family and friends because demystifying it is so important. There’s politics that will come into play as we work through it, but the principle of the Voice remains and it’s really important for people.”

Uniting the nation

Along with the Voice to Parliament, the Uluru Statement calls for a Makarrata Commission. A Yolngu word meaning ‘a coming together after a struggle’, a Makarrata Commission would supervise and oversee the process of agreement-making and truth-telling.

“There’s still work to be done on the details of a Makarrata Commission,” says Mundine, “but it’s very much about truthtelling in relation to how our histories are intertwined. Indigenous history over the past 250 years is Australian history and, until we, as a nation, can feel comfortable talking about it, it’s always going to hold us all back.

“In the meantime, what’s being proposed for the referendum is very simple and it’s humble,” she adds. “For the broader community, it’s not really asking for a lot – it’s about asking for people to give a bit of time to vote yes in a referendum, but the impact for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will be life changing.”

illustration created by Tyrown WaiganaThis illustration was created by Tyrown Waigana, a Wandandi Noongar and Ait Koedal artist, with connection to people in south-west WA and Saibai Island in the Torres Strait. He says: “The artwork has three key symbols. The first one is an oval shape with a line in it symbolising an ear, which represents a willingness to listen. The second is a funnel shape indicating a megaphone, which means amplification of voice. The last is speech marks at both ends, showing in and out voice. “I think the Uluru Statement from the Heart is ultimately a request for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be in control of their own lives. As it stands, we have little-to-no say in what happens to us. It’s interesting to think if the shoe was on the other foot a lot of non-Indigenous people would be deeply unsettled by the notion only First Nations peoples make decisions for them.”

Lessons from The New Zealand Treaty of Waitangi

The Uluru Statement from the Heart has been a source of debate since 2017. In New Zealand, however, the treaty widely regarded as the nation’s founding document has been debated for more than 180 years.

On 6 February 1840, New Zealand’s first governor, Captain William Hobson, several English residents, and between 43 and 46 Māori rangatira (chiefs) signed the Treaty of Waitangi – a broad statement of principles on which the British and Māori made a political agreement to found a nation state and build a government.

Janine Hayward, professor of politics at the University of Otago with a research interest in the Treaty of Waitangi, explains that because it was never ratified into New Zealand law, its terms are not legally binding.

“However, since 1975, the phrase ‘the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi’ has appeared in our law and is used as a legal touchstone to judge the actions of the crown,” she says.

Hayward explains that much of the debate about the treaty stems from its two versions – one in English and one in Māori.

“The Māori chiefs who were gathered at Waitangi heard and debated the Māori version, and the language and concepts that they understood they were agreeing to were those in the Māori version of the treaty, not the English version,” she says.

The most significant difference is that the word ‘sovereignty’ in the English version was translated as ‘kāwanatanga’ in Māori, which means ‘governance’.

“There was nothing about any of the events leading up to, or after, the signing of the treaty that would demonstrate that Māori had ever meant for secession of sovereignty be the point of the agreement,” says Hayward.

Today, the role to determine the meaning of the treaty rests with the courts and the Waitangi Tribunal; the latter is a commission of inquiry created in 1975 to investigate alleged breaches of the treaty by the crown.

The principles that seek to reconcile the Māori and English language versions of the treaty and guide its application in a contemporary context include the crown’s active protection of Māori, partnership and Māori participation.

“There’s a huge spectrum of how the treaty works in practice, such as providing Māori people with authority for the management of rivers and national parks,” says Hayward.

“We are on a very slow journey in New Zealand of understanding this,” she adds. “Māori have always asserted this and it is due to that relentless effort that we are slowly seeing change.”

The treaty is now increasingly referred to as ‘tiriti’, adds Haywood. “The purpose is to shine a focus on the Māori language version.”

Language matters

There are 476 million Indigenous people living in more than 90 countries and speaking more than 4000 languages. In Australia alone, there are more than 250 Indigenous languages, including around 800 dialects, and each language is specific to a particular place and people.

Using respectful and inclusive language and terminology is a vital part of reconciliation.

Reconciliation Australia’s Narragunnawali: Reconciliation in Education program includes a terminology guide to assist everyday communication with First Nations peoples.

Narragunnawali states that using Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander is often best practice when referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people generally. In written form, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander should always be capitalised.

Aboriginals or Aborigines are generally considered to be outdated terms, while Aboriginal alone is not inclusive of the diversity of cultures and identities across Australia.

Using First Peoples and First Nations is generally acceptable and should always be plural. The term Indigenous may offend people in some places, but the word is acceptable when appropriately embedded into an organisational policy.

Language is proving to be a force for change in countries like New Zealand, where Māori language is integrated in most parts of the country.

“It’s really picked up over the past five years,” says Janine Hayward, professor of politics at the University of Otago, adding that Māori is the generally accepted term for New Zealand’s Indigenous people.

“As it starts to gain momentum, there is pushback against it from some quarters, but it’s an unstoppable force now. It’s just becoming so normal that people don’t even really notice when they’re using the language.

“Māori language classes and the call for teachers is skyrocketing. It’s not unusual in meetings for people to be using Māori words and everyone just knows what you mean, which is lovely.”

Share with the CA ANZ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Member Panel

CA ANZ’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Member Panel provides the organisation with feedback on matters affecting the day-to-day activities of Indigenous members. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members interested in joining the panel or wishing to share comments with the panel can email: [email protected]

Indigenous and non-Indigenous members are welcome to continue the conversation online by joining the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander member community on My CA here.

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