May 2019


A fresh canvas for Indigenous politics

By Stephen Fitzpatrick
Photo of Anangu artists Christine Brumby, Charmaine Kulitja, Rene Kulitja and Happy Reid with the Uluru statement canvas.

Anangu artists (from left) Christine Brumby, Charmaine Kulitja, Rene Kulitja and Happy Reid with the Uluru statement canvas. Photograph by Clive Scollay

The Uluru statement is headed for referendum

Rachel Perkins was anxious. She had to find a painting. She would conjure one up on a blank canvas if necessary, but she needed an artwork and she needed it quickly. The sun was sinking over Uluru, setting the monolith afire with its nightly red-to-purple transformation, just as it has done for 600 million years, but time at the rock for Perkins was now compressed into a matter of mere hours.

Two years ago this month, a marathon period of legal and civics work was about to reach its climax in a proposal that could change Australia at its core. The one thing that had been left out was art – something was needed to underline a written statement that, if crafted soundly and supported the next morning by 250 delegates at the historic Indigenous convention, could be a turning point in the quest for constitutional recognition of First Nations peoples.

After more than a decade of stop-start attempts by governments and all manner of committees, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians had finally been asked to come up with a solution, and they had not held back. Minimalist proposals for constitutional recognition had been dismissed, and substantive change was now on the table. The agreement that would be known as the Uluru Statement from the Heart was within grasp. Of five options under consideration, one idea had trumped the others, as it had been doing for the past six months: a “voice to parliament”, enshrined in the Constitution, that would give Indigenous citizens a say in laws made about them. It could be a circuit breaker, persuading Australians that the lack of a First Nations presence in our founding document is to the detriment of all. More specifically, it proposed a structural solution to the demonstrably poorer life outcomes for the majority of Indigenous Australians.

Governments would not be legally bound by the voice’s advice, meaning it would not threaten the sovereignty of the parliament. This gave it the support of key constitutional conservatives. It would allow the only group of Australians about whom specific legislation can be made, for instance native title laws, to comment on that legislation – a so-called “natural justice” right currently not accorded. And if it were in the Constitution, it could not be abolished at the whim of a hostile government.

There had been three days of discussions within the large, boisterous group, which was made up of delegates nominated from a dozen Indigenous regional dialogues around the country over the previous months, involving at least 1200 people. A small, pre-planned protest walkout gained national attention and was important in the process. It showed dissent was a legitimate part of affairs.

On that final evening, a small core of lawyers settled in for what would become an all-nighter drafting the statement. Outside their room, a floating roster of delegates sang songs of country that buoyed the spirits of those within. Singing it into existence.

And as they did, Perkins considered her options for its artistic expression. She would achieve what was needed, but only after a quest of almost madcap dimensions.

The Arrernte and Kalkadoon filmmaker is from a family that, for decades, has been associated with the civil rights cause. Her father was the legendary Aboriginal activist and bureaucrat Charlie Perkins. He knew how to engage the power of protest, having led the 1965 freedom ride that exposed the systemic racism defining Australia.

Rachel Perkins had come to understand, at almost the last minute, that any Uluru proposal should have an irresistible physicality, like the Yirrkala bark petitions of 1963 or the Barunga Statement painting of 1988. Cape York lawyer and Referendum Council member Noel Pearson gently prompted Perkins, on the second day of the convention, to think about how to present what might turn out to be a significant declaration. It needed to be touchable if it was to touch the nation’s heart and soul. It needed to be art as well as law.

Like the Yirrkala and Barunga documents, it also needed to bear the identities of all those involved, to carry the weight of the various First Nations in agreement, in a form that could then be taken to the broader world. But unlike those earlier efforts, this would not be addressed to the government or to politicians. They were not even invited to the convention’s closing ceremony, and there was no plan for the Uluru statement to be displayed at Parliament House, as are the Yirrkala and Barunga works.

Over several hours there was much deliberation. Satellite phone calls were made to remote desert camps, and there were close inspections of paintings already hanging at the Yulara resort where the convention was being held and at the nearby Mutitjulu township. It all came to nought. There was no possibility any existing work could be adapted for such a momentous project.

“You can’t take a painting that was designed for one purpose and just put it to another,” Sally Scales says. Scales is deputy chair of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands executive board and one of the delegates to whom Perkins initially turned for help.

A fresh canvas needed to be found, and then an artwork created that was specific to this endeavour. Perkins was keenly aware that time was wearing on.

“I said, what we’ll do is, we’ll get the canvas and everybody can sign it, and we’ll paint on it later, and then it will have the intention, which it should, that these are all the Dreamings of Uluru [and] it’s painted for this purpose, the right way.”

A late-night highway adventure ensued. It was a dash by a volunteer that included unscheduled roadside negotiations with members of the Northern Territory constabulary over the status of a driver’s licence, and the hasty and long-distance payment of an outstanding traffic infringement notice by Perkins over the phone using her personal credit card.

“I’m like, how much is the fine? Three hundred bucks, I’ll send you 300 bucks,” she laughs, remembering the tension as she waited nervously back at base camp, in the Yulara resort.

By first light a roll of canvas had been delivered, cut and prepared. A rectangular space had been blocked out for participants’ signatures in anticipation of an acceptable resolution, with a smaller subsection left in its centre over which the statement itself could be fixed.

The draft manifesto was read to delegates in the morning, in a final session closed to the small press corps attending the convention. The Uluru Statement from the Heart has often been mistaken for poetry, and it certainly can inspire, as the best manifestos do, but it sprouts from the fire-readied seeds of significant public policy reform.

We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.

Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.

We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

In those breathless moments, as the scale of what was being contemplated became clear, after the all-night session with the lawyers synthesising the delegates’ messages over the previous two days, a motion was quickly put to the floor. It was accepted with universal acclaim. The momentum had been seized. The joy was real.

As Quandamooka man Dean Parkin later described it in a TedX Canberra talk, “people who had previously been arguing furiously with each other embraced with tears in their eyes”.

The various nations that came together did not all have the same aims and ambitions, other than to offer Australia a fresh start in Indigenous relations. And should the voice to parliament be established, they would not be expected to always concur in the advice they give from its platform, but they had come together in its foundation. They assembled at Uluru to pick through the ashes of two centuries of often dreadful relations between Indigenous and settler Australia, but also as a reminder that First Nations sovereignty, which is described in the declaration as “a spiritual notion”, has never been ceded.

This will doubtless be wilfully misconstrued by some opponents but its intent could hardly be clearer: this sovereignty exists, the Uluru statement says, “according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial’, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago”. All bases covered, really.

That afternoon there was a solemn ceremony at Mutitjulu in the shadow of Uluru, with the text having its first public reading by professor of constitutional law and Cobble Cobble woman Megan Davis, a member of the 16-person Referendum Council appointed two years earlier by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. The Uluru statement was a response to the precise question for which the council was convened: What does constitutional recognition look like to Indigenous Australians?

Anangu people danced, having gifted the name Uluru to the document. So too did Yolngu delegates. They had travelled from the far north bringing their powerful concept, Makarrata, to be conferred on the proposed commission overseeing treaties and truth-telling.

Torres Strait representatives performed a baizam shark ceremony. Off to one side, Anangu kids kicked a football around in the red dirt, perhaps the only members of the assemblage oblivious to the import of what their elders were laying down for them and for the nation.

Just a handful of invited journalists witnessed the declaration. I was there, conscious of being welcomed to a moment in national history-making equal to anything that has gone before; a rejoinder to Henry Parkes’ Tenterfield Oration, the speech said to have most influenced federation in 1901.

Michael Gordon, whose empathetic reporting on Indigenous affairs over decades had been a crucial part of the media landscape, was also in the small crowd. We were competitors professionally, working for rival outlets, but we shook hands as friends at that moment and marvelled together at the generosity we were called to witness and document.

It was spine-tingling. There, rolled out on the red dirt, was Rachel Perkins’ canvas, still blank but for the delegates’ signatures in the allotted space. Later, the words of the resolution would be framed by those names and the whole surrounded by a magnificent painting. The artwork, depicting key Anangu stories, would be created under the direction of renowned desert painter Rene Kulitja, with artists from the Maruku Arts centre at Mutitjulu.

The date was May 26, 2017 – one day short of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum that kicked off, but fell short of achieving, Indigenous constitutional recognition. The Uluru Statement from the Heart had been formally declared as a principle for recasting national relations.

Its reforms aim to heal the deep wounds created by the fact that when the Constitution was written a little over a century ago, two sets of parties negotiated to the exclusion of a third. The states and the Crown wrote their own rules for a Commonwealth without inviting the participation of the people who had for millennia owned the land – land that was still, even then, being stolen. Often in violent fashion.

Legally, it’s that simple. Indigenous Australia was not consulted then, but it has been now. Finally.

And the canvas document is on its way to becoming a national treasure.

Historian Mark McKenna describes the Uluru statement as “the most visionary political document to emerge in the last decade”. Painter Ben Quilty says it is “one of the most important artworks of our time”.

Rachel Perkins explains the significance of it as an artefact, referring to the Anangu concept of Tjukurpa, linking the people to their environment and ancestors. “The Uluru Statement from the Heart follows that tradition of art expressing people’s connection to the land through their Dreaming,” she says. “This Tjukurpa which is expressed here [in the statement] is part of Australian history and law.”

Northern Territory Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy uses her Yanyuwa peoples’ concept of Kujika, “the songline that weaves its way across Australia”, to imagine the Uluru statement’s potential. “If done well it could be a new beginning for our country,” McCarthy says.

Quilty, who has worked with artists in the region, found himself the custodian of the piece on its first journey out of Mutitjulu a few weeks after its presentation at the convention.

“I was visiting Mutitjulu and they laid it out on the ground and asked could I take it back with me [to Sydney]. They rolled it out and showed it to me in the dirt, with its signatures. It was one of the most important things I’ve ever had to do. I knew what it meant,” he says.

“It ended up having a place in the empty seat next to me on the flight and I buckled it in and I thought, If we go down, that’s me and it both done for.”

Quilty is certain of both its artistic and cultural significance.

“The artists in that area include some of the most important painters in the world at the moment,” he says, citing last year’s Wynne Prize winner Yukultji Napangati as an example, alongside Rene Kulitja’s own significant standing.

“This was a message that was meant to be met with open hearts and trust, a real act of reconciliation, extending their hand against all the odds even after getting it slapped down time and time again. When it was knocked back, I just couldn’t believe it.”

Malcolm Turnbull’s rejection of the Uluru statement’s vision for constitutional recognition was first dropped to a News Corp reporter. The following day, October 26, 2017, it was confirmed in an official press release that landed like a bag of stale flour thrown from a mission manager’s rations table.

Calling the proposed Indigenous voice a “third chamber of parliament” – inflammatory and inaccurate language promoted by the right-wing Institute for Public Affairs – Turnbull’s statement warned that the proposed constitutional amendment would “undermine the universal principles of unity, equality and ‘one person, one vote’”.

The rejection later prompted the government’s only Indigenous MP – and Australia’s first Indigenous minister – Ken Wyatt, to declare despairingly, in a private meeting with Turnbull, that the latter’s “grandchildren would grow up knowing you were the prime minister who failed Aboriginal Australia”, according to more than one source familiar with the exchange. In response, an angry and defiant Turnbull is said to have torn shreds off Wyatt, who holds the aged care and Indigenous health portfolios. Wyatt now faces the prospect of watching a newly installed Labor government deliver for his people, and for Australia, what successive Coalition governments had refused. It’s a galling thought for a man who believed the reform would eventually succeed regardless of which party was in power.

Turnbull’s dismissal of the Uluru statement came just ahead of an Australian Constitutional Values survey conducted by OmniPoll for the University of NSW, Griffith University, the ANU and the University of Sydney, which showed 61 per cent support for the voice to parliament. And yet in Senate estimates at the time, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion admitted his government’s decision to bin the proposal had been based not on any polling, but simply on the fact most referendums have been unsuccessful. A fear of failure, without any basis.

It is true that only eight of the 44 referendums put to Australians have succeeded, and the most recent of these was more than 40 years ago. But recent research suggests the common belief that referendums can only get up with political bipartisanship might be misleading. Paul Kildea, director of the Referendums Project at UNSW’s law school, believes the so-called “five pillars” for referendum success – bipartisanship, popular ownership, popular education, sound and sensible education, and a modern referendum process, as outlined by George Williams and David Hume in their 2010 book People Power – have created an unhelpful shift in people’s minds, and have gone from offering useful indicators of success to being regarded as “fixed ‘pre-conditions’ that must be met before a reform proposal can proceed to a vote”.

Kildea suggests that because there is not enough in common between past referendums to make them directly comparable, “cross-party support could be helpful in some circumstances, but in others it may be unnecessary”.

The Uluru statement’s voice to parliament proposal, he believes, could in future succeed with the overwhelming backing of a Labor government even if it were opposed by the Coalition, assuming support from the crossbench and a powerful public mobilisation. On the latter point, Kildea cites the idea’s grassroots origins and “the potential for support among corporations, sporting teams, state governments and civil society generally”.

Such a formulation might prove to be academic. In his April 2 budget, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced that there would be a referendum on a voice to parliament under a Coalition government after all, “once a model has been settled”, and that $7.3 million had been redirected from previous funding to that end. But this was only the headline figure. Quietly buried elsewhere in the budget books, under the heading “other purposes”, was an extraordinary find: “contingency reserve” funding of $160 million for “a provision for the Indigenous Recognition Referendum … in 2020–21”. Contingency reserve funds are described in the budget as “estimates for measures that have been announced but cannot yet be included in entity estimates”. But no one in the government had been troubled to mention the decision to take the voice to a referendum before now.

The complete Uluru proposal is for a sequenced set of reforms: first, enshrining the voice to parliament in the Constitution, and then forming a Makarrata commission to oversee agreement-making and truth-telling.

“Voice, Treaty, Truth” has become the rubric, and it is deliberately put in that order. Various state and territory treaty exercises bear with them great hopes but it is a federal constitutional voice, establishing for First Nations peoples a means of dealing directly with the Crown – and perhaps later a republic – that is expected to truly allow state and territory instruments to be the treaties Australia has never signed nationally.

“Victoria will have its voice in September this year [the First Peoples’ Assembly] but it’s not safe unless it’s in the Constitution – that’s our hook,” Victorian treaty advancement commissioner and Gunditjmara woman Jill Gallagher says.

John Howard disparaged the idea of a nation making a treaty with itself, instead preferring a symbolic preamble in the Constitution. But the understanding on recognition has since shifted: the Uluru convention was explicitly a First Nations process that proposed a First Nations relationship with Australia. The Referendum Council supported the statement and expanded on it by recommending there also be an extra-constitutional declaration of recognition, which might acknowledge the tripartite Indigenous, British and multicultural aspects of our identity. The logic is that without a constitutionalised voice to reset relations, the Makarrata aspect of the Uluru statement – the agreement-making, the truth-telling – will run the risk of being barely better than hand-wringing: more “sorry days”, rote-performed acknowledgements of country to open government departmental meetings, cute NAIDOC week poster competitions and the like.

Meanwhile Indigenous disadvantage in health, education, employment, the justice system and elsewhere will continue to run out of control. There will no doubt be more attempts to “refresh” the Closing the Gap strategy, while an increasing amount of the money spent on Indigenous Australia will filter through to non-Indigenous organisations with no accountability for results.

A report into the Referendum Council’s findings, tabled in November last year by the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, acknowledged the desirability in principle of the voice to parliament but airily declared more work was needed. It then had this to say under the subheading “A note on language”:

Lastly, the committee acknowledges concerns among some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples around the use of the terms Makarrata and Uluru Statement from the Heart and will choose to refer to the statement as the Statement from the Heart.

If it was true that such concerns had been aired in some quarters, it was not by anyone generally viewed as having the cultural authority to make it. One of those who does have the authority is Uluru traditional owner, chair of the board of management of Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park and, as of April, the chair of the Central Land Council, Anangu man Sammy Wilson. The report’s note made him hopping mad. So cranky, in fact, he took a trip from Mutitjulu to Cairns last December, to attend a strategy meeting called by Megan Davis and Noel Pearson to map out referendum issues among some of the key players.

Wilson attended with one mission: to defend Uluru. It is, after all, the name he bears – or at least, should bear, as a traditional owner. As a young man, Sammy adopted the name Wilson, he explained to the small group of lawyers and Indigenous figures present, because Uluru was “too powerful” for one person to carry. But he remained the holder of sufficient cultural authority to give permission for Uluru to appear in the statement, and said he would be offended if it were withdrawn without his permission. He was angry to hear claims that its use was illegitimate, or that it should be cut out, when the proper approvals had been given to use it after extended negotiations.

The bipartisan joint select committee, reluctantly appointed by Malcolm Turnbull after the rancour over his rejection became clear, was chaired by Labor senator Patrick Dodson and Liberal MP Julian Leeser. The latter is an originator of the voice concept who had to take a backseat once he was elected to parliament in 2016, to accommodate his party room’s line.

The committee’s report does not say whose “concerns” about language it was airing, although there was an irony in its flat declaration. The Uluru statement proposed a new relationship, one that prioritised Indigenous voices, yet the parliamentarians were ostensibly objecting on Indigenous Australians’ behalf.

Nor does the report include the opinions of either of the senior men who gifted those words to the statement. Neither Wilson nor Referendum Council member and Gumatj clan leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu, from whose Yolngu Matha language and tradition Makarrata is drawn, rates a mention.

On the question of Makarrata, the committee could have referred back to Yunupingu’s direct challenge to Turnbull in August 2017, just weeks before the shock rejection. At the annual Garma Festival at Gulkula on the Northern Territory’s Gove Peninsula, the prime minister was told by his host that “at Uluru we started a fire, a fire that we hope burns bright for Australia … We have come here for serious business, very serious business … Now let me give you my final words: Yothu Yindi; Garma; Makarrata. They mean coming together, working together and making peace together.”

As for Sammy Wilson, the joint select committee might have found that he was just a phone call away at Mutitjulu. And he’d have been happy to talk.

Bob Hawke’s tears as he hung the Barunga Statement on the wall at Parliament House as the final act of his prime ministership didn’t help deliver a treaty.

Putative prime minister Bill Shorten also has every chance to disappoint Australians on the Uluru statement, should he retreat from its carefully sequenced proposal. At the moment, his support appears solid.

“Enshrining a voice for the First Australians will be Labor’s first priority for constitutional change,” he said in his Closing the Gap speech in February, putting paid to talk within Labor of mounting a referendum on the republic before tackling Indigenous constitutional recognition.

This is a crucial point. Mark McKenna, a prominent republican and a supporter in 1999 of the idea of the Howard-initiated preamble, if not the actual words, admits his position on constitutional reform has changed. In recent years, McKenna says, he has come to fully understand the inextricable link between a republic and Indigenous constitutional recognition: the former cannot be dealt with exclusive of, or even prior to, the latter.

Yet even now there are murmurings within Labor that Shorten’s commitment to constitutional reform could be walked back – should be walked back – if it were thought the reforms might not succeed at a referendum. In this regard, plenty will rest on how much detail about the voice to parliament’s operation is nailed down before a vote, and how much is left until later, allowing flexibility to adjust as it develops. These details are being considered now in Shorten’s office, but the expectation is that a significant amount would be agreed to before the nation goes to a vote.

One thing the Uluru statement’s regional dialogue process clearly resolved was that membership of the voice to parliament must be driven by traditional owners, ensuring elected representatives of specific First Nations guide the agenda. The peak organisations, such as health and medical services, as well as prominent individuals, would also be a part of the voice but wouldn’t be its core.

Pat Turner, chief executive of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, made this clear last month when she acknowledged that a new coalition of peak groups partnering with the Council of Australian Governments on Closing the Gap initiatives was “not the voice”. The working assumption is that the membership of the voice could be based on the 35-region set-up under which the old Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) operated, with each zone determining for itself how to be represented. Deputies, possibly a man and woman from each region, would be able to take their constituents’ concerns to governments, including those at local, state and territory level. They would also be accountable to their regional electors for how they fulfilled this responsibility.

This could address the apparently arbitrary decisions on spending conducted under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, a whole-of-government funding regime introduced in 2014 by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. In a budget night of the long knives, Abbott slashed half a billion dollars from $5 billion of Indigenous programs and eliminated most line agency roles, bringing the bulk of portfolio decisions into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. It was a disaster – the IAS was roundly slammed by both a Senate inquiry and a National Audit Office review for its lack of good planning and process – but it persists.

Shorten has staked much on the voice to parliament. It is political capital he appears prepared to spend if elected. While he has committed to a first-term referendum, some campaigners caution that acting with too much haste could give little time for winning the “double majority” support (a majority of voters in a majority of states) required to alter the Constitution. However there is an equivalent, perhaps even greater, danger in waiting too long.

If a referendum were allowed to slide, and the voice were instead established in the apparent safety of legislation alone, rather than in the Constitution, it would be in constant danger of being rescinded by a future government – just as ATSIC was in 2005 under Howard and with the support of a Latham-led Labor. It would be afforded all the stability and longevity of a church fete committee.

Former ATSIC leader, union stalwart and Uluru signatory Terry O’Shane is clear on this risk: “We shouldn’t just assume Labor is our friend, and frankly, unless they’re going to stick to their word on it, I’d just as soon we have three more years of ScoMo.”

Political capital or not, any leader contemplating significant reform will surely take succour from the big players jumping onboard. When BHP chief executive Andrew Mackenzie was preparing to announce in January that the mining giant would back the Uluru drive, and tip $1 million into a national education campaign, the Opposition leader sent him a congratulatory text message, noting it was an important indicator of the public mood. Rio Tinto was also part of the announcement, mirroring company boss Leon Davis’s surprise 1995 embrace of the contentious Native Title Act – recognising, then as now, that Indigenous rights were a contributor to business progress, not an impediment.

Mackenzie’s announcement carried with it the added credibility of being made to a room full of traditional owners, who had been consulted first.

Soon after, at a gala dinner for the Minerals Council of Australia hosted by Scott Morrison in the Great Hall at Parliament House in Canberra, Rio’s head of iron-ore operations Chris Salisbury demonstrated again that business giants and civil society have generally moved ahead of the government. Morrison delivered an unarguably awkward address to a room that included a host of his own ministers and senior Labor figures, including Shorten. The prime minister tried to adopt the boom tish vibe of a late-night talk-show host, giving jokey shout-outs to members of his party, hectoring his opponents and warning resources industry leaders present that “noisy voices”, i.e. Labor, “want to shut you down”.

It was Salisbury, however, who stole the show, albeit with an anodyne, almost offhand line. Delivering the keynote speech, he began with an acknowledgement of the Ngunnawal people on whose land federal parliament sits, then continued: “Rio Tinto recently announced its support for the Uluru statement … We see this as an important step in our reconciliation journey and the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, a process we have supported since 2015.”

The room erupted with applause. Just about the only person not joining in was a glum-faced Morrison. He still has not publicly supported Uluru, and in an interview on Radio National last September he had stuck to the thoroughly discredited notion of the voice to parliament being a “third chamber” and a threat to parliamentary sovereignty.

To be clear: the proposed voice cannot compel government to act in a particular way, something the joint select committee unequivocally confirmed.

Late in March, 18 of the nation’s top law firms joined forces, declaring that the voice presented no legal threat and urging governments to get behind it.

Other major corporations are adding their weight to a public backing of the Uluru statement, and while it’s true that companies don’t vote at referendums, their employees and their employees’ families do. Given the inevitability of a racist backlash in some quarters to a referendum campaign, corporate support will be crucial.

The Uluru statement has now travelled the length and breadth of the country, often in the tight embrace of union leader Thomas Mayor, an articulate and passionate Zenadth Kes man able to bring crowds along with him on the need for the reform it proposes. At every appearance, from remote Indigenous communities to the most rarefied boardrooms and bar-association common rooms, the document prompts tears and acknowledgements. Offers of support, both moral and financial, are regular.

The annual ugliness of January 26 notwithstanding, next year’s commemoration of 250 years since James Cook made his way up the continent’s east coast on the Endeavour and raised the flag on Bedanug could provide a kind of a relief valve leading to the constitutionalising of a new Australia.

And it could be done with a referendum question as simple as: “Do you approve an alteration to the Constitution that establishes a First Nations Voice?” The rest would follow.

This essay was written with a Michael Gordon Fellowship from the Melbourne Press Club.

Stephen Fitzpatrick

Stephen Fitzpatrick is a dual Walkley Award–winning former foreign correspondent and Indigenous affairs editor at The Australian. He works in the newly established Uluru Dialogue at the University of NSW.

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