The speech for the occasion was written by NRG members Jan Aitken and Jan Mackenzie, and delivered by Jan Mackenzie and Gillian Essex.
Congratulations to you all on your decision to become Australian citizens. You are in the
beautiful Nillumbik Shire on the lands of the Wurundjeri Woiwurrung people of the Kulin
nation. We pay our respects to Wurundjeri Woiwurrung Elders and all Aboriginal people here
today. We acknowledge it is a difficult day for you, and not one for celebration
Today is 26 January, the date on which Governor Phillip raised the British flag, founding the
colony of Sydney.
At this time, the original inhabitants of Australia, the First Nations, were living throughout the
continent, in 250 nations, each with unique languages. Each nation had a complex cultural life, a
sophisticated understanding of their whole environment. They had lived sustainably for some
60,000 years. The colonisers, however, viewed them as inferior, primitive people. Their
ownership of the land went unacknowledged.
At first they were tolerated but soon became an obstruction to expansion and development.
Their brave warriors fought to defend their lands against the expansion through the country.
There was much loss of life, exacerbated by death from introduced diseases for which they had
Laws were passed in each state to ‘manage” the Aboriginal people: to keep them on reserves;
to limit their presence in towns; to break down their cultural connections. When children were
born to an Aboriginal woman and a white father, it was decreed that they be brought up white.
Men were engaged as patrol officers to gather up these children, removing them from their
families, leading to the thousands who became Stolen Generations.
Four decades later, many Aboriginal people still suffer neglect, prejudice, discrimination and
racism despite the well-intentioned aid provided by well-meaning governments.
There have been many Aboriginal and non-Indigenous activists fighting for justice. In 1967, a
successful referendum changed the constitution so that Aboriginal people were now counted in
our census and the Federal government was authorised to make laws concerning them. The
Mabo legislation, Paul Keating’s Redfern speech, and Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen
generations have been landmarks. Through actions like these we have been trying to heal the
wound in our national identity.
Australia today is a very different country and we know and understand better the truth of the
past and its effect. But the violent history remains as traumatic history to new generations of
the First Nations. And Australia’s management of the First Nations, who were here in this
country before us, remains a wound and a shame.
In 2015 Aboriginal leaders were feeling utterly desperate with their powerless place in national
government. They wanted to have a part in government decisions about Aboriginal people.
They knew there was a change that could heal the wound in the way the First Peoples of this
land have been treated.
Something more profound and effective was needed.
Across Australia in 2016 and 2017 Aboriginal leaders organised Regional Dialogues with First
Nations people living in cities, towns and remote communities across Australia. They elected
Traditional Owners, representatives from Aboriginal organisations and individual Aboriginal
leaders who would attend an Australia-wide representative gathering, the National
Constitutional Convention. This was held at Uluru, on Anangu land. For four days, they met,
they argued, they thought, they talked. Finally, a statement was agreed on.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart, released on 26 May 2017. Gillian will read their statement
and generous invitation to all Australians.
ULURU STATEMENT FROM THE HEART
“We, gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, coming from all points of the
southern sky, make this statement from the heart:
Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the
Australian continent and its adjacent islands and possessed it under our own laws and
customs. This our ancestors did, 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.
This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’,
and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain
attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is
the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or
extinguished and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.
How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred
link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?
With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient
sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.
Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately
criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This
cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in
obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.
These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the
torment of our powerlessness.
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own
country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two
worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
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 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our
trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian
people for a better future.”
It is now 2023 and we are hearing their request, realising it is a generous and thoughtful answer
to this wound in our national identity. The First Nations are a rich and significant part of the
nation of Australia and they need their rightful place recognised and the ills of the past given a
possibility of healing. If Australia can be recognised internationally as being the home of the
oldest living culture in the world, we, too, need to respect and treasure this.
Later this year you will be confronted by your first act as full Australian citizens. You will vote in
the referendum to make this change in our constitution.
Having heard something of the background to it you will see that putting the principle of a Voice
to Parliament in the constitution is an action of reconciliation like no other. It involves the will of
a majority of the nation. It changes the essence of our democracy. No longer will we be a
colonial power looking after people who do not have our full respect. The First Nations peoples
will be there, in our constitution at last. One hundred and twenty two years since constitution
was written for the founding of our Federation of states and territories in 1901.
The Voice is an advisory body, not a law making one. The Australian Parliament’s authority
remains intact. But there will be the requirement to hear advice from Aboriginal people as they
lead a recovery from the traumas of their past treatment. They will be agents of policy change,
contributing to legislative decisions. Aboriginal people have told us they do not want
recognition in words in a pre-amble to the constitution. They want recognition of Indigenous
voices that can be heard in an ongoing and significant way.
We believe that this vote for a Voice is the beginning of a new Australia, one we will be proud to
belong to. We can see an opportunity for change which will renew our hope and pride in our
country, the country you have now chosen to call home.
We raise two flags today: the Australian flag and the Aboriginal flag. Let us imbue these flags
with our sincere support for Aboriginal voices; and commit ourselves to listening, hearing and
acting in reconciliation.