The Derbal Yerrigan, also known as the Swan River, flows through the city of Perth in Western Australia, connecting the Indian Ocean to the Perth Hills. Winding alongside the Derbal Yerrigan you will see eucalyptus trees and native plants like the kangaroo paw.
When the local Aboriginal people, the Whadjuk, first saw big sailing ships coming down the Derbal Yerrigan in 1829, they thought they were big birds flapping their wings and bringing ancestors back to the land.
When Australia was colonised, British explorers deemed the country to be terra nullius. This means ‘nobody’s land’. However, for at least 60,000 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lived on these lands. These are the lands of the oldest living culture in the world.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to feel the long-lasting impacts of colonisation. For over 150 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were forcibly removed from their families by Federal and State Governments and church missions.
These Children are known as the Stolen Generations. Not only were many of the children abused – psychologically, physically or sexually – after being removed and while living in group homes or adoptive families, but they were also deprived of their culture alongside their families.
Commonwealth countries are still reckoning with their colonial past. In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have offered a generous invitation to all Australians to walk in a movement for a better future for all.
In May 2017, a series of dialogues were held across Australia leading up to the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru. Over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Delegates participated in 12 dialogues and one regional meeting, resulting in the most significant consultation of First Nations peoples in Australia’s history.
These 250 delegates met in the shadow of Uluru and signed the historic declaration – the Uluru Statement from The Heart.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for constitutional change and meaningful, structural reforms based on justice and self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It calls for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Australian Constitution, and a Makarrata commission to supervise processes of agreement-making between governments and First Nations, and truth-telling about our history.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experience in Australia is best articulated in the statement:
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.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are incarcerated and detained at 17 times the rate of a non-First Nations child despite making up less than 6% of the population. First Nations people face many issues that others in Australia do not – shorter life expectancy, lower levels of education and employment, inter generational trauma, high imprisonment rates, substance abuse and lack of political representation – all a direct result of the legacy of colonialism in Australia.
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.
The sequential reforms of Voice, Treaty and Truth are necessary in making practical steps to reconciliation. As a 122-year-old Federation, and 234-year-old migrant-settler history in Australia – the time is now.
As part of the Australian Government’s commitment to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a referendum will be held later this year to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘Voice to Parliament’.
The Voice is about two things: firstly, to recognise the unique status of our First Nations peoples as the original owners and inhabitants of this land; and secondly, listening, to acknowledge that after generations of being silenced and ignored in our country’s founding document, specific measures are required to raise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices and ensure that they are consulted on issues that affect them.
In my reflections on the upcoming referendum, I have often thought about the Commonwealth Charter and the values that Australia, as a member state has subscribed to.
The Commonwealth Charter is a document of the values and aspirations which unite the Commonwealth. It expresses the commitment of member states to the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all the peoples of the Commonwealth.
It seeks to reflect the shared values of the Commonwealth’s nations and citizens and its tenth anniversary this year provides an opportunity to reflect on its progress and to ask if it meets the diverse needs of the Commonwealth’s citizens.
The inequality Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience in this country is a contemporary reflection of the historic colonial agenda that they were subjected to. This inequality that they continue to experience can be directly linked to systemic discrimination.
The Commonwealth Charter is committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant human rights covenants and international instruments. The Charter is committed to equality and respect for the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development, for all without discrimination on any grounds as the foundations of peaceful, just and stable societies.
I acknowledge that diversity and understanding the richness of our multiple identities are fundamental to the Commonwealth’s principles. These rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated and cannot be implemented selectively.
In the way that the Commonwealth Charter acknowledges and recognises the colonial past of Commonwealth nations, the Voice is a way for Australia to reconcile with its colonial history.
[Sovereignty]..has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.
As Gumatj clan leader, Dwaja Yunupingu stated “Australia is built on an ancient foundation. Let the voice of our people be in the constitution. Let it be a given shape by our Parliament. Let us then have the conversations that make things right, for the children that will inherit the nation from us.”
Voice, Treaty and Truth will unite us as a country. Truth telling will allow us to go down the path of reconciliation and revere the more than 60,000 years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture that has survived.
As the father of reconciliation, Senator Patrick Dodson said “reconciliation means that we will walk together towards a better future. My hope is that the Voice referendum this year will be Australia’s greatest act of reconciliation. Let us deliver a successful referendum for a Voice that will be heard across generations to come.”
This year, Australians will have an opportunity to make a choice to move forward in a reconciled country or continue to live in the shadows of our colonial past. I am hopeful, that the day after the referendum, Australians will wake up to a country that their children will be proud to inherit.
This article was written by Senator Hon. Sue Lines
President of the Senate in the Federal Parliament of Australia.