The way forward on Uluru – 2019 Frank Walker memorial lecture

By LINDA BURNEY | 25 October 2019

I think there are three things we can learn from Frank Walker’s life and legacy. First, his willingness to make personal sacrifices for fairness and justice. Second, his pragmatism – to know the best possible outcome when you see it, and to not let it go. Third, to be able to provide a calm and sensible voice in the midst of emotion and hysteria. These lessons are no more relevant than to the current national discussion about the Uluru Statement, constitutional recognition and an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

When the prime minister appointed the first Aboriginal person to the portfolio of Indigenous Australians, he sent a clear message that he was prepared to act on the Uluru Statement – that he intended to use his election win to make history. We were all overjoyed – Ken Wyatt is a good and thoroughly decent human being.

The Uluru Statement called for three things. A constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament, Truth Telling, and agreement making – through a ‘Makarrata’ commission. Agreement making is, of course, code for a treaty.

It is five minutes to midnight on this issue.

The prime minister recently backgrounded the media – ruling out a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament. He is now saying, I think, that he would support a referendum to recognise First Australians symbolically, but not enshrine a Voice in the Constitution.

We still don’t know how the co-design process will work. There is still no Parliamentary working group. And we don’t yet know what the Government plans to do to take the next step on truth telling.

Along with my Labor colleagues I continue to offer bipartisanship and collaboration. But we are running out of time – especially if the Government is to deliver on their commitment to a referendum this term. And there is a real risk the Uluru Statement will fade into the pages of history. That it will be remembered as a noble moment, but not a turning-point. It really is five minutes to midnight.

The next federal election is due in the first half of 2022. And a referendum would most likely take place by the second half of 2021. Before holding a referendum, there would need to be time for a successful campaign. This will take months and would need to start in 2020.

Prior to a campaign, time needs to be allowed for the co-design of a Voice, consultation and agreement on a question. This can’t be unreasonably rushed. And there must be time to pass an Act of Parliament to set the referendum question. It is now the final quarter of 2019 and the window of time we have is narrowing.

Bipartisanship is still on the table – contingent on the broad support of First Nations people. We will work with the Government, but we will not wait for them.

I say to the prime minister very directly: this could be your moment. A great legacy. Something to be truly remembered by.

If a proper process of co-design is not started by early next year, Labor will start our consultations with communities across Australia on the way forward. We will listen to First Nations people.

Labor has already stated the principles on which we think a Voice should be based. Security of the Voice is paramount – that is why the Uluru Statement called for it to be constitutionally enshrined. Because we have seen before how easily the institutional voice of First Nations people has been taken away by the Government of the day. We all know what happened to ATSIC.

In the spirit of bipartisanship I have set out a starting point for the co-design process the Government has promised. Its basis must be regional – a reflection of the great diversity in First Nations peoples and cultures.

The national Voice to Parliament could be elected from regional bodies. At the national level, the Voice could provide the Parliament with advice on legislation and programs that impact First Nations Australians. It would be a point of accountability of government effort. But it could also deliver annual statements of priorities, and respond to requests from the Parliament for advice and direction.

The Voice could also scrutinise the effectiveness of programs from a First Nations perspective, something that is fundamental to practical self-determination. And it could work in partnership with other organisations, like the Productivity Commission, universities and departments and peak First Nations organisations.

Without openly talking about the past, and understanding it, it is almost impossible to understand some of the barriers, the intergenerational trauma and how to move forward. The recognition of Myall Creek massacre in the Gwyder region of News South Wales is a powerful example of the transformative power of truth. On the 10th of July 1838, a group of Wirrayaraay people were attacked by convicts and settlers when they were preparing a meal. They were slaughtered and their bodies burned. One boy survived. Myall Creek was the first time in Australia that perpetrators were brought to justice – they were hung.

But now, the descendants of those who murdered, and the descendants of those who were killed come together each year. It is an incredibly raw, moving and brave acknowledgement that is pulling together the edges of the great tear that has occurred in that community.

If we cannot acknowledge the injustices of the past we cannot heal the pain. The laws may have changed but the game has very much stayed the same. We still see First Nations People being pursued by the authorities. We still see First Nations People being locked up and removed at record rates.

Truth telling is difficult. But it can build for Australia a stronger, collective national pride. We are all custodians of the oldest continuing culture in the world. It is for everyone.

The Uluru Statement also called for agreement making – for a treaty.

This will require long-term commitment, with the first step being communities and governments getting treaty-ready. Ultimately, there will probably be many treaties.

It is critical we remember that the Federal Government does not need a referendum to establish a Makaratta commission, to begin the very long and complex process in establishing a National Treaty.

Without being prescriptive I have made some suggestions about how to bring the Uluru Statement to life. I have put forward a tangible proposal for a Voice with a clear regional basis, an electoral process and gender parity.

The stars are aligned, now, in this moment. There are advocates within conservative politics, Labor is absolutely on-board with the Uluru Statement, business is ready and willing, states are leading, and eminent legal minds have also lent their support.

But we are running out of time to deliver on the Uluru Statement.

This could be Scott Morrison’s greatest legacy. It could indeed be Gladys Berejiklian’s too. Both leaders have just won elections, and both have enormous political capital. I encourage them to do what Frank Walker would have done and use some of that capital to make a long-overdue and long-lasting change for the better.

About Frank Walker

Frank possessed a profound sense of fairness and justice. But he was also pragmatic – able to navigate the structures of power to deliver tangible real-world outcomes. And he was able to inject a sense of calm and reason in the big ticket items of reform which too often are subsumed by the hysteria of reactionaries.

At six years old, Frank travelled with his father and brother to Papua New Guinea – his father had been black listed as a communist and was unable to find work in Australia. Perhaps it was this early experience of persecution that added to Frank’s layered sense of fairness and justice. There, Frank and his brother were raised among local Indigenous children, and learned the local Indigenous dialect.

So it must have seemed very strange – incomprehensible even – that when Frank and his family moved back to Australia at the age of 12, to the Coffs Harbour region that local Aboriginal people would be subjected to such discrimination and hatred. The removal of Indigenous children from their families and country remained common practice. Aboriginal people were prohibited from practicing culture or speaking language.

It is little wonder then at the age of 13 he was incensed by the practice of segregating Aboriginal people in the local Coffs Harbour picture theatre, and many other picture theatres. His first political act was simple, pacifist and straight to the point – he sat in the segregated section of the theatre.

Frank became involved in more ‘sit-ins’ throughout the region, including at the notorious Bowraville Theatre, as well as theatres in Moree and Walgett. At the Bowraville Picture Show he was beaten by the police for this simple and peaceful act of solidarity.

What particularly outraged Frank however, was the theft of Aboriginal land. He witnessed local Indigenous people being moved off their land to make way for a golf course. An experience which played a significant part in Frank’s determination to deliver land rights.

Frank participated in the famous ‘Freedom Rides’ of February 1965. While protesting outside the segregated Moree Municipal Baths, Frank was again beaten by the police. So severely that he suffered broken ribs. But Frank was not deterred. This experience made him even more determined.

Frank would eventually be appointed the first ever NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. His most significant legacy was as the driving force behind land rights legislation in New South Wales.

In 1990 Frank was elected the Federal Member for Robertson. For Frank, Federal Parliament represented another, wider, sphere through which to advance the cause of Indigenous land rights. The High Court handed down the Mabo decision in 1992 and the Keating Labor Government shortly after sought to implement the Native Title Act of 1993. Frank was responsible for coordinating Labor’s response to the High Court decision.

(This is an edited extract from a speech by Hon. Linda Burney MP to the 2019 Annual Frank Walker memorial lecture hosted by the New South Wales Society of Labor Lawyers on 8 October 2019. Linda Burney is Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services and for Preventing Family Violence in the Australian Parliament.)