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The Uluru statement showed how to give First Nations people a real voice – now it’s time for action

The challenge on Indigenous rights is to achieve reform that goes beyond limited understandings of these issues as being symbolic or practical. AAP/Dan Peled

In December 2018, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) resolved to “work collaboratively and in genuine, formal partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”. This commitment was in response to issues arising from the national review of Indigenous affairs policy.

COAG noted in its Closing the Gap statement that it was responding to a “Special Gathering of prominent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians”. It was this group that called for “the next phase of Closing the Gap to be guided by the principles of empowerment and self-determination”.

Read more: The Indigenous community deserves a voice in the constitution. Will the nation finally listen?

This unfinished business is an important challenge for all Australians, regardless of the outcome of this year’s federal election.

Labor and the Greens have committed to reforms called for by the Uluru Statement from the Heart. These reforms would enable Indigenous empowerment and self-determination. However, the Coalition government, yet to respond to the Joint Select Committee Report on Constitutional Recognition, has demurred on a First Nations Voice in favour of “practical” concerns.

The relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is a responsibility beyond political divisions. It extends beyond policy concerns to the presumptions that inform them.

The continued interpretation of Indigenous concerns about Australia Day as simple demands to “change the date” exemplifies this issue. It is not the case that Indigenous people protesting Australia Day don’t care about “practical” issues. They live with these issues every day. They know all too well the challenges they face.

Rather, the issue remains the deeply ingrained and negative attitude toward Indigenous people and their experiences within Australian society. This includes:

  • the denial of Indigenous history and experience
  • the failure to establish legitimate mechanisms for the recognition of this history and agreement making
  • the continued denial of legitimate Indigenous rights and demands.

The problems with Indigenous affairs policy

Closing the Gap guides Indigenous affairs policy along with the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. This policy apparatus has focused on areas such as employment, education, health, economic development and community safety.

However, Australian governments have failed to achieve their policy goals. Some policies – such as the Community Development Program and the Basics Card – have been heavily criticised for further entrenching Indigenous inequality and disadvantage.

Indigenous affairs decisions are too often reactionary and crisis-focused. Significant resources are distributed without evidence and without Indigenous oversight and evaluation.

Moving from crisis to crisis, non-Indigenous actors make key policy decisions. These actors fail to appropriately understand issues at hand and force ineffective policy solutions onto Indigenous communities as the only solution. The approach to Indigenous youth suicide is a key example of this.

These policymakers fail to address the ineffective policy decisions and maintain the impoverished position of Indigenous people. They also fail to respect and recognise Indigenous people as First Nations, and the rights that inhere as a result.

Hearing Indigenous Australians

Indigenous people have raised many concerns with these policies. These include being ignored by decision-makers, the denial of Indigenous experience and the failure of policies to enable effective outcomes. The Commonwealth government’s own review of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy and Closing the Gap confirmed these issues.

In response, COAG has offered support to “discuss” the co-design process that would explore a First Nations voice to parliament. However, there has been no mention of specific targets for Indigenous empowerment and self-determination. Rather, COAG’s communique emphasises “strengthening mechanisms to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have an integral role in decision-making and accountability processes”.

Read more: Will treaties with Indigenous Australians overtake constitutional recognition?

This approach aims at incorporation within a structure that has failed Indigenous people. COAG has uncritically repeated a form of rights ritualism: it appears to support Indigenous rights, without actually implementing them.

Even when provided with some semblance of recognition, those rights are only ever minimal and subject to restrictive arrangements. These continue to hold Indigenous people at the whim of government priorities and decision-makers, rather than being led and informed by Indigenous community needs and processes themselves.

Realising a better Australia

These issues reflect the entrenched position of Indigenous Australians and the past inability of “Australia” to recognise their place as First Nations. These practices have real implications for policy development, which are reflected in the wider Indigenous affairs debate. Examples include attitudes that dismiss Australia Day concerns as mere symbolism while emphasising practical matters such as youth suicide, sexual and domestic violence, and getting kids into school.

The challenge ahead is to achieve reform that goes beyond limited understandings of these issues as being symbolic or practical. This requires a transformative approach to the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians that will realise a better future for all Australians. The call from many Indigenous Australians following the Uluru Statement from the Heart for a progressive process forward toward Voice, Treaty and Truth provides an authoritative pathway toward achieving this change.

Indigenous Australians have provided important leadership by issuing the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is up to all Australians, regardless of political persuasion, to accept the invitation and “to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”.

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