My friend fears for the Uluru Statement under Morrison – but I don't

On election night I was swapping messages with a good friend, a passionate, smart, generous advocate for Indigenous people who was now despondent. She said she feared for the future of the First Peoples under three more years of a conservative government that had already said no to the hopes and aspirations in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

It isn’t a view I share. The Australian people had rejected Bill Shorten, a leader they had never warmed to and did not trust; they rejected Labor’s ambitious agenda for change; they rejected more taxes and class warfare; in parts of the country they rejected a climate change policy they thought threatened their jobs. But they did not reject the Uluru Statement.

Whenever Australians have been asked, they have overwhelmingly supported the idea of Indigenous constitutional recognition. Polling numbers consistently show more than 80 per cent in favour. Many of those people would have voted for the Coalition.

Click Here:

There is a challenge for Indigenous leadership, to work with the Morrison government and reframe the argument for recognition, rights, justice. This is not government interested in symbolism, it is going to prioritise real outcomes: jobs, education, health. It is a government that’s going to be big on personal responsibility. Forget about changing the date of Australia Day or treaties; this government’s mantra will be fairness not difference.


So what is the pathway for constitutional change? It is highly unlikely this government will take the question to a referendum in this term. There are those inside the government who will outright oppose the idea. The Nationals Barnaby Joyce said the Uluru Statement’s call for an Indigenous representative body enshrined in the constitution – a "voice" – would constitute a "third chamber of parliament". Then prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said Indigenous people could have no rights that other Australians didn’t enjoy.

Perception is everything in politics, and Indigenous leaders have a big task to to turn things around. It is going to require pragmatism and a campaign that reaches across the political divides of left- right or city-country. But there may never be a better time.

Next year marks the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s arrival on this continent and claiming it for the British Crown. This is a personal passion project for Prime Minister Morrison, who has already earmarked nearly $50 million to mark the occasion including a replica of the Endeavour circumnavigating Australia and a new monument at Botany Bay.

Of course many Indigenous people feel the weight of 1770, that began dispossession and colonisation. But 2020 is an opportunity to begin to tell a new story of this country for a new century. Two hundred and fifty years ago the world was coming; Captain Cook forever changed the history of this continent and its people. No one can deny the destruction that was wrought, but it is also possible to acknowledge that Cook planted in the ground not just the British flag but the traditions of democracy and Enlightenment liberalism that have made this country among the most free, prosperous, diverse and cohesive on earth.

2020 is a chance to merge two great traditions, the old and the new: the Indigenous and the British. 2020 is not 1770, the myth of terra nullius – that this was an empty land free for the taking – has been demolished. Indigenous people have fought for two centuries at the ballot box, on the streets and in the courts to make this a better country.

There are three great moments: the 1967 referendum that technically counted Indigenous people in the census and allowed the federal government to make laws for Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders but more than that spoke powerfully to fairness and citizenship; the 1992 Mabo High Court decision that acknowledged the prior and enduring rights to land of the First Peoples and led to Native Title; and the 2008 apology to the stolen generations.

Together these three events have shaped a new nation not one irredeemably stained by settlement and violence and exclusion but a country that has wrestled with its past and sought reconciliation. Three events: the vote for fairness; the power of the law; and the healing of history. They set the stage to finish the unfinished business and put Indigenous people finally at the heart of our nation’s founding document: the constitution.

This is not a radical idea; indeed it is deeply conservative. The father of conservatism, the 16th century British politician and philosopher, Edmund Burke believed a constitution was a compact between the government and its people. Society, he said, was a contract between the living, dead and the unborn. Today all Australians seek to honour our past and look to safeguard our future.


This is precisely what I read in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. A people historically locked out of this democracy are saying they want in. What a profound statement of faith in our country that a people for whom the constitution was written to exclude were saying that same constitution can hold their dreams. The Uluru Statement blends the ancient sovereignty of First Peoples with the lived reality of the political sovereignty of the Commonwealth.

Consider its words, that the Uluru Statement "can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood"; "We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country". The Uluru Statement promises a brighter future for Indigenous children who will "walk in two worlds" and whose culture will "be a gift to their country".

The Uluru Statement kept faith with the Australian people’s most resoundingly successful referendum, 1967, when Indigenous people were finally counted. Now, it says, "we seek to be heard". This has never been about dividing people but in the closing words of the statement, extending an invitation "to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future".

We hear the Indigenous voice on the streets in protest: it is loud, it is angry and insistent and it is necessary. Then there are voices we don’t hear; quiet voices far greater in number. They hold their families tight; they value their culture and communities. They are people of faith, they are your neighbours, your mates, sometimes your family. These are Burke’s "little platoons". I know them, they are my family, the people I grew up with and without whom I would be nowhere.

Indigenous people have fought in this nation’s wars, have built the roads and worked the railways, picked the fruit and drove the cattle. Indigenous people have represented this nation in sport and sit on the benches of our courts, mend the sick in our hospitals and serve in our parliaments. Everyday, Indigenous parents ready their kids for school, work hard and share the daily joys, struggles and ordinary virtues with all other Australians. A people so small in number, a tiny fraction of Australia who hold the heritage of this nation for all. They are people who have overcome so much, still have so much to give.

In the Uluru Statement the quiet voices ask other Australians to join their voices with them. Prime Minister Morrison pledged his election victory to the "Quiet Australians". He has the chance now to give a voice to the quietest Australians.

Stan Grant is professor of Global Affairs at Griffith University. He is a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man.