ken wyatt am

A long-overdue item of national governance awaits Prime Minister Morrison’s government — the next steps on the path to substantive constitutional recognition for Australia’s First Nations people, including a Voice to Parliament. In May 2017, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was a historic consensus outcome of a nationwide consultation with Indigenous people on constitutional recognition and recommended a Voice to Parliament. While then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected the establishment of a First Nations Voice in the constitution, the Uluru Statement gave momentum to recognition, which remains bipartisan policy.

In November 2018, the final report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition acknowledged the Uluru Statement as “a significant turning point in the discussion about the constitutional recognition”. It recommended a process of co-design between government and Indigenous Australians to determine the detail of the Voice, to conclude within the term of the 46th parliament.

”It is about empowering communities to have the capacity to make informed choices about their futures, and ensuring they have a greater voice in the decisions that affect them.” Chip Goodyear, chair BHP Foundation

“We are committed to recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the Constitution at the same time as delivering practical outcomes to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities,” the Liberal Party’s 2019 policy says. “A referendum will be held once a model has been settled, consistent with the recommendations of the Joint Select Committee.”

New Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt AM — also Australia’s first Indigenous minister — told media that constitutional recognition was too important to Australian society to rush. The work had to be methodical and people had to be educated on the importance of constitutional change. The Coalition allocated $160m in the budget to run a referendum and provided $7.3m for the co-design of models to improve local and regional decision-making and options for constitutional recognition.

”A constitutionally guaranteed Voice to Parliament is a rejection of symbolism and a call by grassroots Indigenous voices for meaningful and respectful engagement. We will all be richer for it.” Danny Gilbert AM, managing partner Gilbert + Tobin, co-chair Cape York Partnership Group

Business steps up

An expanding group of members from the business community is urging the Coalition to seize the opportunity. In November 2018, the Business Council of Australia, which represents the CEOs of more than 100 companies, endorsed the process and urged political leaders to work towards a referendum as quickly as possible.

In March, 18 law firms jointly stated that constitutionally enshrining a Voice to Parliament, as called for in the Uluru Statement was: “a critical first step in walking with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples towards a better future”.

Also in March, Rio Tinto and BHP, two of the nation’s largest employers of Indigenous people, endorsed the statement and its objectives. BHP committed to funding the Uluru Education Project, to be managed by a steering group that includes Professor Fiona Stanley, Danny Gilbert AM and Indigenous leaders Professor Megan Davis and North Queensland Land Council director Terry O’Shane. In May, 21 financial industry CEOs and chairs pledged support for the Uluru Statement and a First Nations voice.

Read the Uluru Statement from the Heart here