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Indigenous Australians Have Said How They Want To Be Heard, But We're Not Listening

The Uluru Statement was largely dismissed before the ink was dry.

13/06/2017 9:54 AM AEST | Updated 13/06/2017 9:55 AM AEST
Alex Ellinghausen/Fairfax Media
Gumatj clan members perform the Gurtha ceremony at Uluru, at the opening ceremony of the First Nations National Convention.

"In 1967 we were counted; in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future."

The beautiful Uluru Statement from the Heart by this nation's First Peoples was made the day before the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. It is one of the most significant moments in Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples' history since that day half a century ago.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders from across this vast and diverse nation met in Uluru for the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, having had a series of meetings around Australia over the previous six months. Two hundred and fifty leaders collectively signed off on one powerful statement. They mapped the way forward, and highlighted the structural nature of their problem:

"...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."

They articulated the need for constitutional change and structural reforms so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples could take their rightful place in their own country, including a First Nations Voice and a commission to address agreement-making and truth-telling.

But the ink was barely dry on the landmark statement before some of our nation's political leaders, who often have the power to set the tone on issues of national importance, stampeded through the gates to diminish the document whilst getting the facts wrong.

This collective shrug at the Uluru Statement could have implications on its success.

"It's not going to happen", said our Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. "If you overreach in politics and ask for something that will not be supported by the Australian people such as another chamber in politics or something that sort of sits above or beside the Senate, that idea just won't fly."

Our Prime Minister glazed over the statement the very next day, with a patronisingly poetic speech that acknowledged the document, but committed to nothing, giving a tempered warning that any successful constitutional change must have "resolute solidarity" or "minimal or at least tepid opposition".

What must be particularly infuriating for Aboriginal leaders who have dedicated their lives to change is the promise by Turnbull and other political leaders that they will listen and enable First Peoples to make decisions for themselves.

Just last year, in a statement on the Closing the Gap report in the Federal Parliament, Turnbull said:

"We recognise and value, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and peoples... Mr Speaker I firmly believe, that people must be involved in the process in order to be engaged in the outcomes. It has to be a shared endeavour. It's equally important we listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, when they tell us what is working and what needs to change."

What utter hypocrisy.

This pattern of talking the talk but not walking the walk transcends political persuasion.

"One day we would be able to talk of one country, and mean it," said Opposition leader Bill Shorten in response to the same Closing the Gap report from last year.

While saying "We owe the [Uluru delegates] an open mind on the big questions", Shorten didn't commit to the Uluru Statement despite his expressed support in the past for treaty.

This collective shrug at the Uluru Statement could have implications on its success. In shirking any real commitment to the statement or even acknowledging that this is the type of change that is needed, our leaders send a signal of uncertainty that could proliferate through the community.

In vague or damning remarks, they are already unwinding incredibly important work by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, despite constantly saying they will listen and work with them when they tell us what is working and what needs to change.

The Statement clearly points out what needs to change. Shouldn't we be listening?

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