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Staying true to Uluru on a shared journey forward

Marie McInerney writes:

Leading Voice, Treaty and Truth proponent Professor Megan Davis has called on Australians who voted Yes at last year’s Voice referendum to renew their efforts for Australia to embrace the Uluru Statement from the Heart, so the country can come together “in peace” to address momentous challenges like climate change.

Davis, a Cobble Cobble woman, constitutional scholar and one of the architects of the Uluru Statement, said she and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait leaders had retreated from the media and political discourse in the wake of the devastating defeat of the referendum last year.

“But it’s time to tell our stories,” she said in her keynote address to the University of Queensland for NAIDOC Week 2024, which celebrated the support of 6.2 million allies at the referendum who remained “staunch” in their support. “It’s okay to feel sad and to feel cynical and pessimistic, a lot of our mob do,” she said

“But it’s not okay to give up,” she said. “We owe that to our ancestors, and we owe it to our jarjums [children].”

Davis said she had had a lot of time to think and yarn about the referendum and had accepted the invitation to share her reflections, though she did so with “great hesitation”.

Mindful at how media often inflame comments she and other Aboriginal leaders make, Davis shaped her address as a letter to her eight-year-old niece, Mimi, seeking to explain what had happened.

Citing an old African proverb that says ‘the hunter always tells the story of the hunt, never the lion’, she said: “Well Mimi, it’s time for the lion to roar.”

Speaking at her alma mater on the lands of the Turrbal and Jagera peoples, Davis, who is Pro Vice-Chancellor Society (PVCS) at UNSW Sydney, reflected on the impact of referendum defeat on her and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait people.

Like many, she had not wanted to get out of bed “the day after the No”; others did not want to leave their homes. “If they did, they felt sickened, they felt hurt, they felt rejected, they felt like they did not belong.”

She was among many too who could not quiet the voice in their heads telling them, as they walked out of their homes, in their cities and communities, in their supermarkets and streets, that the people they were seeing had likely voted no.

This was inexplicable, she said, for many of those who grew up and work alongside non-Indigenous people in small towns and communities.

“They could not reconcile the work that goes on at a daily level, in terms of those daily interactions and coexistence, with the huge No vote.”

But, she said, what finally got her out of bed and ready to engage again on the Uluru Statement, was realising there was not only majority support for the Voice from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but that there was “another mob” in support.

“We discovered 6.2 million Aussie friends that we didn’t know we had,” she said.

Post-referendum analysis

Davis, who with Indigenous health leader Pat Anderson is a co-chair of the Uluru Dialogue, which represents the cultural authority of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, said she had been part of significant research undertaken since the referendum – observing that Yes proponents had to do their own work, “because the media and government have done next to nothing in terms of a post-mortem analysis”.

The research showed that the 6.2 million allies did not place their Yes votes out of fear or falsehood, but with “pride and knowledge and positivity” and that they remain committed to the course.

“They are tremendously proud of their Yes, and they are staunch in their support, and that is something that we must build upon,” she said.

Seeking to explain why 60 percent of Australians voted no, Davis said research and analysis over the past seven months indicated there was no one particular reason.

“Was racism at play? Undeniably, there was an element of it, but racism alone does not explain October 14,” she said.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and Nationals leader David Littleproud did not help in their opposition, “but we can’t be sure that bipartisanship would have changed the outcome,” she said.

Obscuring everything was the “thick cloud of misinformation and disinformation”, where lies spread from both ends of the political spectrum, and “politicians and opportunistic zealots” coloured the national conversation in a way that was divisive and sought to brand the idea of the Uluru Statement itself as divisive.

“How can an olive branch be called divisive?”, she asked.

So it was not one thing that defeated the Voice, but rather “a cocktail of negative influences, racism, politicisation, disinformation, poor civics education, poor understanding of the Australian Constitution, and let’s not forget plain old inertia and fear of change”.

Davis’s anger with the role of the Australian media in Indigenous health, rights and justice was clear, as she quoted sections of the 2024 Productivity Commission report which was scathing about government and bureaucratic responses to the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, finding evidence “of a failure to relinquish power and the persistence of ‘government knows best’ thinking”.

“It’s damning stuff, but when the report was released in February, what was the reaction? Tumbleweeds,” she said.

“Even though the Productivity Commission validated all of the reasons that mob were arguing for an enshrined voice, the media caravan had moved on,” she said.

“After all, they didn’t seem to understand why the Voice was needed because, outside of 2022 and 2023, Indigenous policy rarely, barely rates analysis in the Australian media.”

Davis said some Australians were now using the Voice defeat to apply to “all things in Indigenous Australian policy”, including native title and cultural heritage, when the decision applied only to the particular amendment proposed for the Constitution “and that’s the end of the story”.

Australians “did not vote no to truth telling, they did not vote no to treaty making. The No doesn’t mean a legislative voice is off the table, and the No was not a no to constitutional recognition,” she said.

Critically, she said, the research was showing that most Australians still don’t know about the Uluru Statement, or the extensive dialogues with communities that informed it, and what it was calling for. “That’s a huge amount of information missing from people when they go to make an informed vote at the ballot box,” she said.

The work ahead

Davis said she and her fellow proponents remain loyal to the historic consensus forged at Uluru and continue to keep the Uluru Statement from the Heart “alive and on the agenda…to turn every no into yes”.

“Its legitimacy stands,” she said. The work to be done now is “with our 6.2 million friends, learning how to connect with them, how to talk with them, how to divvy up the work, and [working out] what is the new narrative as we venture out into what is an unknown, but what is also known”.

That’s not to say the road ahead will be easy, she said, highlighting the challenges of an unforgiving and fractious political climate, where the penalty for lying in politics “seems to be lower than ever”, trust in institutions is heavily eroded, social justice movements are “struggling against the tide of anti-wokism”, and social media is engineered to “pit us against one another”, she said.

“These headwinds are significant, but despite these challenges, we are staying true to Uluru,” Davis declared, saying she believes in the enduring importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples being recognised in the Australian Constitution – “it’s one glaring hole”.

Looking for answers to bring about change, Davis talked about the work of john a. powell, the Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, and colleagues who argue that while egalitarian and other social justice movements can improve material conditions and the standing of marginalised groups in society, “they tend to engender backlash, amplify polarisation and further fragmentation”.

His framework has, she says, the potential to “overcome these dynamics and re-weave the social fabric”. As an example, he has asked whether the Black Lives Matter movement may have been achieved more change if it had added just a word: “Black Lives Matter Too”.

The work going forward means learning how to come together and “push for progress without alienating those who aren’t yet on our team”, Davis said, adding that the “insularity common to so many activist movements is unhelpful and righteousness is even worse”.

Her goal is for Australians to see the calls of the Uluru Statement not as a “First Nations thing” but as “an Australian thing”, recognising that “we are all tethered to this country” and have seen extraordinary things happen on sporting fields, in compulsory voting, healthcare, gun laws and marriage equality.

“How can we harness that kind of energy and move to a place where our ancient culture is a source of great national pride? How do we get the majority of Australians to understand that full belonging means having the same rights and privileges as other members, no more and no less…and that constitutional recognition is not about special treatment, it’s about remedying past harms…?”.

If we are to stare down problems of the magnitude of climate change, “we need to stand shoulder to shoulder”, she said. “The country must be at peace.”

In closing, Davis said her agenda now is to continue to meet “our 6.2 million friends”, undertaking a process of yarning with Australians across the political spectrum “without a politician or a news camera in sight”, doing “the silent work of the Australian people”.

Davis urged people to sign up to the Uluru Statement from the Heart website and said her approach now is “working with different Yes groups across the continent on what the next agenda looks like”.

Allies were “putting up their hands to door knock, to go and visit electorates with large No votes,” she said. “It’s extraordinary the work that the 6.2 million and the groups that represent the Yes vote are doing,” she said, reflecting particularly on the strong support from young Australians and the emerging leadership of young First Nations people, particularly through the Uluru Youth Dialogue.

“We don’t intend to give up because of what happened last year,” she said. “Will it be easy? No. Will the pain of the Voice referendum be over in a hurry? No.

“But our people have endured far worse, and we are not giving up,” she said.

“Our statement, though rejected, remains a true and just statement, an idea that transcends politics. It was a statement, a gift, a message to the Australian people.”

Indigenous voice advocates ‘not giving up’ after defeat


Video recording to come

The lecture is hosted by the UQ’s Indigenous Engagement Division and was introduced by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Bronwyn Fredericks and Vice-Chancellor Professor Debbie Terry AO. This was the second year the annual lecture has been offered. Distinguished Professor Marcia Langton presented the inaugural lecture. Professor Megan Davis’s presentation will also be made available via video.


See Croakey’s archive of articles on the Uluru Statement

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