Image credit: Keith Saunders
A leading First Nations figure has explained why a Voice to Parliament is more important than the establishment of a truth-telling commission - when it comes to highlighting the long-term struggle of Australia’s Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“After the First Nations National Constitutional Convention held at Uluru in 2017, we told our political leaders that a truth commission is not what our people asked for – to haul in all the descendants of people who have done grave wrongs, and interrogate them,” Uluru Dialogues co-chair Professor Megan Davis said.
Prof. Davis was delivering a keynote speech at the Sydney branch of international law firm Herbert Smith Freehills as part of the launch of Towards Truth, an online database of the laws and policies which have affected First Nations people since 1788.
Professor Megan Davis said people don’t listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians. Image credit: Keith Saunders
Towards Truth is a first of its kind collaboration between UNSW’s Indigenous Law Centre and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. From land rights to education, hunting and fishing, child removals and language, the actions of Australian governments have affected every aspect of First Nations peoples’ lives, Towards Truth states on its website.
The database is a resource for policymakers, researchers and educators investigating Australia’s relationship with First Nations people, and a tool for advocates working to progress First Nations justice.
“A truth commission is not what our people asked for – but people don’t listen to the Aboriginal voice; they don’t listen to the First Nations voice, so now we have this proliferation of truth commissions popping up all over the nation,” said Prof. Davis. Truth-telling is one of the three core components of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which arose from the Uluru Convention – those being Voice, Treaty and Truth.
“Prior to the regional dialogues which led up to the Uluru convention, there had been occasional calls over the years for truth commissions, but truth hasn’t been a very prominent part of the aboriginal discourse related to rights, or concerning the struggle,” Prof. Davis said.
Kishaya Delaney from Herbert Smith Freehills, Professor Megan Davis, PIAC CEO Jonathon Hunyor and Towards Truth project coordinator Corey Smith at the launch of Towards Truth in Sydney recently. (Image credit: Keith Saunders)
“The problem with the past 20 years of reconciliation is that truth hasn’t been a part of that reconciliation framework. In fact, it is the very problem of the way in which reconciliation is viewed and has been considered in Australia in relation to First Nations people.
“One of the significant things of the Uluru Statement from the Heart is that the Uluru Convention bought back rights and the pursuit of justice to the notion of reconciliation.
“Reconciliation Australia, through Reconciliation Action Plans, had eliminated those elements from the process which government doesn’t feel comfortable with.”
Prof. Davis said the fact large swathes of the general Australian population has little to no knowledge of why structural constitutional reform is needed amid the struggle of First Nations people wasn’t surprising, given governments aren’t asked to cede anything substantial as the reconciliation process plays out.
“The Australian reconciliation process is renown around the world as one which requires nothing of the state,” Prof. Davis said. “It only requires private action – from corporations, not for profits, NGOs, unis, sporting clubs and the private action of people who work within those organisations.
“But it asks nothing of the state, which means when the time comes for serious conversations about rights and constitutional change, Australians aren’t equipped with the information that’s required for them to understand why structural reform is so necessary. That is the importance of the Uluru Statement and the regional dialogues – they bought rights back to the table.
“When we ran the regional dialogues, truth wasn’t regarded as something which should be a model or an option for constitutional recognition, as it’s something that’s not done through the constitution.
“Still, it did come up at all 12 of those dialogues.
“It didn’t, though, come up in the way people have talked about it post the Uluru convention. After Uluru, we had transitional justice theorists, academics, experts and people who wanted truth commissions coming over the top and making assumptions that what people were asking for in the dialogues was a truth commission, but pardon the pun, nothing could be further from the truth.
“This speaks to the reason we need a Voice to parliament.”