On the eve of cabinet’s rejection of a proposal to enshrine a First Nations Voice in Australia’s constitution, Indigenous health advocate Ms Pat Anderson AO presented a passionate argument for change.
Preparing to deliver the 2017 Dr Charles Perkins AO Memorial Oration in the University of Sydney's Great Hall, Ms Anderson was described as a living treasure by acting Deputy Vice Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) Professor Juanita Sherwood. An Alyawarre woman and Chair of the Lowitja Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research, Ms Anderson is also co-chair of the Prime Minister’s Referendum Council, tasked with making recommendations to the federal government on constitutional change.
In her address, Ms Anderson reflected on the contribution Dr Perkins made to the struggle for social justice and Aboriginal rights in Australia, including his part in advocating a ‘Yes’ vote in the 1967 Referendum.
“Fifty years on from that Referendum, we have another opportunity for genuine and substantive reform to the Australian Constitution,” she said.
Ms Anderson explained her personal answer to the question ‘why do we need constitutional change?’ fell into two halves.
“The negative half is the desperate situation many of our communities are subjected to. I have been working in this area all my life and I can honestly say I have never seen things so bad… we have to start doing things differently. In my view, our very survival depends upon it.”
But there are benefits for all Australians, she said.
“We need real change, because we, First Peoples, have something unique to offer this country. Our peoples have been here 65,000 years or more. Over these immeasurable periods we have developed a profound wisdom about this land and about what it means practically and spiritually to live here. We know this place. This is our place, and there is no doubt about it.”
Ms Anderson shared her journey as a member of the Referendum Council, and outlined the process of the unique regional dialogues that culminated in the National Convention of First Peoples at Uluru in May this year, and the Uluru Statement from the Heart which overwhelmingly endorsed substantive change to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to take their rightful place in the country.
“Of course there were disagreements… but there was also an extraordinary level of agreement on some matters.
“There was overwhelming consensus around three proposals… simply put: a constitutionally-enshrined Voice to parliament, a process of treaty making, a process of truth telling.”
Focussing on the recommendation to establish a constitutionally recognised body that would give First Nations a voice to parliament, Ms Anderson said it would have both symbolic and substantive impact.
Symbolically, it would formally acknowledge the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country.
Asking Australians to say yes to such a proposal would be asking us all to reflect on what values and principles we hold dearest as a society.
Among more substantive benefits, a Voice could “address Australia’s appalling history of supposed consultation with our peoples… all too often we have been excluded from the key decisions that are made about our lives.”
Ms Anderson rejected criticisms the body would act as a third chamber of parliament, but said it could play a powerful role holding the government to account and monitoring the use of the constitution’s race power or attempts to suspend racial discrimination legislation.
“We would at last be in the main building, not in a demountable somewhere out the back.”
While details of how to establish the body were yet to be negotiated, Ms Anderson’s vision was for “a body that would have representation from all the diversity of First Nations across Australia. It would be a place for dialogue, a meeting place for us as well as with us.”
“Establishing such a body… is proportionate to the level of distress, anger and powerlessness that is being felt in our communities,” Ms Anderson added.
“Australia is one of the few liberal democracies in the world which does not have any formal settlement with its original peoples… what we are asking for in that landscape is modest, reasonable, achievable – conservative, even,” she said.
Ms Anderson said politicians had “dropped the ball” since the delivery of the Referendum Council report in June.
“We need to create new structures, new ways by which we can speak and get things done to deal with our complicated 21st century lives. We need to create a future where we and our children and our grandchildren are recognised as having something powerful and unique to offer this nation.
“It needs to happen now, not just for us as First Nations. This is about the social and emotional wellbeing of the country as a whole.”
Following the Oration, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence and Dr Perkins’ daughter Hetti Perkins awarded the recipients of the Dr Charles Perkins AO Memorial Prize to students Emily Johnson (Bachelor of Visual Arts, Honours), Carla Rotunno (Bachelor of Health Sciences) and Dean Cross (Bachelor of Visual Arts).
The prize was established in 2000 to commemorate the life-long achievements of Dr Perkins, the first Aboriginal man to graduate from university. With the support of the University faculties and The Charlie Perkins Trust for Children & Students, there are now three prizes awarded to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who have achieved outstanding results for a Bachelor or Honours degree.