When reading and hearing opponents of the Voice referendum, one cannot help but think they have not carefully read The Uluru Statement from the Heart (2017).
Modern nation states are based on sovereignty, on a legitimate claim by a people to control their territory. In modern times this is expressed as the democratic will, supported by historical relationships with the land. Sovereignty and legitimacy of government rely both on the rational view that power vested in the few is not just, and on fellow feeling, that injustice to one is injustice to all, that injustice cannot be quarantined.
Nations founded as part of an empire, such as the British Empire, must face the very real legacy of racism and imperialism. Failing to do so leaves an unhealed wound at the core of that nation’s being.
The Uluru Statement is a cry for justice, which will start the process of healing for First Nations members and all Australians. Its claim of spiritual sovereignty is both rational and just, based on history and connection to country.
The ‘torment of powerlessness’ (in the Statement) cannot help but affect all Australians, just as an injustice to our neighbour affects us as well. The hope for ‘a fair and truthful relationship’ is a statement of commitment to all Australians, a nation that prides itself as a leader in justice – votes for women early in our history, early fair industrial laws, a sense of disdain for claims to power based on class or birth. The Statement invites us ‘to walk with [the First Nations] in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.’
If Australia is to move forward as a just and free nation, it needs to heal its wounds from the past, or else those wounds will forever slow that walk.
The question for the ‘No’ campaigners is whether it is in any Australian’s interest to continue the legacy of an imperial system long sent to the dustbin of history by democratic and rational norms. Those supporting the ‘No’ vote fear the loss of privilege that was afforded by white history, and the consequences of recognising the spiritual sovereignty claimed by First Nations peoples. Some claim a Treaty must be the first step.
But the Statement’s view that a First Nations’ Voice should come first reminds us that a conversation that starts from a biased view of the past won’t go anywhere of value, even with a formal treaty.
The legal notion that First Nations’ sovereignty was extinguished by the colonial settlement of an ‘empty’ land was laid to rest more than 30 years ago in the Mabo case.
It is time for all Australians to come together to heal the wounds of racism which have afflicted Australia since its founding as colonies of a foreign empire.
The Statement asks only for the truth. No nation can move into a just future by suppressing one side of the story. The Voice is for all of us.