New Economy Journal

Pay the Rent, Part 1: The Uluru Statement from the Heart – Self-Determination?

Volume 1, Issue 1

April 2019

By - Duncan Wallace

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This is the first (read part 2 and part 3) in a series of articles exploring the history and context of the Pay the Rent idea. 

What is the origin of the Uluru Statement proposal for a First Nations Voice to Parliament? Would it advance Indigenous self-determination? What can allies of the Indigenous self-determination movement do to support it?

Shireen Morris’ 'Radical Heart'

Shireen Morris’ 'Radical Heart'

Last month I attended an event on the Uluru Statement and Indigenous Self-Determination, held at Melbourne Law School. The chair of the panel was Dr Shireen Morris, the Labor candidate for Deakin at the upcoming federal election, and one of the principal architects of the First Nations Voice proposal.

The Voice is controversial. Lidia Thorpe, a Gunnai-Gunditjmara woman and former Victorian Greens MP, said recently,

“Don’t support the Statement from the Heart because it didn’t come from the heart – it came from Noel Pearson and Mark Leibler.”

Following the event I decided to read Radical Heart, Dr Morris’ account of her role in the Uluru Statement during her time with Noel Pearson’s Cape York Institute. In it we discover that the Voice proposal came out of careful negotiation between Noel Pearson and what the book calls ‘constitutional conservatives’, or ‘con cons’. Initially, Pearson had advocated for a racial non-discrimination clause, but Morris reports Pearson ultimately decided this was “too far to the left”. What con cons wanted to avoid was a constitutional provision enforceable in the High Court, fearing that such a provision would undermine parliamentary supremacy.

The idea for the Voice to be constitutionally entrenched came from Damien Freeman, an ACU academic and Howard and Abbott supporter (recall it was Howard, in 2007, who instigated the government constitutional recognition program). The con cons insisted, however, on the insertion of a ‘no legal effect’ clause, which Morris found “grating” and, she said, “simply wouldn’t fly with the mob”. The solution was to use sleight of hand – “to construct a provision that would be non-justiciable without an ugly express clause saying so”. This, Morris writes, is “more safe than inserting symbolic words that the High Court could misuse”. The query remains – safe for whom?

This all perhaps rather undermines the idea the Voice comes from what Noel Pearson calls the “radical centre” – it seems to have come instead from the radical right. It also undermines arguments in favour of the Voice made at the Uluru Statement event by Jill Gallagher AO, Gunditjmara woman and Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner. She argued the Voice’s constitutional entrenchment would mean it wouldn’t be at the will or whim of a sympathetic government, in the way Indigenous representative bodies like ATSIC had been in the past. But the way the Voice has been drafted would ensure exactly that – the Voice’s subservience to the whim of parliament, with no recourse to the courts.

It’s not clear how the First Nations Voice ultimately came to be accepted at the Uluru National Constitutional Convention. There’s suggestions the preceding Regional Dialogues were contrived and the consent to the Uluru Statement at the Convention manufactured. This appears to be supported a parliamentary committee report on the proposed Voice, made subsequent to the Uluru Statement, which found that, “at this stage, it is hard to establish whether there is community and bipartisan support for a constitutional voice or voices, especially as there is as yet no agreement as to how such a body would be structured or what its functions should be”.

On the other hand, the third Uluru Statement event panellist, Sarah Maddison, an Indigenous-settler relations scholar at the University of Melbourne, commented that the “referendum council process should be held up as an example of how policy should be made”. Nevertheless, Maddison was reticent in her comments on the Voice proposal, outlining its various potential shortcomings. In particular, she was concerned the Voice continues to put the national parliament at the centre, rather than Indigenous voices. She emphasised that only a treaty could appropriately centre Indigenous voices, due to the fact it would mean the long overdue recognition of the ongoing sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

When asked at the end of the event about what allies can do to support Indigenous self-determination, Maddison suggested, as one measure, we begin to ‘Pay the Rent’. It would be a sign of support moving from mere rhetoric to something potentially transformative, she said. So what is Pay the Rent? Where did the idea come from?

Watch out for the next installation of this 3-part series in next month’s issue of NENA Journal.

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