Update 11 July 2023: Professor Davis with Professor Mark Kenny of the ANU on an Australia Institute Webinar.
Professor Megan Davis is Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous and Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of New South Wales, has a long history dealing with Indigenous issues in Australia and overseas, and is at present Co-Chair, with Pat Anderson AO, of the Uluru Dialogue. She is a Cobble Cobble woman of the Barunggam Nation. She was the first person to read out the Uluru Statement from the Heart at Uluru in 2017.
This Quarterly Essay should be read in conjunction with Thomas Mayo and Kerry O’Brien’s Handbook on the Voice. While the two efforts overlap a lot, Professor Davis’s is rather more about the ‘why’ of the Voice where the Mayo-O’Brien booklet is more about ‘how’. They are both essential reading. (Report of a recent speech by Professor Davis, covering the range of subjects dealt with in her Quarterly Essay. Extract from the Quarterly Essay.)
Professor Davis reminds us of the many false starts that have preceded the Voice – seven public processes since 2011 alone, even without going back to the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response, the 1988 Barunga Statement, the 1967 referendum, the 1963 Yirrkala bark petitions, the 1938 protest or, for that matter, to 1788. She notes a couple of persistent threads in that history – the trimming and electoral self-interest of politicians and their unwillingness to properly listen to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. On the First Nations side, there has been a ‘trajectory of powerlessness and voicelessness’.
So, the Voice seeks to engage Australians on a level that is above politics. The Uluru Statement, the starting point of the Voice, ‘is a beginning. It is about recognition, and it is about renewal. It is a hand of friendship extended to the Australian people, an invitation to come and meet with us [First Nations people].’
Professor Davis writes about child protection, one of her close interests and areas where she has worked and reported to government, about the Indigenous Advancement Strategy of the Abbott government, and about Closing the Gap. She paraphrases Noel Pearson: ‘too often policy is dictated by people who are disconnected from what the community needs, but who think they know best’.
With all this past history, Professor Davis says, constitutional recognition ‘belongs to that overarching category, the “unfinished business” of the nation’. She uses a telling quote from Bret Walker SC in 2011:
The basis of settlement of Australia is and always has been, ultimately, the exertion of force by and on behalf of the British arrivals. They did not ask permission to settle. No-one consented, no-one ceded. Sovereignty was not passed from the aboriginal peoples to the settlers by any actions of legal significance voluntarily taken by or on behalf of the former of any of them.
That taking by force is the strong theme also of Rachel Perkins’s documentary, The Australian Wars. Buttressing the ‘Yes’ side, and countering the nonsense spouted by some on the ‘No’ side, is that simple point: we (whitefellers) pinched their Country. And, as time passed, First Nations numbers ‘dwindled because of the frontier wars, indiscriminate killings and exposure to European diseases’ and ‘we were recognised as vulnerable and “doomed” in the many “protection” acts legislated by states and territories that curbed our freedoms and subjugated us’.
So, what’s next? Professor Davis discusses reconciliation, whose twin pillars are truth and justice. ‘ “Truth” is about history, a better official account of what happened, and “justice” is the change required for “repair” to occur.’ Reconciliation has had a chequered history in the last few decades in Australia, with a ‘thin commitment’ by the state. The Uluru Statement ‘recalibrated the skewed reconciliation process … and brought truth and justice back to the table’.
At the heart of the problems with the reconciliation project was ‘the failure of just-minded people to hear well – from those who have suffered – what recovery or reconciliation after massive violence or longstanding injustice would require’. Enshrining the Voice in the Constitution will make it more difficult for the hard of hearing – just-minded or not – to dicker and dissemble and divert as has happened in the past. That is a large part of the ‘Why’ of the Voice.
Finally, the essay traverses the intense and complex ‘bottom-up’ consultation – twelve regional dialogues and a national convention – that produced the Uluru Statement of 2017. The success of the post-Voice environment, too, will depend on how well it represents the views of communities across the nation.
Uluru is not about identity politics. It is about location. We are located on this land together. We coexist. The Voice to Parliament is not just about the parliament and the executive. The parliament and the executive are representatives of the people. It is a Voice to the People. It is a dialogue for time immemorial between the First Nations and the Australian people.
23 June 2023 updated
David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website, has been convener of Heritage Guardians (opposed to the $550m redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial), and is a member of Defending Country Memorial Project Inc., which has the primary objective of ensuring that the Australian War Memorial properly recognises and commemorates the Australian Frontier Wars.