Driving constitutional recognition of First Nations peoples

Impact Story
Published: 12.11.2019

Megan Davis

Image credit: Jimmy Widders Hunt

A powerful voice for Indigenous Australians

Since European settlement, Australia’s First Nations peoples have been left out of the political processes that affect them. Laws have been passed without Indigenous peoples' input - breaching the United Nations ‘Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’endorsed by Australia in 2009.

Professor of Law and Pro Vice-Chancellor, Indigenous, Megan Davis is addressing this long-standing human rights issue. Working with communities across Australia,she helped craft the historic Uluru Statement from the Heart and its simple proposal for substantive constitutional recognition: The Voice to parliament.

Together with Patricia Anderson AO, Professor Davis shared leadership of the Regional Dialogues and First Nations Constitutional Convention, resulting in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This ‘Uluru Process’ was the first of its kind in Australian history.

The professor’s broader public policy work in constitutional reform is having far-reaching impacts for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia. Professor Davis works with Indigenous people, understanding issues at a local, regional, national and international level. Her work informs a wide range of policy areas.

What is the Uluru Statement from the Heart?

The Uluru Statement is a collective voice of Indigenous peoples’ own views on past injustices and ways to achieve constitutional reform.

In an innovative consultation approach, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people came together in 12 Regional Dialogues across the continent. They were asked what meaningful recognition meant to them.

The Uluru Statement is a consensus from First Nations peoples, written after more than six years’discussion. Professor Davis was pivotal in this monumental process. She also chaired the Uluru Convention.

It has been a privilege to work with the Aboriginal community and the Referendum Council on the Aboriginal Constitutional Dialogues that culminated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Professor Megan Davis

First Nations Constitutional Convention

In May 2017, following the 12 Regional Dialogues, more than 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates from all over Australia gathered at Uluru for the First Nations Constitutional Convention.

For the first time in Australia’s post-European history, First Nations representatives gathered and agreed on a statement for constitutional recognition, calling for a formal voice in Australian policymaking.

…it was really inspiring to see the way the mob worked together to get to that common ground at the end of the day. Professor Megan Davis

The Uluru Statement calls for:

  • acknowledgment ofAboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as Australia’s first sovereign Nations – this has never been ceded
  • a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in Australia’s Constitution
  • establishing a Makarrata Commission – ‘coming together after a struggle’ in a process of truth-telling and agreement-making

The Uluru Statement from the Heart says, “We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.”

Momentum building: support from the Australian community

Business leaders, heads of industry, academics and sporting groups are supporting the movement for a First Nations Voice to Parliament. Yet there is still work to be done.

The Uluru Statement is clear in its call for an enshrined Voice in the constitution. However, Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt used the Lingiari Oration in Darwin on 15 August 2019 to declare, “I want to be very clear – the question we put to the Australian people will not result in what some desire, and that is an enshrined Voice to the Parliament – on these two matters [constitutional recognition and a Voice to Parliament], whilst related, need to be treated separately.”

This is far from the end for the Uluru Statement’s call for an enshrined Voice in the constitution. The grassroots movement in support will need to press the government to honour the second recommendation from the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition: “following a process of co-design, the Australian Government consider, in a deliberate and timely manner, legislative, executive and constitutional options to establish The Voice.”

Professor Davis and her colleagues continue to overcome obstacles, blazing the trail to achieve constitutional recognition of First Nations peoples.

“We haven’t given up for 10 years and we are never going to give up,” she said. “We will keep forging along until we get it.”