Friday, September 14, 2018

Commentary: Why We Need Makarrata


Author Margo Stanislawska-Birnberg writes in response to our community screening of the 2015 film, Another Country,'on 31 August. The film narrated by veteran Australian actor David Gulpilil, tells of the clash of black and white cultures in Australia, and describes the impacts of Australian government policies on traditional Aboriginal communities.


What is the Uluru Statement of the Heart and why do Aboriginal people propose we embrace Makarrata?


Since the occupation of Australia, which began with the arrival of the First Fleet, Aboriginal people tried, at first, to embrace the newcomers. Very quickly they realised that the white man was here to stay and was depriving them, the Indigenous population, of their hunting grounds. The taking of their land, introduction of sheep and cattle, and the fencing off of the native wells meant starvation to the tribes.


This indiscriminate treatment started the bloody struggles of the Aborigines against the invaders. Punishing forays sent against the native population decimated tribal numbers. Measles, common cold, smallpox and venereal diseases cut swathes through the tribes. The Aborigines had no defences in their immune systems to fight off the introduced diseases. The history of conquered territories is always wrought with brutal treatment meted out towards the conquered. Australian past history is no different.   


It is not that long ago that we started to look back at our own history and are trying to evaluate the past. Many times it is not a pretty reading. But to go forward we must do so. One way is to be able to see the 'other', to listen deeply, not to dismiss different culture and different worldview as something working against us. We should embrace the differences which would it make possible to bring reconciliation and re-energise our human condition. The Aboriginal people are extending their hand once more. In their infinite wisdom brought by ages of living in harmony, with strong and just laws that allowed them to survive in the harshest of terrain, they can only enrich us and show us how to understand this ancient continent.


In 2017, after a year of consultatons on constitutional change around the country, over 250 delegates gathered at Uluru, Central Australia, near the red glowing majestic mountain, sacred to many tribal people. They came to represent the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and present their 'Statement from the Heart.' 


These are some of their words: 'We, gathered (here) at the 2017 First Nations Constitutional Convention, coming from all points of the southern sky make this statement from the heart...In 1967 we were counted.* In 2017 we seek to be heard...Sovereignty has never been ceded or extinguished.'


The Uluru Statement from the Heart confronts non-Indigenous Australians with the full force of moral claim that the First Nations rightly have on this nation's attention, but is it also an invitation to speak together, to hear one another afresh. The First Nations people lack their rightful place in our contemporary life.


In 1901 Indigenous people were not represented at the constitutional compact that created the Commonwealth. 


In 1967 the referendum empowered Federal Parliament to make laws for Indigenous people, but did not empower Indigenous people with fair say in respect of those laws.


In 1999 then-Prime Minister John Howard proposed a symbolic preamble, which would have changed nothing of substance. It was not taken to a referendum.


The Uluru Statement asks for substantive constitutional change and structural reform through 'a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution', an Indigenous representative body that would guarantee Indigenous peoples will have a say when Parliament makes laws and policies about them. Such a body would recognise and empower the First Nations of Australia to take responsibility and leadership in their affairs while upholding the Constitution and unifying the country. 


The Uluru Statement goes further: 'We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.'


So what is Makarrata?


Makarrata is a Yolngu word from northeast Arnhem Land describing a process of conflict resolution, peacemaking and justice. It helped develop and maintain peace among the Yolngu people. The Statement from the Heart said a Makarrata 'captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia.'


The Uluru Statement in May 2017 was the best chance Australia had to meaningfully address the legacy of our colonial past. In October 2017, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dismissed the Uluru Statement, claiming that Australians would not support a First Nations voice in Parliament, that it would undermine our equal citizenship. Such an Indigenous advisory body would be like 'a third Chamber in Parliament,' he claimed.


After Uluru, Australia's politics of contempt threatens the soul of our nation. Will our new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, show more leadership? One year on, the question remains, can the invitation by the delegates at Uluru for peaceful co-existince still be heard? Time will tell. - Margo Stanislawska-Birnberg


* In the 1967 referendum, more than 90% of Australians voted with a resounding 'yes' for Aboriginal people to be counted in the census and to come under Federal legislation. 


  • The full Uluru Statement can be viewed here.
  • Initiatives of Change Australia is currently developing its First Nations program, building on some long-standing relationships with Indigenous Australian leaders. For more information, contact Kathryn Gor, acting Executive Officer.