On the 2nd of June 2017, University of Canberra’s school of Government and Policy along with the Nexus Research Centre held an Indigenous Symposium labeled 1967-2017: 50 Years of Non-Recognition.
After a welcome to country by Ngunnawal elder, Aunty Agnes, a panel comprising Professor Tom Calma, Professor Peter Radoll, Professor Chris Sarra and Assistant Professor Jessa Rogers and chaired by BGL’s own Professor Dennis Foley tackled the question of ‘where we are and where are we going? The panel was unique as all the participants were Indigenous.
The panel was rather timely given that earlier in that week on 29 May 2017, Q&A was held at Parliament House, Canberra marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum on ways to move forward on constitutional change after the Uluru meeting. 300 representatives (and many others) attended the Uluru meeting where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities rejected the idea of a merely symbolic recognition and supported Noel Pearson’s suggestion of a new Indigenous body recognised by the Constitution. The period 1967-2017 marks a shift from ‘Being counted to being heard’ and the demand for the inclusion of an Indigenous voice in the Constitution.
One of the most surprising events of the day occurred when the keynote speaker Associate Professor Sarah Maddison (Melbourne University) put it to those attending that there were also Indigenous voices who rejected constitutional recognition outright. They argued that the Constitution was an illegitimate document and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander sovereignty was never ceded. Maddison’s paper brought up the topic of ‘the Indigenous right of refusal’ as ‘a moment of new political possibility’. Her paper was well received with some attendees giving her a standing ovation. Moreover, right now in front of old parliament house in Canberra, Indigenous people are coming together to protest under the banners of ‘Treaty’ and ‘Sovereignty’ embodying the key points that Maddison made.
One of the most positive messages to emerge from the event was that there was no one Indigenous voice, but many Indigenous voices with different ways of understanding the significance of constitutional recognition. Moreover, there was a sense that it was unrealistic and politically naïve to expect all Indigenous peoples to agree on one way forward. Overall, the symposium demonstrated that the issue of constitutional recognition is not resolved and will be the nexus of ongoing debate and contestation for the foreseeable future.
Written by Dr Mary Walsh, Associate Professor of Government and Policy at the University of Canberra