Engadine Uniting Church Service on Australia Day, 2020
Written and delivered by Kathy Slade
In 2017 the ‘First National Constitutional Convention’ in Australia was held at the foot of Uluru. It was a gathering of 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates from all over the country, and out of it came an open letter to all Australians: the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
In keeping with the tradition of the Yirrkala bark petitions and the Barunga statement, the Uluru Statement was made in the form of a work of art. The statement is placed in the centre which is where the power resides. Surrounding the statement are signatures of the delegates who attended the conference and reached consensus. 100 first nations are represented in the statement. The artwork represents two creation stories of the Anangu People, The traditional owners of Uluru. It is called Uluru Statement because that is where the meeting was held and the statement created.
The Statement calls for three things.
In New Zealand, there are seven seats specifically reserved in Parliament for the Māori people, to give them a national voice. In other countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland they have a dedicated First Nations Parliament, with authority over Indigenous affairs. In Colombia, the constitution says that the government must consult with Indigenous peoples before any natural resources can be mined on Indigenous land.
Australia doesn’t provide any real opportunity for an indigenous voice to be heard. There is no formal consultation process with Australia’s First Nation’s Peoples. That’s what the Statement from the Heart is trying to change: to have it enshrined in the constitution to provide stability and longevity and to ensure it cannot be abolished or watered down by a future government.
This document is both practical and passionate. It is a deeply personal statement speaking of the problems and failing of structures that have impacted Aboriginal people, youth detention, children taken from families and incarceration using words like powerlessness and torment alongside affirming the hope for a better future for the next generations to flourish in an inclusive and fair Australian society
I was struck by the lack of demand – it is certainly not how I would have worded a statement to the government for change. The language is important and deliberate and seeks to be inclusive. It is a thoughtful and productive document – a roadmap for peace. Voice, Treaty, Truth.
It is a request to be heard, but it is also, generously, an invitation to speak together, to hear one another afresh. It is as though, through a radical act of undeserved hospitality, Second Nation Australians are being invited by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to join them at a table they have set, in order that we might learn together what it means to be companions in fair and truthful relationship.
Sadly, the Australian government rejected the Uluru Statement, and continues its rejection thus showing a grave contempt for the authority and legitimacy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of this nation. Asking people what they want and then rejecting it because it doesn't align with political ideals is one thing. Ignoring one of the few deliberative constitutional processes in Australia's history, particularly for a population that was excluded the first time around, is contempt of the highest order.
The First Nation’s People anticipated this and so the statement, the logic and motivation for reforms is directed to the Australian people because history has shown politicians are too self-interested to listen.
What does the Statement from the Heart mean for us as Christians, as people wanting to stand with First Nation People? As we seek to be like Jesus in our communities and beyond?
In the past Australian Churches have been mostly silent on injustices suffered by Aboriginal People.
Our own church, the Uniting Church, developed and adopted, revisions to the Preamble of the Uniting Church Constitution to acknowledge Sovereignty and the life and community of First Peoples and Second Peoples from many lands. This document hangs in the foyer of our church. The Uniting Church has committed to a covenanting relationship with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress
For members of the Congress, this acknowledgement places the foundation of our relationship in truth. It also, perhaps for the first time, makes Aboriginal and Islander people feel included in this church, as an important part of who and what we are.
I encourage you to accept the invitation to First Nation’s Justice and explore ways to stand with First Nation People through prayer, action and friendship. Become informed, become engaged with issues and discussions. Talk about these issues, about the Uluru Statement from the Heart with your friends and family.
Together, with lament and grief, truth telling, friendship and solidarity, we can listen and act to build a strong reconciled Australia. The Uluru Statement from the Heart is not a submission or petition to the government. It is an invitation to us, everyday Australian people to walk alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People in fair and truthful relationships and in love towards a better future together.