By JESSE J. FLEAY
A Burden of Crisis and Torment
In 2017, I left Uluru elected as a youth delegate on the working group tasked with carrying the Statement from the Heart forward. I have many positive memories at Uluru. Sitting by the poolside one night, singing songs with delegates from every State and Territory. Because there’s always a guitar at a proper Aboriginal get-together. I also remember some sage and useful words from a Queensland delegate who became a friend of mine, that would come to shape my approach to constitutional transformation over the next six years.
Queensland Uluru delegate Joann Schmider, a Mamu woman who grew up in Mt Isa, urged me and younger generations to keep the momentum alive, for as long as it would take to get the Uluru Statement passed. I was warned that there would be times when holding true to my principles would afford me criticism and consequence.
I had six years to reflect after Uluru until now. Reform in society is always met with a degree of hostility, because people often have a natural aversion to change. They need to be convinced of it by strong leaders, with conviction. Our audience is therefore not the supporters of reform, but the ones who remain apprehensive, or unaware of what is proposed.
The institutions of Australia’s government have evolved over time, and our democratic value is strong among nations. However, there are still arbitrary limits on the freedom of Australians to determine our government, and restrictions on the power of our voices in that government.
As of 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has pledged full support for two referendums which would resolve this injustice.
The First Nations Voice to Parliament resolves this injustice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, and an Australian Republic resolves this for the nation as a whole. I have been involved with shaping both of these.
My PhD thesis proposes a civic model for an Australian Republic, to ensure more freedom and choice among Australians, through removing arbitrary and interfering institutions, such as the Crown.
This civic system sits well with a new First Nations Voice to Parliament. Australians will elect their head of state directly, and that President will have full executive power, as a first among equals. A simple, yet effective means to give power to Australians in their own lives. Australians need no monarchy or aristocracy in a fair, equal society.
The absence of any project of this nature up until now is a painful reminder of the lack of courage and conviction among elite institutions to render Australian matters more important than postcolonial loyalties to the Crown of the United Kingdom. Yet supporting both of these constitutionally transformative proposals is the obligation of any Australian with the moral fortitude to defend human equality, freedom, and justice.
A just nation believes in the equality and human worth of every citizen, who should not be bound to circumstance because of the nature of their birth. A just nation would seek to address the immense suffering of First Nations Australians, simply because they have no freedom or choice to determine legislation or policies that match their demands. I refer to this tragedy in my thesis, as a ‘Burden of Crisis and Torment’. It is a burden all Australians share, because in a just and equal society, the burdens of one become the burdens of us all.
Like so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Joann has actively lived this truth for over 50 years. First, as an Aboriginal schoolteacher on Queensland’s Palm Island, and later as a voice within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). ATSIC was dismantled by former Prime Minister John Howard, without any consultation from First Nations Australians. A poignant reminder of why we, as First Nations Australians, demand a constitutionally enshrined voice to determine our own outcomes, to prevent things like ATSIC being carelessly established, and then swept away.
Under Minister Ken Wyatt, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, there was a voice co-design process, initiated as a distraction from the Uluru Statement. Despite this, the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have stood by the Statement, and now Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has made it a mandate of the new Labor government to deliver it in full.
The reason a constitutional Voice to Parliament is so important, is that it finally removes the strikingly unjust outcomes for Australia’s First People from the racism and unscrupulous games of all post-federation governments. The Voice does this, because of its constitutional nature, which is supreme law, not to be altered or deviated from. Any deviation from constitutional law makes a government liable to the judicial scrutiny of the High Court. After at least a century of injustice, simply voting ‘yes’ and agreeing that First Nations Australians are at the table for all decisions affecting their lives, is the least an Australian can do.
We can look at the dire legislation which enforced the removal of Aboriginal children from parents, and the legislation of recent governments, intended to do right by First Nations Australians. Many First Nations Australians feel that they are still being coerced into making decisions which governments have already pre-determined for them. Without a constitutional voice, there can be no meaningful co-design process.
In my 8 years of research in Aboriginal communities, especially in remote Western and Central Australia, Queensland and the Torres Strait, I have spoken to many community members who talk about their own programs, developed by local leadership, which the Commonwealth refuses to fund. Why? Because some senior bureaucrats have devised and funded yet another big policy.
This Crown Does Not Suit Us
Although we have inherited the idea of parliamentary democracy from the UK, our system is quite different. We have a written constitution. Our upper house consists of elected senators, instead of aristocrats with peerages. The Australian model for democracy outshines the anachronisms of the UK’s system, and reflects the grit and honesty of Australian culture.
Australia is a merit-based society, with an Indigenous culture that demands honour and respect. If we are to progress, we require a constitution that enshrines and protects what matters to us, as contemporary Australians
The late Queen Elizabeth II was truly a remarkable woman. However, leadership, personal qualities, and fitness for office cannot be inherited. With a United Kingdom facing Scottish and Welsh independence, and former colonies like Australia seeking constitutional reform, will His Majesty King Charles III prove as popular a monarch? Will the system last under his reign?
For Australians, the monarchy is nothing but a celebrity family, fawned over by breakfast programs like Seven Sunrise, to keep a sanitised perception of Australia alive. The UK wanted nothing to do with our musicians at the Queen’s jubilee. The UK also ignored our anniversary of the Mabo decision. In 2022, before his ascent to the throne, the then Prince of Wales addressed the entire Commonwealth from Rwanda, with a clear message to member states:
“Each member’s constitutional arrangement, as republic or monarchy, is purely a matter for each member country to decide.”
Australia’s leading monarchist, David Flint, rather aggressively accused Albanese of undermining the constitution and playing with fire before he was elected. Flint cautioned Albanese before his election to the prime ministership:
“How can an Albanese government fulfil its constitutional mandate to maintain the Constitution if it directs the whole panoply of modern government, to undermine a fundamental and ancient constitutional institution offering leadership above politics, the Australian Crown?”
His Majesty clearly values Australian’s right to reform their constitution, whereas Flint claims that the constitution is something to be maintained, as if there are no parameters to remould the constitution nearer to the heart’s desire. The monarchy may be an ‘ancient’ institution, but it is only a recent import to a nation boasting a 60,000 year old Indigenous history.
Monarchists like Flint remain silent and ignorant about our 60,000-year-old traditional societies and their ancient enduring customs. There has always been a double standard for First Nations Australians and their cultural traditions, as opposed to those of the UK. This is best demonstrated by the way they were excluded from the Constitution and the Census in 1901, when Australia formed a Federation of former self-governing colonies, remaining under the Crown.
But the High Court ruled that first Australians never ceded their sovereignty, even with the lies of Terra Nullius and the Doctrine of Discovery. If anything is comfortably above politics in Australia, it is not the Crown, but our highest legal institutions.
The Monarchy has endured phases of change and is rapidly evolving. If the Crown can evolve to meet modern challenges, why can not a people evolve so that it neither needs nor wants a monarchy?
In all of human history, how many people got to boast the freedom to choose for themselves a system of government, peacefully and with the spirit of equality and justice at the top of the agenda?
The institutions of Australia’s government have evolved over time. More than half a century of progress and reform has led to this moment in Australian history, and the responsibility is ours – let’s get it right.
Jesse J. Fleay is a Research Associate with the School of Education at Curtin University. He is passionate about driving social change for the improvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.