With two gifts, the elders of Mutitjulu summarised six months of talks and prepared for the long political fight to come.
“That’s the weapon,” Mutitjulu Community Aboriginal Corporation chairman Sammy Wilson told professor Megan Davis, one of the leaders of the constitutional reform process, handing her a fighting stick, a smoothly shaped piece of wood. “You point this at the government: we want referendum.”
To Referendum Council chairwoman Pat Anderson, they gave a piti, to carry the message, and to co-chair Mark Leibler and Cape York Indigenous leader Noel Pearson, they gave ancient shields.
“Use that shield to stop fighting with the government, and stop fighting with each other,” Wilson said.
It was a message of unity and strength that echoed a joint statement authorised by a majority of the 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community leaders gathered at Uluru this week to determine what they wanted in the form of constitutional recognition and reform.
Instead they declared, on a document termed a Statement From The Heart of the Nation, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had always been and would remain sovereign; that they would seek recognition in the form of a constitutionally-enshrined voice to parliament; and that they would demand the establishment of a commission for makarrata, a Yolgnu word for treaty.
“Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle,” the statement read. “It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.”
The statement was read by Davis on the red dirt of Mutitjulu, in the shadow of Uluru, on Friday afternoon. It had been approved unanimously that morning, the culmination of three days of intensive talks at the national convention on constitutional recognition at nearby Yulara and six months of regional dialogues.
They almost didn’t get there. At the end of the first day of talks on Wednesday, Anderson described the discussions as “sometimes tense”. Another delegate remarked bluntly: “There’s a lot of big egos in the room.”
On Thursday afternoon, seven delegates from New South Wales and Victoria walked out of the debate, saying the position being developed would result in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples ceding their sovereignty by willingly coming under white man’s law, the Australian constitution.
“We have chosen to walk away from this debate and this dialogue today because it is not a debate, they are not looking at any alternatives options other than the Noel Pearson roadmap,” Jenny Munroe, New South Wales delegate and a well-known political activist from Redfern, said on Thursday. “And like native title that will prove to be an abject failure.”
The protest was swiftly dismissed by the referendum council and the majority of delegates but it was supported on social media by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples not at the convention, who said it represented a grassroots movement dissatisfied with the process.
Frustration was not confined to the protesters. Many delegates were hurt and frustrated by the way the campaign for constitutional recognition had been conducted until the regional dialogues began six months ago, with consultation confined to discrete groups of Indigenous leaders.
Holding the convention in the Northern Territory, where the shadow of the intervention showed the damage a federal government could do when using constitutional powers to control Indigenous peoples, also shaped the discussions.
“There’s a lot of raw wounds among these people … There’s the desperation in the room,” Thomas Mayor, a Torres Strait man of Badhulgau and Kulkalaig heritage, said.
One of the sources of tension was a series of banners saying “we oppose recognition” and “vote no to constitutional reform”. They were taken down in response to complaints from Anangu elders, who said the banners were offensive and disrespectful to the good-faith meeting on their land.
“Aboriginal people, we don’t talk with banners, we talk face to face,” Anangu elder Alison Hunt, who Darkinjung Aboriginal Land Council chief executive Sean Gordon later described as “instilling cultural integrity” into the discussions, told Guardian Australia.
“Aboriginal people, tribal people, are quiet achievers, and they want to get the message to government in their cultural ways to get government to listen and come to the table. So banners is not our custom.”
Hunt said it was important to present a “united voice”. At the closing ceremony on Friday, she danced the story of the snake people before taking to the microphone and repeating calls for unity.
She was at the Barunga festival in 1988 when Bob Hawke was presented with the bark Barunga Statement and stood beside the then prime minister to translate his reply, where he promised to negotiate a treaty within that three-year parliamentary term.
“That was the last we heard,” Hunt said. “And that’s why people like my people on the lands are a bit sort of, you know, asking questions, is this another talk-fest, is this another promise?
“They don’t want promises, they want action. And that’s why my people are sort of watching and listening. Is this going to be the last thing for the truth, action? Or is this another talk?”
Hunt said she was speaking not just for herself, but for senior elders at Mutitjulu and for her ancestors. It was a sentiment echoed throughout the convention.
“I am sitting here as one person but I am coming here with all of the spirits of my people and my ancestors,” Badtjala woman Shereene Currie, from K’Gari or Fraser Island, told Guardian Australia.
Most of those who walked out on Thursday did not return to join in the standing ovation for the final statement on Friday – so the unanimous support, and rallying hashtag #1voiceuluru, does not include them.
Murrawarri man and Dubbo delegate Fred Hooper joined the walkout on Thursday but returned to the talks that afternoon, saying he owed it to the people that he was here to represent to listen and keep talking.
On Friday, he said the Uluru statement was a “good document” and had his support. His continued support would be dependent on whether the new working group, formed to continue developing the preferred model, maintains a high level of community engagement.
“Listening to the statement today I think there is a roadmap to the future,” he said. “What that roadmap will look like is up to us. We need to own this process, we need to take this process forward, and a good thing I like about this is that the document says that we’ve never ceded our sovereignty.”
The statement will form the core of the Referendum Council’s report, which will be handed to prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten on 30 June. Turnbull and Shorten were asked on Friday about the proposal for a constitutionally-enshrined voice to parliament and both demurred, saying they would wait until seeing the Referendum Council’s full proposal. Politicians on both sides have expressed doubt that such a body will get up at referendum.
Les Malezer, Australian delegate to the UN permanent forum on Indigenous issues and a Butchulla and Gubbi Gubbi man, said it would be “shallow and hypocritical” to think that the government would spend millions of dollars in establishing the Referendum Council and funding the regional dialogues only to abandon its recommendations. Michael Mansell, a Tasmanian Aboriginal leader and treaty expert, agreed.
“I do think people do fear the unknown but I just don’t think that’s going to happen. The government will reluctantly say: ‘alright, there’s some more money here, there’s resources here, you’ve got to follow this through and we the government mightn’t like what you’ve come up with, or we do like what you’ve come up with, but we’re going to fund it anyway.”
Malezer and Mansell were more concerned about the construction of the proposed constitutional amendment to establish the Indigenous voice to parliament, warning that it could be “open to all forms of political design”.
Davis said those concerns were premature.
Debate will now focus on how to shape the outcomes sought by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples into a reform package that can be sold to the Australian public and get the necessary double majority of support from a majority of voters and states at the referendum.
At an outdoor cafe at the Ayers Rock Resort, a day after most delegates had gone, a group of retired white Australians on a tour around the red centre pledged their support.
“I think what they’re asking for is fair and reasonable,” they said. “They shouldn’t have even had to ask for it; it should just have been given to them.”