On 7 February 1788 Admiral Arthur Phillip formally proclaimed the colony of New South Wales. As he thrust a pole into the ground to fly the Union Jack, he took possession of the land in the name of King George III. Soon after, as the first Governor of the Colony of New South Wales he established a civil administration that applied English law to everyone living in the new settlement.
In this moment, seemingly oblivious to sovereignty and unaware of the lore of our First Nations peoples, Governor Phillip established a legal system that has proven to be deeply discriminatory and profoundly biased against our First Nations peoples. Until recently we have also remained largely ignorant of Country. Nonetheless, we have proceeded to mark Country with our own patterns of settlement. And it is here that two worlds coincide.
These two worlds have often sought the same affordances – fresh water, reliable sources of nutrition, outlook, and shelter from the elements. It is almost as if they are quilted together by some faint shared logic. Yet these two worlds are profoundly different, at odds, discordant, even. One defines a state border by a river, while the other places a river at the centre of Country. One sees the need to live comfortably despite the elements, while the other embraces the sun, wind, and rain to find meaning in Country. One reaps the land of its riches, while the other has lived with the land continuously for tens of thousands of years. Without acknowledgment of sovereignty, one world inevitably displaces the other.
As a nation we continue to build over Country – our suburbs creep outwards, we establish new towns and cities, and lay infrastructure, and dig for resources. And unless done well, and there are very few examples of this, this results in the continuous incremental displacement of Country. Every day.
Built environment professionals see the gross misalignment between these two worlds as we go about our work. We see bungling governments who may well be attempting to reconcile, yet at the same time display their own ignorance. We watch as mining companies destroy sacred sites with impunity. We navigate complex planning systems that attempt to balance various interests, yet only just recognise the existence of Country. We work with clients who are afraid to acknowledge Country and shy away from engaging with Traditional Owners. And when we do reach out, we often encounter grief and anger as our approach might be the first, or at least one of the few occasions were a view or opinion has been sought.
While on the ground these symptoms can be difficult to interpret, it seems that they tend toward the same point of failure – that as a nation we have not recognised the sovereignty of our First Nations peoples. This imbues much of what we do with ignorance and denial.
We must be hopeful. Some progress has been made. Other clients are deeply committed to reconciliation and approach this with great integrity. We now have a First Nations Voice to Parliament in South Australia, and we are moving toward signing a Treaty with our First Nations peoples here in Victoria. We are learning to care for Country, and we are taking the first tentative steps toward stitching our two worlds together to create a shared future. Yet there is much more to be done.
To right this wrong we must place reconciliation at the heart of what defines us as a nation. Now is the time to recognise the sovereignty of our First Nations peoples. Now is the time to amend our constitution to include an Indigenous Voice to Parliament as has so graciously been put forward in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Now is the time to vote ‘yes’.
Meaghan Dwyer - Partner
How can you speak your truth if no one is listening?
For too long Australia has turned away as Mob have spoken. The first I saw of closing the gap was posters around my primary school – offered as a loose collection of ideas, promises and commitments without much explanation. In the many years that have followed, the gap has widened and this loose collection of ideas, promises and commitments, unified in vagueness, has remained. In policy, in community and in our built and grown environment, systems that were introduced to bridge theses gaps have failed at great social, cultural and financial cost.
The Voice to Parliament is the first step on a path to truth. Providing the opportunity for a greater level of political assurance will be significant – currently, there are no political or legal assurances, and responses to truth are agonizingly slow, and actions even slower. When Australia commemorated the 32nd anniversary of the truth-seeking Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in April this year more than 120 of its recommendations had still to be implemented and 455 more Indigenous lives had been lost.
The voice has the potential to create a space in which we can speak, hear each other and be listened to. To me the voice is about reciprocity, treating the generous act of speaking with the respectful act of listening. Deep, unconditional listening.
The Voice and Treaty will ensure that when truths are sought the response can be appropriate and timely, importantly informed by those with lived experience and the knowledge of why, how and when to act. The Voice will give Indigenous people the opportunity to speak to injustices, tragedy, massacres and land rights struggles. When Australia hears these wrongs expressed then, as a nation, we can act to offer support, rectification, reparation – to mourn. It could help the broader population to gain empathy for our history and stories and make elders and knowledge holders – my family – feel safe.
Equally there’s great potential for celebration, for positive action by animating our narratives of design, suffrage, sexuality, migration, music, transport, political economy, foreign policy, and family. The power of the Voice to ensure traditions and histories of our people are maintained, elevated and honoured is real. This is an exciting, positive possibility. For me the Voice is necessarily political, while Treaty is about the law and truth is about history. I am hopeful, idealistic and cautious. I return to the The Uluru Statement from the Heart for guidance – it speaks of redressing the power imbalance, of empowerment and rightfulness, of our culture being a gift. My wish is that the Voice will see the creation of spaces that validate Indigenous People’s truth, evidence of being listened to.
Michael McMahon - First Nations Leader