2518

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Submission Number
2518
Participant
Judith-Grace Vella
Submission date
Main Submission Automated Transcript

Judith-Grace Vella
Castle Hill NSW 2154

29 April 2021

Dear Co-Design Body,

Submission to Co-design process

My name is Judith-Grace Vella. I am currently in my third year of studying a double degree
in law and psychology at Macquarie University. I acknowledge the Bidjigal people of the
Darug nation, the traditional custodians of the land in north-west Sydney where I have lived
since I was born.

Why do I think the Uluru Statement from the Heart is important?

Over the last two centuries, the Constitution has denied Indigenous peoples a rightful place at
the national table. The Uluru Statement from the Heart offers the opportunity to unite
Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by integrating the Voice of First Nations peoples
into an Anglo-Australian legal system.

The common law of Australia recognises that First Nations have inhabited this land since
'time immemorial'. However, our legal system currently denies the sovereignty of Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The First Nations Voice, the single constitutional reform
proposed by the Uluru Statement from the Heart, allows for the co-existence of Parliamentary
sovereignty and that of Indigenous nations. This is incredibly important, as, unlike some have
been led to believe, the Uluru Statement from the Heart does not seek to displace our existing
legal structures with Indigenous sovereignty. Rather, an Indigenous voice would recognise
and enshrine the co-existence of Indigenous and Commonwealth sovereignty. In this way, the
reforms of the Uluru Statement from the Heart seek to ensure that the Constitution,
Australia's founding legal document, finally reflects the reality and richness of legal pluralism
in Australia.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart acknowledges and adopts a common aspiration among
the diversity of Indigenous peoples: for a treaty to be made between the Crown and First
Nations. Any treaty (or treaties) that are made would only be most effective if complemented
by the accompanying reforms of 'Voice' and 'truth' that are proposed by the Uluru Statement
from the Heart. Agreement-making with Indigenous nations is no simple task; there are many
First Nations to engage with, each with differing needs and levels of influence. Some have
suggested that multiple agreements should be made out of respect of each nation’s unique
identity and sovereignty. However, the existence of many First Nations does not negate the
need for there to be an organised, national approach to treaty, which can be supported with
the assistance of the Voice and the Makarrata Commission.

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Additionally, the success of the treaty process is underpinned by the process of truth-telling.
How can non-Indigenous Australia make peace with those that they do not know or
understand? A national, representative body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
is thus required to ensure non-Indigenous Australia personally understands the reality of the
past, before together cultivating a prosperous future in the spirit of reconciliation. Thus, the
interdependence of the three reforms is a significant and distinguishing feature of the Uluru
Statement from the Heart.

Why do I think it is important to enshrine the Voice to Parliament in the Constitution,
rather than include it only in legislation?

The Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for the constitutional enshrinement of the Voice. I
believe the most significant arguments in favour for amending the constitution over simple
legislation are two-fold.

Firstly, enactment by legislation puts the Voice at risk of being repealed far too simply.
Constitutional enshrinement would protect the First Nations Voice by virtue of section 128 of
the Constitution, which requires a referendum to be held to remove it.

Secondly, constitutional amendment will, at the very least, provide an institutionalised and
permanent place for the views of Indigenous nations to be received by Parliament.

Much has been said about the risk and expense of a referendum. I believe any cost of a
referendum is outweighed by the damage to the future of Indigenous peoples that would
result by failing to act now, with substantive constitutional recognition. Furthermore,
constitutional enshrinement does not negate the possibility of accompanying legislation
governing the functioning of the Voice so that it can be modified to meet changing
conditions.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, among others, have long lamented the limits to
mere symbolic constitutional recognition. A constitutional First Nations Voice, as proposed
by the Uluru Statement from the Heart, enacts substantive reform. Yet constitutional
enshrinement of the Voice is also significant, and preferrable over legislation, for an
important symbolic reason: our Constitution must recognise and support the traditional
owners of the land whose legal and political structures it governs.

Why is it important for Indigenous people to have a say in the matters that affect them?

I am the granddaughter of Maltese immigrants, who searched for a better life overseas. They,
and their descendants, have prospered in Australia in the short span of almost 70 years.
Therefore, the reality that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the traditional
custodians who nurtured this land over millennia, experience disproportionately worse health
and educational outcomes than my non-Indigenous family, distresses me.

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As a law student, I am also concerned that the legal system I am preparing to practice in
perpetuates injustice for Indigenous Peoples. From my brief volunteer experience at a
community legal centre in Western Sydney, I have personally witnessed the significant
barriers to accessing justice that Indigenous peoples face, and the overrepresentation of
Indigenous women and children in domestic violence matters.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart rightly identifies that this crisis has a structural source.
This structural source has been identified by Indigenous peoples for decades, if not over a
century, yet unfortunately we as a nation have failed to listen and failed to act.

More specifically, our failure as non-Indigenous Australians has been that of neglecting to
include First Nations in the conversation about decisions that impact on them. We have
ignored the simple solution time and time again: to listen. To allow First Nations to practice
self-determination and autonomy over their lives. To allow Indigenous peoples to have
influence, and to make, decisions about themselves. It is only once we listen to their voices
that we can walk with them in solidarity toward a better future.

The Uluru Statement intends to address these structural issues by amending the legal and
political structures of Australia. A constitutional Voice will empower First Nations, not
politicians, to take ownership for the policies that affect them. By welcoming Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Peoples to ‘the table’, there will likely be more success in ‘closing the
gap’ - a challenge this country has struggled with for far too long.

Closing remarks

Australian legal academics have widely recognised the unprecedented level of consensus that
was witnessed at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention by Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander peoples. My hope is that the gravity of this occurrence is not lost on the Co-
Design Body. The achievement of a shared prosperity can only occur by listening to First
Nations peoples. As I noted earlier, the failure to listen is the source of the structural
challenge Indigenous peoples face. The co-design process must continue in this spirit of
listening in order to achieve a thoughtful and careful institutional design of the Voice.
Otherwise, Australia will lose the opportunity to heal and empower Indigenous peoples; and
to unite all Australians in the commitment to a better future.

Thank you for your consideration of this submission.

Yours sincerely,

Judith-Grace Vella

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