‘More than a Thought Bubble…’

The Uluru Statement from the Heart and Indigenous Voice to Parliament

How to Cite

Fredericks, B., & Bradfield, A. . (2021). ‘More than a Thought Bubble…’: The Uluru Statement from the Heart and Indigenous Voice to Parliament. M/C Journal, 24(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2738 (Original work published March 13, 2021)
Vol. 24 No. 1 (2021): bubbles
Published 2021-03-13 — Updated on 2021-03-15


In 2017, 250 Indigenous delegates from across the country convened at the National Constitution Convention at Uluru to discuss a strategy towards the implementation of constitutional reform and recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Referendum Council). Informed by community consultations arising out of 12 regional dialogues conducted by the government appointed Referendum Council, the resulting Uluru Statement from the Heart was unlike any constitutional reform previously proposed (Appleby & Synot). Within the Statement, the delegation outlined that to build a more equitable and reconciled nation, an enshrined Voice to Parliament was needed. Such a voice would embed Indigenous participation in parliamentary dialogues and debates while facilitating further discussion pertaining to truth telling and negotiating a Treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

The reforms proposed are based on the collective input of Indigenous communities that were expressed in good faith during the consultation process. Arising out of a government appointed and funded initiative that directly sought Indigenous perspectives on constitutional reform, the trust and good faith invested by Indigenous people was quickly shut down when the Prime Minster, Malcolm Turnbull, rejected the reforms without parliamentary debate or taking them to the people via a referendum (Wahlquist Indigenous Voice Proposal; Appleby and McKinnon). 

In this article, we argue that through its dismissal the government treated the Uluru Statement from the Heart as a passing phase or mere “thought bubble” that was envisioned to disappear as quickly as it emerged. The Uluru Statement is a gift to the nation. One that genuinely offers new ways of envisioning and enacting reconciliation through equitable relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations. Indigenous voices lie at the heart of reconciliation but require constitutional enshrinement to ensure that Indigenous peoples and cultures are represented across all levels of government.

Filter Bubbles of Distortion

Constitutional change is often spoken of by politicians, its critics, and within the media as something unachievable. For example, in 2017, before even reading the accompanying report, MP Barnaby Joyce (in Fergus) publicly denounced the Uluru Statement as “unwinnable” and not “saleable”. He stated that “if you overreach in politics and ask for something that will not be supported by the Australian people such as another chamber in politics or something that sort of sits above or beside the Senate, that idea just won't fly”. Criticisms such as these are laced with paternalistic rhetoric that suggests its potential defeat at a referendum would be counterproductive and “self-defeating”, meaning that the proposed changes should be rejected for a more digestible version, ultimately saving the movement from itself.

While efforts to communicate the necessity of the proposed reforms continues, presumptions that it does not have public support is simply unfounded. The Centre for Governance and Public Policy shows that 71 per cent of the public support constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. Furthermore, an online survey conducted by Cox Inall Ridgeway found that the majority of those surveyed supported constitutional reform to curb racism; remove section 25 and references to race; establish an Indigenous Voice to Parliament; and formally recognise Indigenous peoples through a statement of acknowledgment (Referendum Council). In fact, public support for constitutional reform is growing, with Reconciliation Australia’s reconciliation barometer survey showing an increase from 77 per cent in 2018 to 88 per cent in 2020 (Reconciliation Australia).

Media – whether news, social, databases, or search engines – undoubtedly shape the lens through which people come to encounter and understand the world. The information a person receives can be the result of what Eli Pariser has described as “filter bubbles”, in which digital algorithms determine what perspectives, outlooks, and sources of information are considered important, and those that are readily accessible. Misinformation towards constitutional reform, such as that commonly circulated within mainstream and social media and propelled by high profile voices, further creates what neuroscientist Don Vaughn calls “reinforcement bubbles” (Rose Gould). This propagates particular views and stunts informed debate.

Despite public support, the reforms proposed in the Uluru Statement continue to be distorted within public and political discourses, with the media used as a means to spread misinformation that equates an Indigenous Voice to Parliament to the establishment of a new “third chamber” (Wahlquist ‘Barnaby’; Karp). In a 2018 interview, PM Scott Morrison suggested that advocates and commentators in favour of constitutional reform were engaging in spin by claiming that a Voice did not function as a third chamber (Prime Minister of Australia). Morrison claimed, “people can dress it up any way they like but I think two chambers is enough”. After a decade of consultative work, eight government reports and inquiries, and countless publications and commentaries, the Uluru Statement continues to be played down as if it were a mere thought bubble, a convoluted work in progress that is in need of refinement. In the same interview, Morrison went on to say that the proposal as it stands now is “unworkable”.

Throughout the ongoing movement towards constitutional reform, extensive effort has been invested into ensuring that the reforms proposed are achievable and practical. The Uluru Statement from the Heart represents the culmination of decades of work and proposes clear, concise, and relatively minimal constitutional changes that would translate to potentially significant outcomes for Indigenous Australians (Fredericks & Bradfield).

International examples demonstrate how such reforms can translate into parliamentary and governing structures. The Treaty of Waitangi (Palmer) for example seeks to inform Māori and Pākehā (non-Maori) relationships in New Zealand/Aotearoa, whilst designated “Māori Seats” ensure Indigenous representation in parliament (Webster & Cheyne). More recently, 17 of 155 seats were reserved for Indigenous delegates as Chile re-writes its own constitution (Bartlett; Reuters).

Indigenous communities and its leaders are more than aware of the necessity of working within the realms of possibility and the need to exhibit caution when presenting such reforms to the public. An expert panel on constitutional reform (Dodson 73), before the conception of the Uluru Statement, acknowledged this, stating “any proposal relating to constitutional recognition of the sovereign status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be highly contested by many Australians, and likely to jeopardise broad public support for the Panel’s recommendations”.

As outlined in the Joint Select Committee’s final report on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Referendum Council), the Voice to parliament would have no veto powers over parliamentary votes or decisions. It operates as a non-binding advisory body that remains external to parliamentary processes. Peak organisations such as the Law Council of Australia (Dolar) reiterate the fact that the proposed reforms are for a voice to Parliament rather than a voice in Parliament. Although not binding, the Voice should not be dismissed as symbolic or something that may be easily circumvented. Its effectiveness lies in its ability to place parliament in a position where they are forced to confront and address Indigenous questions, concerns, opinions, and suggestions within debates before decisions are made. 

Bursting the ‘Self-Referential Bubble’

Indigenous affairs continue to be one of the few areas where a rhetoric of bipartisan agreement is continuously referenced by both major parties. Disagreement, debate, and conflict is often avoided as governments seek to portray an image of unity, and in doing so, circumvent accusations of turning Indigenous peoples into the subjects of political point scoring. Within parliamentary debates, there is an understandable reservation and discomfort associated with discussions about what is often seen as an Indigenous “other” (Moreton-Robinson) and the policies that a predominantly white government enact over their lives. Yet, it is through rigorous, open, and informed debate that policies may be developed, challenged, and reformed. Although bipartisanship can portray an image of a united front in addressing a so-called “Indigenous problem”, it also stunts the conception of effective and culturally responsive policy. In other words, it often overlooks Indigenous voices.

Whilst education and cultural competency plays a significant role within the reconciliation process, the most pressing obstacle is not necessarily non-Indigenous people’s inability to fully comprehend Indigenous lives and socio-cultural understandings. Even within an ideal world where non-Indigenous peoples attain a thorough understanding of Indigenous cultures, they will never truly comprehend what it means to be Indigenous (Fanon; de Sousa Santos). For non-Indigenous peoples, accepting one’s own limitations in fully comprehending Indigenous ontologies – and avoiding filling such gaps with one’s own interpretations and preconceptions – is a necessary component of decolonisation and the movement towards reconciliation (Grosfoguel; Mignolo).

As parliament continues to be dominated by non-Indigenous representatives, structural changes are necessary to ensure that Indigenous voices are adequality represented. The structural reforms not only empower Indigenous voices through their inclusion within the parliamentary process but alleviates some of the pressures that arise out of non-Indigenous people having to make decisions in attempts to solve so-called Indigenous “problems”.

Government response to constitutional reform, however, is ridden with symbolic piecemeal offerings that equate recognition to a form of acknowledgment without the structural changes necessary to protect and enshrine Indigenous Voices and parliamentary participation. Davis and her colleagues (Davis et al. “The Uluru Statement”) note how the Referendum Council’s recommendations were rejected by the then minister of Indigenous affairs Nigel Scullion on account that it privileged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. They note that,

until the Referendum Council's report, the nation had no real assessment of what communities wanted. Yet by all accounts, the government had spent too much time talking to elites who have regular access to them and purport to speak on the mob's behalf. If he [Scullion] got the sense constitutional symbolism and minimalism was going to fly, then it says a lot about the self-referential bubble in which the Canberra elites live.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart stands as testament to Indigenous people’s refusal to be the passive recipients of the decisions of the non-Indigenous political elite. As suggested, “symbolism and minimalism was not going to fly”. Ken Wyatt, Scullion’s replacement, reiterated the importance of co-design, the limitations of government bureaucracy, and the necessity of moving beyond the “Canberra bubble”. Wyatt stated that the Voice

is saying clearly that government and the bureaucracy does not know best. It can not be a Canberra-designed approach in the bubble of Canberra. We have to co-design with Aboriginal communities in the same way that we do with state and territory governments and the corporate sector.

The Voice would be the mechanism through which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interests and perspectives may be strategically placed within parliamentary dialogues. Despite accusations of it operating as a “third chamber”, Indigenous representatives have no interest in functioning in a similar manner to a political party. The language associated with our current parliamentary system demonstrates the constrictive nature of political debate. Ministers are expected to “toe the party line”, “crossing the floor” is presented as an act of defiance, and members must be granted permission to enter a “conscience vote”. An Indigenous Voice to Parliament would be an advisory body that works alongside, but remains external to political ideologies. Their priority is to seek and implement the best outcome for their communities. Negotiations would be fluid, with no floor to cross, whilst a conscience vote would be reflected in every perspective gifted to the parliament.

In the 2020 Australia and the World Annual Lecture, Pat Turner described the Voice’s co-design process as convoluted and a continuing example of the government’s neglect to hear and respond to Indigenous peoples’ interests. In the address, Turner points to the Coalition of the Peaks as an exemplar of how co-design negotiations may be facilitated by and through organisations entirely formed and run by Indigenous peoples. The Coalition of the Peaks comprises of fifty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled peak organisations and was established to address concerns relating to closing the gap targets.

As Indigenous peak organisations are accountable to their membership and reliant on government funding, some have questioned whether they are appropriate representative bodies; cautioning that they could potentially compromise the Voice as a community-centric body free from political interference. While there is some debate over which Indigenous representatives should facilitate the co-design of a treaty and Makarrata (truth-telling), there remains a unanimous call for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament that may lead negotiations and secure its place within decision-making processes.

Makarrata, Garma, and the Bubbling of New Possibilities 

An Indigenous Voice to Parliament can be seen as the bubbling spring that provides the source for greater growth and further reform. The Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for a three-staged approach comprising of establishing an Indigenous Voice, followed by Treaty, and then Truth-Telling. This sequence has been criticised by some who prioritise Truth and Treaty as the foundation for reform and reconciliation. Their argument is based on the notion that Indigenous Sovereignty must first be acknowledged in Parliament through an agreement-making process and signing of a Treaty.

While the Uluru Statement has never lost sight of treaty, the agreement-making process must begin with the acknowledgment of Indigenous people’s inherent right to participate in the conversation. This very basic and foundational right is yet to be acknowledged within Australia’s constitution. The Uluru Statement sets the Voice as its first priority as the Voice establishes the structural foundation on which the conversation pertaining to treaty may take place.

It is through the Voice that a Makarrata Commission can be formed and Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples may “come together after a struggle” – the translation of the word’s Yolngu origins (Gaykamangu; Pearson). Only then may we engage in truth telling and forge new paths towards agreement-making and treaty. This however raises the question as to how a Voice to Parliament may look and what outcomes it aims to achieve. As discussed in the previous section, it is a question that is often distorted by disinformation and conjecture within public, political, and news-media discourses. In order to unpack what a Voice to Parliament may entail, we turn to another Yolngu word, Garma.

Garma refers to an epistemic and ontological positioning in which knowledge is attained from a point where differences converge and new insights arise. For Yolngu people, Garma is the place where salt and fresh water intersect within the sea. Fresh and Salt water are the embodiments of two Yolngu clans, the Dhuwa and Yirritja, with Garma referring to the point where the knowledge and laws of each clan come into contact, seeking harmonious balance.

When the ebb and flow of the tides are in balance, it causes the water to foam and bubble taking on new form and representing innovative ideas and possibilities. Yolngu embrace this phenomenon as an epistemology that teaches responsibility and obligations towards the care of Country. It acknowledges the autonomy of others and finds a space where all may mutually benefit. When the properties of either water type, or the knowledge belonging a single clan dominates, ecological, social, political, and cosmological balance is overthrown. Raymattja Marika-Munungguritj (5) describes Garma as

a dynamic interaction of knowledge traditions. Fresh water from the land, bubbling up in fresh water springs to make waterholes, and salt water from the sea are interacting with each other with the energy of the tide and the energy of the bubbling spring. When the tide is high the water rises to its full. When the tide goes out the water reduces its capacity. In the same way Milngurr ebbs and flows. In this way the Dhuwa and Yirritja sides of Yolngu life work together. And in this way Balanda and Yolngu traditions can work together. There must be balance, if not either one will be stronger and will harm the other. The Ganma Theory is Yirritja, the Milngurr Theory is Dhuwa.

Like the current push for constitutional change and its rejection of symbolic reforms, Indigenous peoples have demanded real-action and “not just talk” (Synott “The Uluru statement”). In doing so, they implored that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples be involved in all decision-making processes, for they are most knowledgeable of their community’s needs and the most effective methods of service delivery and policy. Indigenous peoples have repeatedly expressed this mandate, which is also legislated under international law through the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Coming together after a struggle does not mean that conflict and disagreement between and amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities will cease. In fact, in alignment with political theories such as agonism and pluralism, coming together within a democratic system necessitates a constructive and responsive embrace of different, competing, and in some cases incommensurable views. A Voice to Parliament will operate in a manner where Indigenous perspectives and truths, as well as disagreements, may be included within negotiations and debates (Larkin & Galloway). Governments and non-Indigenous representatives will no longer speak for or on behalf of Indigenous peoples, for an Indigenous body will enact its own autonomous voice. Indigenous input therefore will not be reduced to reactionary responses and calls for reforms after the damage of mismanagement and policy failure has been caused. Indigenous voices will be permanently documented within parliamentary records and governments forced to respond to the agendas that Indigenous peoples set. Collectively, this amounts to greater participation within the democratic process and facilitates a space where “salt water” and the “bubbling springs” of fresh water may meet, mitigating the risk of harm, and bringing forth new possibilities.


When salt and fresh water combine during Garma, it begins to take on new form, eventually materialising as foam. Appearing as a singular solid object from afar, foam is but a cluster of interlocking bubbles that gain increased stability and equilibrium through sticking together. When a bubble stands alone, or a person remains within a figurative bubble that is isolated from its surroundings and other ways of knowing, doing, and being, its vulnerabilities and insecurities are exposed. Similarly, when one bubble bursts the collective cluster becomes weaker and unstable.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a vision conceived and presented by Indigenous peoples in good faith. It offers a path forward for not only Indigenous peoples and their future generations but the entire nation (Synott “Constitutional Reform”). It is a gift and an invitation “to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”. Through calling for the establishment of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, a Makarrata Commission, and seeking Truth, Indigenous advocates for constitutional reform are looking to secure their own foothold and self-determination.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is more than a “thought bubble”, for it is the culmination of Indigenous people’s diverse lived experiences, outlooks, perspectives, and priorities. When the delegates met at Uluru in 2017, the thoughts, experiences, memories, and hopes of Indigenous peoples converged in a manner that created a unified front and collectively called for Voice, Treaty, and Truth. Indigenous people will never cease to pursue self-determination and the best outcomes for their peoples and all Australians. As an offering and gift, the Uluru Statement from the Heart provides the structural foundations needed to achieve this. It just requires governments and the wider public to move beyond their own bubbles and avail themselves of different outlooks and new possibilities.


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Author Biography

Bronwyn Fredericks, The University of Queensland

Bronwyn Fredericks is a Professor and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement) at the University of Queensland. She has over 30 years of experience working in and with the tertiary sector, State and Federal Governments, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-based organisations. Between 2016-2019 she was appointed as one of two Commissioners with the Queensland Productivity Commission (QPC) in which she worked on several state inquires. Professor Fredericks works across seevral disciplines and published across genres.