Many Bodies, One Heart

Social Activism and the Need for a Uniformed Response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart

How to Cite

Fredericks, B., & Bradfield, A. (2023). Many Bodies, One Heart: Social Activism and the Need for a Uniformed Response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. M/C Journal, 26(1).
Vol. 26 No. 1 (2023): uniform
Published 2023-03-14


The Uluru Statement from the Heart (2017) offers an opportunity for the nation to cement the foundation for prosperous Indigenous futures and meaningful reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. In this article, we discuss the theme of uniformity in relation to the “From the Heart” campaign which seeks to enact the Uluru Statement by establishing a constitutionally enshrined First Nations’ Voice to Parliament via a referendum.

It is important however that we first clarify our use of the word uniform as we do not wish to suggest that all supporters of the Uluru Statement from the Heart are homogenous in their views or positioning. Far from it, the campaign aims to generate support from all walks of life, and with this, it naturally conjures diverse opinions, and at times disagreement (Pearson). Whilst unification corresponds to different persons coming together to form a collective whole – and the From the Heart Campaign can certainly be characterised in this way – uniformity refers to the uncompromising stance needed to enact the reform proposed in the Statement.

In this article, we discuss how a constitutionally enshrined First Nations’ Voice to Parliament is the heart of the Uluru Statement and how the push towards a referendum requires not just a unified and united response, but one that is uniformed in its resolve – that is unwavering, steadfast, and determined in delivering its vision of a constitutionally enshrined First Nations’ Voice to Parliament. We therefore consider how images, symbols, icons, and material objects – both digital and tangible – are used to unite the campaigns’ supporters by presenting a uniformed front that advocates for constitutional reform.

The Heart as Uniform and Icon

Bleiker argues that icons, particularly within the digital space, are effective means of communication due to their ability to quickly disseminate messages in succinct and memorising ways that are relevant and responsive to its users’ needs (Petray; Carlson et al. ‘They Got Filters’; Fredericks and Bradfield ‘Disrupting the Colonial’). The ability of digital media to spread messages over vast distances and in ways that compress time and space, however, also means that the icons communicated through media such as memes (Blackmore; Petray; Fredericks and Bradfield ‘Co-Designing Change’) are in danger of becoming fleeting, empty, or meaningless (Fredericks and Bradfield ‘Disrupting the Colonial’; Petray; Carlson and Frazer ‘Indigenous activism’). Bleiker (9) warns that “when images are produced and circulated with ever greater speed and reach, icons can emerge in a short period. But this very proliferation of images can also lead to a situation where icons are short-lived and soon become superseded from their original setting”.

Due to the fluid and often fickle nature of online culture where symbols and images are quickly adopted, transformed, repurposed, disposed, and replaced, icons are most powerful when they reflect a uniformed message, for uniforms demonstrate stability, endurance, and longevity. Uniforms therefore share some affiliation with icons in their ability to transmit messages of social significance. In their sociological study of uniforms, Joseph and Alex (719) argue that

the uniform is viewed as a device to resolve certain dilemmas of complex organizations – namely, to define their boundaries, to assure that members will conform to their goals, and to eliminate conflicts in the status sets of their members. The uniform serves several functions: it acts as a totem, reveals and conceals statuses, certifies legitimacy, and suppresses individuality. The interaction of these components and the acceptance or rejection of the uniform and its associated status by the wearer are described.

The use of hearts during the Uluru Statement from the Heart campaign can be likened to icons that convey uniformed messages relating to the need for constitutional reform and the creation of a First Nations’ Voice to Parliament. Repeated imagery of hearts, particularly in the colours of the Aboriginal flag – black, red, and yellow – alongside images of Uluru – an unmistakable icon of Aboriginality – has the potential to provoke political and social discussion amongst those who witness them. Online media have provided fora where information and support for the campaign has been shared, creating some uniformity amongst diverse audiences (Fredericks and Bradfield ‘Seeking to be Heard’; ‘More than a thought’). Emoticons, symbols, and hashtags have formed a type of digital uniform that has congealed ideas and helped centralise messages (Grieve-Williams), in this case in relation to the importance of the constitutional enshrinement of a First Nations’ Voice to Parliament.

A heart also describes a centralised location that drives action or is seen to represent the underlying ethos of a community, movement, or object. In terms of physiology, the heart is located at the centre of a body and sustains life by pumping blood throughout the cardiovascular system. Similarly, Uluru is physically located in Central Australia, with many considering it as symbolling the geographical and spiritual heart of the nation. Whilst Uluru will always remain a part of the sacred grounds of the Anangu People (Schultz), its iconography resonates with Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples throughout the nation, acting as a beacon for Indigenous rights and sovereignty. For the Anangu People, Uluru is a site of conflict resolution and great power (Anandakugan), making it an appropriate icon of reconciliation, Makarrata, and healing relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

Wearing Our Hearts on Our Sleeves

Amongst other things, jewelry, art, and material objects function as communicative tools which present agreed-upon symbols and codes that represent messages that are collectively decided upon by a particular social group (Geertz; Shaw). Writing on art as a cultural system, Geertz (1488) famously observed how “it is out of participation in the general system of symbolic forms we call culture that participation in the particular we call art, which is in fact but a sector of it, is possible. A theory of art is thus at the same time a theory of culture, not an autonomous enterprise”. Langley writes on how human societies have used beads in jewelry to disseminate social information for at least 100,000 years. Throughout history, jewelry and fashion accessories have been used as visual representations of uniformity amongst activists and protestors (Gulliver). These icons aim to communicate an unwavering front which at times of protest or social upheaval often counter the icons and uniforms of opposing camps, whether the police force, military, or political rivals. The umbrella movement in Hong Kong is one visually striking example of uniformity and civil disobedience where pro-democracy messages were communicated via yellow umbrellas that contrasted the pro-establishment camp who wore blue (Radio Free Asia).

The t-shirt for the Uluru campaign depicts an image of Uluru which visibly sits on the land but is also embedded below the surface of Country. Both parts collectively form the shape of a red heart. The shirt reads “We Support the Uluru Statement”, emitting the words “From the Heart”. This clever form of marketing invokes a sense of communitas amongst those who can collectively interpolate and understand its meaning (Turner). It is the shared knowledge that the statement comes “from the heart” (even though it is not written on the t-shirt) amongst those who form the collective “we” that gives the shirt a function that can be likened to a uniform. It is a visual embodiment of the Statement that seeks to “certify its legitimacy” (Joseph and Alex).

Brooches and jewelry have also been used as means to provoke conversation and add social or political commentary during public engagements; often in satirical and/or ironic ways (Shaw). Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for example, famously wore a brooch of a snake after being called an “unparalleled serpent” by Iraqi state media under the Saddam Hussein regime (Becker). For Albright, brooches complemented her political agenda and became part of her “diplomatic arsenal” (Becker), which she described as effective mnemic communication that helped generate greater understandings amongst the wider public (Albright). Whilst an expression of her individuality, the jewelry delivers a uniformed statement and commentary that defines boundaries, assures goals, and seeks to eliminate conflicts or ambiguity in the messages she seeks to deliver. In this respect, it functions as part of her uniform.

Similarly, when Lady Hale, the president of the UK Supreme Court, claimed Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament was unlawful in 2019, she strategically wore a spider brooch (Cochrane and Belam). The imagery was quickly seized upon by activists who interpreted it as a symbol of the government’s dysfunction, or venomous nature, and printed the design on t-shirts. The shirts sold out in less than 24 hours and presented a uniformed front that both critiqued the government and raised money for a homeless shelter (Butchart).

A Gift Worth Sharing

The Uluru Statement was gifted to the Australian people to affirm the campaign as one for and led by the Australian public (Synott; Appleby and Davis). The decision to disseminate the outcomes of the National Convention via a poetic and concise statement, rather than a formalised petition or legal declaration, emphasises its intent to remain accessible to the public (Davis ‘The Long Road’). The fact that it was gifted to the public instead of being “presented” or “submitted” to government signifies that it is a gesture of good faith that invites the Australian people to join the movement, whilst also placing onus on the public to accept or reject the gift that is offered and placing pressure on the government to call a referendum (Mayor).

In the spirit of the Uluru Statement’s gifting, heart icons and paraphernalia are often exchanged amongst its supporters with aim of building awareness and provoking conversation. One of the authors of this paper, Professor Bronwyn Fredericks, is known for having accumulated an extensive collection of heart objects, many of which have been gifted to her. These objects range from brooches, earrings, necklaces, and other forms of jewelry to clothes, fabrics, and novelty glasses. Although the medium varies, the heart iconography and messages remain uniform.

The Uluru from the Heart Campaign, however, has suffered many arrhythmias, at times speeding up whilst at others becoming really slow. After the reforms were presented to the Australian Government in 2017, the then prime minister Malcom Turnbull rejected them on account that an Indigenous Voice to Parliament was undesirable, too “radical” in nature, and unlikely to pass a referendum (Wahlquist; Brennan). A media release from the government published on 26 October 2017 declared that “the Government does not believe such a radical change to our constitution’s representative institutions has any realistic prospect of being supported by a majority of Australians in a majority of States” (Prime Minister et al.). The chief executive of the Victorian Community Controlled Health Organisation, Jill Gallagher, has commented that many politicians were too preemptive in their dismissal of the reforms; and in doing so, prevented the public from engaging in the critical discussion that is needed before a referendum (Brennan). Public discussion is now increasing after the Albanese-led Labor government announced that a referendum will be held during their first term of their government, which was formed in 2022 (Kunc).

Turnbull’s rejection was also premised on the notion that the Uluru Statement, and its call for a First Nations Voice to Parliament, was too uniform in its “take it or leave it” positioning, which the government was unwilling to commit to (Prime Minister et al.). After years of having reforms and recommendations diluted or ignored by governments, and political promises and commitments dismissed (see Fredericks for an example), the Referendum Council were unapologetic in their stance that the Statement remain untouched and unmanipulated by politicians and political agendas (Referendum Council). The proposed reforms are the manifestation of Indigenous peoples’ will and desire as expressed during the regional dialogue (Anderson, Davis, and Pearson; Davis and Williams). The Final Report of the Referendum Council reads that “it is the Council’s view that there is no practical purpose to suggesting changes to the Constitution unless they are what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples want” (Referendum Council, 5).

It must be remembered that the Referendum Council was established by Malcom Turnbull in 2015, tasked with finding out what Indigenous peoples wanted to see in constitutional reform. Whilst the Turnbull government were willing to provide a forum in which Indigenous views on constitutional reform could be expressed, they were unwilling to honour their aspirations. After sharing deeply personal and at times traumatic stories of colonial harm and violence at the dialogues (Appleby and Davis), along with entertaining the idea of having greater input into parliamentary discussions, the flat-out rejection by the government was heartbreaking.

Aboriginal lawyer, activist, and academic Noel Pearson spoke of the anguish caused by Malcolm Turnbull’s rejection in a Radio National interview, describing him as having “broken the hearts of the First Nations people of this country” (Brennan). Constitutional lawyer Megan Davis was with a young Indigenous law student who had participated in the regional dialogues when the interview aired (Davis ‘The Long Road’). Like many, this was the first she had heard of the Statement’s rejection. Davis recalls how “I could see her faith in the rule of law, fairness and equality – all the important characteristics of our public law system – drain from her face” (Davis, 2019). The impact of Turnbull’s rejection was described by some as “mean-spirited bastardry” (Wahlquist) and is articulated in a cartoon depicting a heart being surgically removed from Uluru (Grant). We wear heart icons as uniforms not only in support of the campaign but as a reminder of its fragility. Whilst hearts are prone to break, like all muscles it is through their tearing and growth that they become stronger.

A Voice to Parliament

The imagery of hearts aims to generate wider public recognition of the need to recognise First Nations’ peoples within Australia’s constitution via Voice, Truth, Treaty, and in that order (Davis and Williams; Fredericks and Bradfield ‘More than a Thought’; Larkin and Galloway). The need for a visible and uniformed campaign towards constitutional reform, however, is challenged when politicians including the former Indigenous Affairs minister Ken Wyatt (Anderson et al.) or former Greens and now independent senator Lidia Thorpe (Larkin and Maguire) question the premise that reforms such as a constitutionally enshrined First Nations’ Voice to Parliament are representative of Indigenous peoples’ will. Thorpe’s objection is based on the premise that Treaty should be sought first. Our criticism is not placed on their oppositional stance but rather on their false characterisation that it does not reflect the desire of the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as expressed through the Uluru Dialogues. Despite seven delegates walking out on the convention in protest that it would hinder Indigenous sovereignty via a treaty (Hobbs), the 13 regional dialogues conducted by the Referendum Council and led by Indigenous leaders such as Megan Davis, Pat Anderson, and numerous others, as well as delegates at Uluru, clearly expressed a near unanimous and uniformed decision to establish an Indigenous representative body that was protected by the constitutional enshrinement (Davis ‘The Long Road’; Davis and Williams; Fredericks and Bradfield ‘We Don’t Want to’). Subsequent polling has shown strong continued majority support amongst the public for a constitutionally enshrined voice (Centre for Governance and Public Policy; Ford and Blumer; Zillman, Wellauer and Brennan; Reconciliation Australia).

Past reconciliation movements have centred around the notion of restoring relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples (Reynolds). This is problematic as colonisation in Australia was, and in many cases still is, dependent on the denial of Indigenous peoples and cultures, which was accompanied by epistemic and physical acts of violence (Moreton-Robinson; Lee, Richardson, and Ross). In 1999, then prime minister John Howard held a referendum on whether Australia should become a republic. Attached to the question was whether Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be recognised in the constitution’s preamble (Pearson, Davis, and Appleby ‘The Uluru Statement’). Despite this being rejected by Indigenous land councils and elected representatives, on account of its symbolism, Howard proceeded with the referendum which ultimately failed (Davis ‘The Status Quo’).

The Recognise campaign ran from 2012 to 2017 and sought public awareness of questions relating to constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples. This too was rejected by Indigenous communities (Maddison). Online polling conducted by Indigenous-controlled media forum IndigenousX showed that only 32.3% of its respondents supported the campaign, with many criticising what they saw as a top-down approach tailored towards the appeasement of non-Indigenous sensibilities (Latimore; Fredericks and Bradfield ‘Disrupting the Colonial’). Reconciliation Australia, the organisation that led the campaign, however, stated that it was successful in generating public awareness, which increased from 30% to 75% nationally (Reconciliation Australia).


What sets the Uluru campaign apart from its predecessors such as Recognise is that it is a grassroots initiative that emerged out of Indigenous-led consultations and dialogues with community members and stakeholders. It was conceived with awareness of the “limitations of the political class” (Davis, ‘The Long Road’) – illustrated by the ineptitude of Turnbull and other critics – and consciously spoke to the hearts of the Australian public. To ensure that different Indigenous perspectives and interest groups were represented during the National Conference, 60% of attendees were traditional owners, 20% came from Aboriginal community organisations, and 20% were individual community members (Lee, Richardson, and Ross; Davis ‘The Long Road').

The reforms of the Uluru Statement, including a First Nations’ Voice to Parliament, aim to create a framework and functioning mechanism that will help build and repair partnerships through which relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples can improve, whilst “gaps” across a range of social outcomes can be redressed by policies led and informed by Indigenous people in accordance with national (Coalition of Peaks) and international (Synott ‘The Universal Declaration’) charters. Whilst Indigenous views are diverse, what remains uniform amongst them is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander strength and power, which has always come from their voices, “are the most powerful of all” when they are together (Davis, ‘Together Our Voices’). Despite the campaigns’ critics and setbacks, our hearts continue to beat as one and our uniformed advance towards referendum remains steadfast. 


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Author Biographies

Bronwyn Fredericks, The University of Queensland

Bronwyn Fredericks PhD is a Professor and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement) at the University of Queensland. She has over 30 years’ experience working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, Indigenous health organisations, NGOs and Government agencies. Her research, based in the fields of health and education and grounded within the political reality of Indigenous peoples’ daily lives, exemplifies her commitment to social justice and improving Indigenous health and education outcomes. 

Abraham Bradfield, University of Queensland

Dr Abraham Bradfield is a research assistant with the Office of the Pro-Vice Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement) at The University of Queensland. Completing his PhD in 2018 in Anthropology and Social Sciences (UNSW) his research explores topics relating to colonisation, decolonisation, identity, and the intercultural. He remains committed to developing and implementing morally responsible research that challenges colonial power structures and encourages new habits of thought and praxis