One of the early referendum campaign ads depicts a future in which various seniors brag to their apparently spellbound progeny about how they voted ‘Yes’ back in 2023. But if you’re planning to vote that way, you may not be willing to wait for such adulation. A photo of your completed postal ballot won’t linger in your friends’ Instagram feeds more than a day, and it’s déclassé to put a “History is calling” bumper sticker on the family Cayenne. Enter Our Voices from the Heart, a hefty coffee-table book from Megan Davis and Pat Anderson. Filled with pretty photographs and big text, the work appears designed to sit conspicuously in the lounges and waiting rooms of the virtuous. Kmart is offloading them for $24, about the right price point for the Secret Santa at Rio Tinto or Arnold Bloch Leibler.
It’s clear from the words at the top of the cover — “The authorised story of the community campaign that changed Australia” — that the book was conceived during happier times for the ‘Yes’ campaign. (As has been reported in the press, it was also written before the campaign decided to pretend the Uluru Statement was only one page.)
But given the urgency of indigenous disadvantage and the rarity of referendums, any insider account of the Uluru process is a welcome contribution to the historical record. Shireen Morris, who kickstarted development of the Voice concept as a Cape York Institute staffer back in 2011, published her version, Radical Heart, in 2018. But she offered only limited coverage of the Uluru process proper, telling readers that “the courageous Megan Davis and Pat Anderson … are better placed than me to tell that detail.” Last year, Davis’s account appeared in Everything You Need to Know About the Uluru Statement from the Heart, co-written with George Williams. Our Voices doesn’t add much to these, at least not intentionally.
Referendum Council member Amanda Vanstone has observed that the Voice, “rather than … arising from consultation with Indigenous Australians, … was in fact sold to them” through the Uluru process. In Our Voices, Davis and Anderson appear determined to prove her right. Both Radical Heart and Everything You Need to Know highlight the degree to which these women dominated the so-called ‘dialogues’. Davis treated attendees to a two-to-three hour civics lecture and two videos featuring herself, while Anderson provided “moral guidance” and “direction” that “settled the room”. Thomas Mayo(r) has described the former’s role in terms reminiscent of Elena Ceaușescu: “She and the team that worked with her laid the invaluable foundations for the rest of us to have our say about constitutional reform. The world is learning from Professor Davis’s intellectual brilliance.”
Leafing through the book one is struck by the omnipresence of the authors. They are pictured or prominently quoted every few pages. Almost none of the photos are captioned, and quotes from anyone other than Davis or Anderson are attributed simply to “Delegate”. Page after page of nameless, silent black faces, frozen in place behind their self-appointed leaders, leave an unsettling impression.
I would wager there’s a market for a book that collates the full Uluru Statement, the “records of meeting” from the 13 Uluru consultations, and maybe a few choice reflections from key figures. But that’s not what Our Voices is. Rather than let the records speak for themselves, the authors have produced their own one-paragraph summaries. These bear little relation to what actually occurred.
At Ross River and Brisbane, invitees considered symbolic recognition important, but the summary makes no reference to it. Criticisms of the Uluru process raised at the Sydney event have been left out. The Melbourne meeting was so fractious that it split into two groups, each publishing its own communiqué. No mention of that in Our Voices. The hastily-organised Canberra session called for reserved parliamentary seats instead of the Voice—so the event has been left out of the book altogether. Also missing is the insistence by attendees at several dialogues that the Voice either be directly elected, wield formal political power, or both.
Davis and Anderson even cut three-quarters of the 2,000-word section of the Statement headed “guiding principles”, despite the fact that this was adopted by convention delegates and appears in full in the Final Report.
The original statement included a 600-word “analysis” of the Voice, treaty and truth-telling. This was produced by the Referendum Council and “approved” by convention delegates. This is the now-notorious “reform priorities” section, from which impolitic references to a “financial” settlement that might include “a percentage of GDP” were removed. The Council also scrubbed an inconvenient paragraph on “ways that political representation could be achieved other than through the proposed constitutional Voice.”
Davis and Anderson have rewritten this section in its entirety. Where the original observed “A constitutionally entrenched Voice to Parliament was a strongly supported option across the Dialogues”, which is true, the authors claim “A constitutionally entrenched Voice to Parliament was unanimously supported across the 12 dialogues”, which is not. On “truth-telling”, the original Statement discusses a possible “truth commission” and explicitly calls for a “Makarrata Commission to supervise … truth-telling”. Davis and Anderson have since decided that truth-telling “should not take place through a ‘commission’” after all.
And what of the introductory paragraphs, what the authors now call the “one-page pitch”? Despite the fact that these words have enormous significance, the authors simply cannot help themselves, tinkering with paragraph breaks and punctuation. They even decided to remove the acknowledgement that key turns of phrase had been borrowed from Fouad Ammoun, Bill Stanner, Gough Whitlam and Galarrwuy Yunupingu. Perhaps the discovery that Ammoun’s words were originally written in praise of Mobutu Sese Seko, which I have written about in Quadrant previously, proved too embarrassing.
Many of Davis and Anderson’s changes to the Statement are probably defensible on the grounds of expediency or brevity. The campaign is ongoing: delegates committed to the Voice might forgive the authors a couple of judicious cuts if they help to amplify the ‘Yes’ message. The problem is the distinctly proprietorial attitude Davis and Anderson have taken towards a document which, we are supposed to believe, emerged from the indigenous community at large.
In a telling addition, the authors urge the proposed body to “give a voice to those not previously heard, instead of magnifying the messages of First Nations spokespeople who already have the authority to speak.” A worthy sentiment, certainly, but one absent from the original. It hints at the strong pushback ‘Yes’ campaigners are now experiencing in indigenous communities.
Like earlier accounts, Our Voices from the Heart leaves the strong impression that the only voices to rise from the Uluru process were those of Megan Davis, Pat Anderson and Noel Pearson. If that’s true, perhaps the three are entitled to rewrite the Uluru Statement as many times as they like.
Our Voices from the Heart
By Megan Davis and Pat Anderson
HarperCollins, 2023, 192 pages, $39.99
Joe Stella is a PhD candidate at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations
Davis, Megan. “The Long Road to Uluru – Walking Together: Truth before Justice.” Griffith Review, no. 60 (2018): 13-45.
Davis, Megan, and Pat Anderson. Our Voices from the Heart. Sydney: Harper Collins, 2023.
Davis, Megan, and George Williams. Everything You Need to Know About the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2021.
Mayor, Thomas. Finding the Heart of the Nation: The Journey of the Uluru Statement Towards Voice, Treaty and Truth. Melbourne: Hardie Grant, 2019.
Morris, Shireen. “Agreement-Making – the Need for Democratic Principles, Individual Rights and Equal Opportunities in Indigenous Australia.” Alternative Law Journal 36, no. 3 (2011): 187-93.
———. Radical Heart: Three Stories Make Us One. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2018.
Morrow, James. “A Long Way Back for Uluru Authors.” The Daily Telegraph, 4 September 2023, 2.
National Indigenous Australians Agency. “FOI/2223/016 Documents Released under Freedom of Information Act.” 2023.
Referendum Council. Final Report. Canberra: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2017.
Stella, Joe. “Mobutu, Authenticité and the Dark Heart of the Uluru Statement.” Quadrant 66, no. 10 (2022): 44-47.
Vanstone, Amanda. “Anger Will Drive Down ‘Yes’ Vote.” The Canberra Times, 17 August 2023, 39.