Presenting on Sovereignty

Immediate Past President Stuart McMillan and General Secretary Colleen Geyer presented to the 15th Assembly the Proposal to affirm First People's as Sovereign. This is what they said.

PROPOSER: Stuart McMillan

President, it is our privilege to bring this proposal to the Assembly on behalf of the Standing Committee.

The lie of terra nullius is now proven at law through the Mabo judgement, with the effect that the basis for British sovereignty has been removed. The 14th Assembly repudiated the “Doctrine of Discovery” which afforded the right to seize the land and waters and disregard the inhabitants, and even commit mass-murder. This repudiation removed any grounds for saying First Peoples sovereignty has been lost.

The Uniting Church in the Preamble to our Constitution names Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as the First Peoples of Australia. This was clearly stated in the ‘Statement from the Heart’ agreement at the Uluru national gathering of Indigenous leaders, last year. They said:

“Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands.” “This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.”[i]

The First Peoples by virtue of these self-evident truths[ii], are sovereign.

Dr Martin Luther King used this turn of phrase; “self-evident truths”, in 1965 when quoting Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address of 1863, referring to the US Declaration of Independence, which further states that: “God the Creator gave inalienable rights to humanity”. In accordance with the Common Law decisions in the Mabo and Wik, God the Creator gave First Nations, Indigenous Peoples, inalienable communal rights over lands and waters.

Now friends, an affirmation by the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia won’t usurp the Crown’s sovereignty or the effects of Australia’s Native Title laws. Neither will this affirmation usurp the legal ownership of the Property Trust of each Synod of the Uniting Church. What it will do however, is give moral leadership to our nation, as we have already done through our Constitutional Preamble and in many other ways over the past 41 years with respect to the covenant we have with First Peoples.

We determine by this affirmation to seek a new way to live together in this land based on mutual respect and these self-evident truths. We then, within the Uniting Church, have a more profound basis for our covenantal journey with UAICC. It’s upon these truths and this affirmation we can for the first time come to the covenant table as equals and discover together what the Spirit would say to the Church for the way forward.

Finally, I believe that the ‘Statement from the Heart’ expresses the hope of healing and wholeness for our nation: “With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine, through a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.”[iii] An Australia whose maturity is found in: “The grounding of our sovereignty on our own soil, in the songlines and histories of an ancient island continent.”[iv]

Friends, I commend this proposal to you.


SECONDER: Colleen Geyer

The Fourteenth Assembly resolved to explore with Congress what it would mean for the practices of the Church to recognise and affirm that First Peoples are sovereign Peoples. This resolution signalled the intent of the Assembly to make the affirmation that this proposal recommends.

During the past triennium, as set out in the report of the Standing Committee, this exploration was begun. This exploration, and as was outlined in the rationale to this proposal, past statements and commitments including the foundational Preamble to our Constitution, points us to the importance of making this affirmation: that the First Peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal and Islander Peoples, are sovereign peoples in this land.

We misunderstand the call for recognition of sovereignty if we think it is about owning a slice of real estate or having political control. It is about the right to negotiate a place in the Australian nation that (i) allows custodianship of the earth and (ii) allows people to forge economic well-being.

The Standing Committee brings this proposal because it is for us as the Uniting Church to make this affirmation. In 1994, the then President of the Uniting Church, Jill Tabart made a covenant statement. She said, “Long before my people came to this land your people were here. You were nurtured by your traditions, by the land, and by the Mystery that surrounds us all and binds all creation together.

My people did not hear you when you shared your understanding and your Dreaming.”

The response to this statement, delivered by Bill Hollingsworth, ended with, “We pray that God will guide you together with us in developing a covenant to walk together practically so that the words of your statement may become a tangible expression of His justice and love for all creation. We ask you to remember this covenant by remembering that our land is now also sustaining your people by God's grace.”

This proposal calls us to continue our covenant journey together as First and Second Peoples, to affirm, as we should that the First Peoples of Australia are sovereign peoples in this land.



[i] Uluru Statement from the Heart © 2017

[ii] Declaration of Independence. In 1965 Dr Martin Luther King Jr recited the second paragraph of the document to his congregation:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

[iii] Uluru Statement from the Heart © 2017

[iv] Mark McKenna, Quarterly Essay, Moment of Truth, © May 2018