Trickle treaty

By the time this goes to print, the Northern Territory government will have signed a memorandum of understanding with land councils, beginning the work for treaty with the First Nations people.

In Victoria, legislation for a treaty process passed the lower house on Thursday. In Western Australia, a consultation process has begun for the establishment of an Independent Office for Aboriginal People – a model similar to the Indigenous “voice” of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

In New South Wales, the Labor Opposition is promising a treaty with First Nations people should it win the next election.

On Thursday, in Barunga, in the Northern Territory, the joint select committee on constitutional recognition held its first public hearings. The committee is the next hope for a federal treaty, after Malcolm Turnbull dismissed the Uluru statement.

“It’s at least still in the sphere of the parliament; it’s not off the agenda yet,” the committee’s co-chair Patrick Dodson said. “It’s terribly important. Once something is dealt with in the parliament, it tends to be dismissed: it’s gone and it doesn’t return for a long time. Particularly in First Nations affairs, they don’t tend to go back and visit those issues very often. I hope it’s not just ideological attitudes that are driving their opposition to First Nations recognition.”

The movement this week marked 30 years since Bob Hawke offered a treaty and then changed his mind. It is 30 years since the Barunga Statement was produced, calling for self-determination and self-management, compensation for the loss of use of lands, a national system of land rights, a national elected body of Aboriginal and Islander organisation to oversee Aboriginal and Islander affairs, and a “Treaty recognising our prior ownership, continued occupation and sovereignty and affirming our human rights and freedom”.

The Barunga Statement still hangs in Parliament House, written on bark, held behind glass.

“I’m well aware of how long it’s taken,” Dodson says. “All of those people who have gone before us basically wanted justice, wanted proper respect, wanted to be dealt with in an honest and honourable way, and be recognised appropriately for the uniqueness of who we are.”

Victoria’s treaty process is opposed by the Liberal Opposition. In South Australia, the new Marshall government has “paused” negotiations with First Nations people.

These processes are fraught. They are at risk of tokenism and division. In Victoria, Indigenous politician Lidia Thorpe rightly criticises the coyness of the legislation. “Treaties are between two sovereigns, and to talk about treaty or to go ahead with treaty negotiations and not actually recognise that Aboriginal people are the sovereign people of this land, then I think that’s one of the major failures of this legislation,” she says. “If we can’t start by addressing sovereignty, then that’s a joke.”

Federally, Malcolm Turnbull has shown he lacks the spirit or imagination to offer a referendum on the consensus reached in the Uluru statement. It is perhaps the greatest single failing of his prime ministership, a tenure marked by failings and failure. His hands must be sore from sitting on them.

The states are working on a patchwork of recognition. Publicly, there is enthusiasm for this. It is a concrete step towards addressing the violence and legal fiction on which colonisation depends.

The steps this week are in many ways positive. In many more ways, they are inadequate. Australia deserves federal leadership on this. It deserves a chance to repair the deficiencies of our constitution and to begin a process of proper recognition. It deserves a chance to move forward as one country, an undivided nation.

The lack of enthusiasm for this among politicians is a lack of enthusiasm for the wellness of this country. It is more than simple laziness; it is spite. When it comes to First Nations people, there is greater leadership shown by local councils than there is by the prime minister. It is a disgrace that will eventually follow him out of office, a disgrace highlighted by the positive actions of every other level of government. Thirty years on and at the very top, it is only worse.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 9, 2018 as "Trickle treaty".

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