Empowering Aborigines: voices inside Parliament or advisors outside; voting no is a vote of support for Aboriginal self-determination.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that this article contains references of deceased persons and content which may cause distress.
In 1979 the National Aboriginal Conference (a national body of elected aboriginal people) called for a treaty. The Prime Minister at the time, Mr Malcolm Fraser, indicated he was happy to discuss a treaty with the NAC and although these discussions did not eventuate, at least the topic was raised. In 1996 Sir William Deane, the Governor General of Australia, made the statement that Australia was the only country in the Commonwealth that had never made a treaty with its original people. In 1998 the Barunga Statement in the Northern Territory raised the question of a national treaty with the Aboriginal nation, called a ‘Makarrata’ in their local language. The Prime Minister at the time, Mr Bob Hawke, said he was willing to talk to Aboriginal people about a treaty but again no discussions eventuated. During the period when Mr Hawke was Prime Minister, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), that had existed up until 2004, also campaigned for a treaty. In the lead up to the 2016 federal election, Mr Bill Shorten, the then Labour leader during that election campaign, said that he was willing to talk to Aboriginal people about a treaty. Mr Shorten did not win the election, but in the following year, 250 Aboriginal delegates from around the country, presented the Uluru Statement from the Heart to non-Indigenous Australians calling for acknowledgement of Aboriginal Sovereignty, a treaty, truth-telling and a Voice to Parliament. It may well have been on the basisz of that history of treaty, that the current Prime Minister Mr Anthony Albanese announced in the 2022 budget last year, that $5.8M would be set aside for the development of a treaty between the Australian nation and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people. Barely a month after the Prime Minister made this announcement, Mr Tony McAvoy, Senior Council Aboriginal Barrister, delivered his report about a treaty in the Northern Territory; a report that many had waited for with a good deal of apprehension. Given the size of the Northern Territory, it was inevitable the report was going to raise similar issues to those needed for a national treaty. The McAvory report naturally said land would have to be returned to Aboriginal people (otherwise it would not be a treaty). It also stated that Aboriginal people should have law making powers, and wherever possible Aboriginal communities should have autonomy over health, housing, education, land use and planning, and (if I took some liberty with the report), perhaps also policing and customary law. This report also laid out broad parameters for hunting and fishing rights (which are important to Aboriginal people) and other issues including cash reparations. Based on the McAvoy Report, most Aboriginal groups around the country expected they would receive the $5.8M budget from the Prime Minister to hold a national summit to consider the report, and by negotiations with a range of Aboriginal people at that summit, decide on the parameters that could be applied to the possibility of a national treaty. These negotiations did not happen because by September 2022 the Prime Minister had announced to the Australian people that, during his term of office, his government would either deal with the treaty and truthtelling or a referendum for the Voice to Parliament, but not both. The Prime Minister’s position suddenly polarised the Aboriginal community between those who expected to work on all the matters i.e., treaty, truth-telling via the legislative track, and Voice to the Parliament through a referendum simultaneously and that neither of those topics would take precedence over the other. Suddenly the Prime Minister was telling us – you’ve got to choose – and if you support the Voice you are not going to get a treaty during this term of office.
Transcript of lecture delivered to the Royal Society of Tasmania, 2 July2023.