For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Treaty is the wrong conversation.
This may seem like a strange thing to say, especially coming from a young Aboriginal person. After all, our leaders and activists have been calling for Treaty for decades. Surely, such a prolonged and well-established movement has a clear direction with a vision and a plan? Unfortunately, the inadequacies of the Treaty movement are becoming self-evident, and we are more confused than ever because of it.
The Treaty movement
Calls for Treaty from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples first emerged in the 1970s through the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC), followed by the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC). The NAC identified a Treaty as the mechanism through which outstanding matters of colonisation and Australia’s First Peoples’ dispossession of lands and waters could be addressed. It was seen as a way to settle historical grievances and move forward together. This idea of coming together after a disagreement was best captured in the Yolngu word Makarrata. In the early 1980s, the NAC created the ‘Treaty-Makarrata Sub-Committee’, initiating what is still seen as the largest and most widespread community consultations specifically regarding Treaty.
As the movement for a Treaty (or Makarrata) gained momentum in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, a campaign orchestrated by Nugget Coombs, Stuart Harris and Judith Wright aimed to build support for Treaty in the non-Indigenous Australian community.
But the Treaty movement was not without opposition. On the one hand, some leaders in the Aboriginal community felt that the strategic language of a Makarrata undermined sovereignty. Others felt that land rights, not Treaty, was the area where the greatest gains could be made. In 1980, the National Federation of Land Councils was formed, which openly advocated for land rights instead of, and in opposition to, Treaty.
In 1983, the report ‘Two Hundred Years Later…’, which rejected the idea of Treaty, was released. The Hawke government, coming to power that same year, rejected the idea of Treaty and defunded the NAC.
However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continued to advocate for Treaty. In 1988, Aboriginal people from the Northern Territory delivered the famed Barunga Statement, which the Hawke government formally accepted but never actioned. In 1991, Yothu Yindi released the anthemic song ‘Treaty’, once more thrusting Treaty into the national political debate. Finally, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) hosted a Treaty ‘Think Tank’ to explore the meaning, purpose and intent of Treaty.
From Treaty’s first musings in the 1970s, to hit songs, to think tanks, Treaty has had a long, complicated and difficult journey in Australia that continues today.
Where is Treaty at now?
The first Australian state or territory to formally reinvigorate the idea of Treaty was South Australia. In 2016, former premier Jay Weatherill announced that South Australia would enter into negotiations with Aboriginal groups to advance Treaty. But a change of government in 2018 saw a change in priorities, with the incoming Liberal government announcing it would effectively abandon Treaty talks.
The Northern Territory announced its intention to begin conversations about Treaty in 2016. In 2019 Professor Mick Dodson was appointed as the Northern Territory’s treaty commissioner. Recently, Professor Dodson’s role as treaty commissioner has been called into question after alleged incidents of verbally abusing women, with NT chief minister Mick Gunner stating that he had ‘lost confidence’ in Dodson.
At the same time that South Australia was withdrawing from the Treaty negotiation process, Victoria passed Australia’s first Treaty legislation, the Advancing the Treaty with Aboriginal Victorians Act 2018. A key mechanism in the Treaty process was the creation of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria. The Assembly held its inaugural elections in November 2019. As the assembly has continued Treaty conversations, a key question has emerged: should Victoria have one Treaty or multiple Treaties?
Most recently, Queensland has committed to progressing the Treaty process with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups. The Tracks to Treaty process has formally begun in the state with a Statement of Commitment of how the parties intend to work together to progress Treaty.
There have also been important developments in other states, although the language of Treaty has seldom been used. For instance, some experts have suggested that the South West Native Title Settlement in Western Australia is akin to a Treaty, even saying that the agreement is in fact Australia’s first Treaty.
What is clear from these simultaneous processes is that Australian governments have different and conflicting views about Treaty. What is also clear is that while calls for Treaty by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been consistent for some fifty years, what is less clear is a common, defined and accepted narrative of what form a Treaty or Treaties will take and what changes Treaty or Treaties might enable.
Treaty: All ship, no cargo
I can’t help but be disappointed that we find ourselves some fifty years into a Treaty movement, and in the middle of various concurrent Treaty processes, and yet we continue to lack a vision for an outcome or outcomes.
It is clear that our people have always viewed Treaty as a vessel through which to create change. Yet it remains an empty vessel without a destination. Put simply, Treaty is all ship, no cargo; all process, no outcome.
What is missing from Treaty conversations is a clear, sound and consistent purpose for Treaty agreements. Indeed, uncovering the purpose of a Treaty is a key function of the First Peoples Assembly of Victoria. The Northern Territory is addressing this missing piece through community consultations.
Yet examining the history of Treaty makes clear that formal government processes have been a tool by which governments have controlled, manipulated and effectively suppressed Treaty discussions. Genuine discussions and debates regarding Treaty will require Aboriginal control of the process, which will only come with financial independence. If properly resourced, we may actually experience a sense of freedom to design the terms of the conversation and what is in, and out, of scope.
Provided with this opportunity, I believe that Treaty is not the conversation, but one component in a much larger conversation. For instance, the First Peoples Assembly of Victoria asks whether a single Treaty or multiple Treaties are needed—but shouldn’t this be defined by the content of the Treaty or Treaties?
Another parallel and equally important question is: what are we willing to give up?
Considering the history of Treaty making in comparable nations such as the United States and Canada, what is given up by Indigenous peoples is simple and consistent: sovereignty.
The question of sovereignty, as highlighted earlier, has been a point of tension in previous Treaty movements here, and we would be wise to listen to Elders who witnessed those contests of ideas.
As a starting point, it is worth considering whether we would be willing to relinquish, once and for all, our sovereignty. In doing so, we would make legitimate the existence of the Australian settler state and its institutions. Of course, the Australian state already exists and dominates—we experience its presence every day—but knowing and asserting that we never willingly gave up our lands or sovereignty has always provided strength in the struggle. Is this what we will give up?
I suggest that this is the cargo.
Knowing where and why we are able to compromise determines what we want and how far we are prepared to go to get it.
Conversely, this question—what are you willing to give up?—must also be asked by non-Indigenous people and institutions. Any meaningful agreement made between Indigenous people and the settler state will require all sides to give something up.
Only by knowing what all sides are willing to give up, or not, will we be able to make the judgement of whether these agreements are the right thing for our peoples.
Knowing what we require from these agreements while identifying what we are willing to give up will allow us to create Treaty agreements (indeed, if we are still willing to do so) that our children deserve. Let’s build the ship to carry the cargo.
Or, if we simply cannot resolve to legitimise colonising forces that have long subjugated our people and made it impossible for us to live full, happy and healthy lives, then we can choose to hand the struggle to future generations with righteousness.
Dan Tout, Dec 2020
…the settler-colonial logic of elimination—of displacement for the purpose of replacement—has come to align in ever more destructive ways with the economic logic of neoliberal capitalism…