Indigenous Australia

Constitutional Recognition fades as momentum builds for a Treaty

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Momentum for a Treaty is building following many influential Indigenous Australians rejecting Constitutional Recognition. Indigenous affairs editor Natalie Cromb reports.

THE MOMENTUM for the Treaty campaign is building following the Sovereign peoples of Victoria unanimously rejecting Constitutional Recognition in February and a "Men speak out for Treaty" event in Redfern last month.

The Andrews Government sought to discuss Constitutional Recognition with Indigenous invitees to the forum held in February, however, the agenda took a swift turn when there was a unanimous rejection of Constitutional Recognition.

The Treaty event in Redfern was organised by Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS) and was hosted by renowned journalist Jeff McMullen, He played host to a robust panel, including Wiri man and Australia’s first Indigenous Senior Counsel Tony McAvoy, Narungga elder and advocate Tauto Sansbury, Awabakal man and chair of NTEU A&TSI Policy Committee Terry Mason, Gurang Gurang man and chairman of Stronger Smarter Institute Dr Chris Sarra, and Djambarrpuyngu man and Yolngu Nations Assembly Spokesperson Yingiya Guyula.

Tony McAvoy was decisive and clear as first speaker and he avowed he is an advocate for a Treaty, when he said:

It is achievable within the next few years that we will have set the framework for the treaties to be entered into by First Nations.”

McAvoy has, in fact, drafted a charter for an Assembly of First Nations people in which he envisions that it will create a truly representative body that will debate and pass resolutions in much the same way as the United Nations General Assembly. Indeed, it would be appropriate for this body to be the negotiating body on behalf of First Nations people in forming a Treaty with the Government.

Tony McAvoy drew from his legal strengths in clarifying what model a Treaty would need to take, as he narrowed it down to four main heads of agreement.

An acknowledgement that:

  • Australia was not settled and that First Nations people are sovereign peoples;
  • there must be land reform
  • there must be reparations, compensation and equitable benefit sharing; and
  • there is the need for structural reform.

The packed audience was in agreement with Tony McAvoy’s approach to Treaty.

He closed by saying:

The dilemma which confronts us is how we create the environment where the economic and cultural imperatives that saw us through millennia can be maintained in the western world in which we now live.”

Tauto Sansbury conceded he is not an expert in the legal and political machinations of achieving a Treaty, but said he is determinedly against Constitutional Recognition. Sansbury referenced the South Australian experience with Recognition and how very little it had achieved beyond the “feel good” symbolism in which government could pat themselves on the back. He referenced the continued poor performance of social indicators and said that this change is not achievable without action in the place of symbolism.

Terry Mason was present amongst the 500 Victorian sovereign peoples who unanimously rejected Constitutional Recognition.

He said:

They used the term 'Sovereign people', not 'Victorian Aboriginal people', in the meeting, because they are not owned by the Victorian government."

This anecdote was met with resounding affirmation from the crowd.

Mason recalled a real feeling of change in the air as the peoples resisted the Government’s intent to split into focus groups and, instead, chose to remain united and speak “black fulla way” about what was and is affecting them — not the agenda set by the Government.

He was conclusive in saying the process doesn’t need to be rushed

“... because it may not be for us or our children — but it might be for our grandchildren. It doesn’t matter how long it takes as long as it is done right and includes genuine grass roots consultation.”

Mason spoke of the importance of including people who cannot travel to capital cities and forums like this one, and that without genuine consultation with all communities we are selling ourselves short.

Yingiya Guyula was a powerful speaker, who enunciated the importance of preserving culture and lore. He entranced the audience with his ceremonial song and then allowed the audience to see lore in action in a brief video that demonstrated the real disconnect between lore and law. It is for this that he is running a Treaty platform in his campaign for the next Northern Territory election.

He recalled the immediate and real changes following the Norther Territory Intervention:

Our lore was immediately pushed aside and ignored. We are experiencing the highest rate of suicide, our people are locked up at a rate six times higher than a black man in South Africa during Apartheid.”

He was explicit in his closing, when he said:

It is self-determination and self-government, or poverty, exile and death. We need Treaty.”

Dr Chris Sarra was the final speaker and had, perhaps, the simplest yet powerful statement in favour of Treaty, when he said:

"It would finally be an acknowledgement of our humanity in an honourable way.”

The panel was followed by resolute discussion in favour of Treaty, but the vast majority of the audience who contributed to discussion made a clear statement in favour of grass roots consultation. One audience member suggested involvement at a Lands Council level was a good starting point.

I have made my views clear in that I am in favour of Treaty/ies; however, I am not flippant in thinking that procuring a treaty is going to be easy, because it is the least palatable option for governments. This is because it holds them to a set of obligations they ordinarily would not live up to.

To arbitrarily decide the fate of our people without consultation and agreement will always be met with resistance.

And for those who champion the Recognise campaign and its intent to change the Constitution to recognise Indigenous people, I say that you need to consider the South Australian example given by Tauto Sansbury.

We have the benefit of hindsight and know that Constitutional Recognition will not change the mortality or incarceration rates of our people. It will not stop the removal of children or turn the water back on in remote communities.

Constitutional change is symbolic; it does not change anything for the Indigenous community.

Because, frankly, I don’t think anyone can say it better, I will close with this statement from Rosalie Kunoth-Monks who was a panellist alongside me in last years’ Treaty forum:

“This is a life and death situation. A Treaty is vital to the future of our people.”

Please show your support to Indigenous people by listening, supporting and taking action.

Natalie Cromb is a Gamileraay woman. You can follow Natalie on Twitter @NatalieCromb.

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