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Makarrata: A vision of reconciliation for Australia

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There is still work to be done in achieving a co-existent future for Australians (Image by Dan Jensen)

It's time that Australia moved towards “Makarrata” and the treaty and reconciliation process set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, writes Patrick Hannan.

THE PREAMBLE to New Zealand’s Treaty of Waitangi, which just passed its 181st anniversary this week, speaks of a British Crown that was anxious to protect [the] Just Rights and Property’ of the Indigenous Maori population of New Zealand.

More than half a century after Australia decided by referendum that ‘Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the population’, there is little anxiety to protect the very same rights of its First Nations people today.

2017’s Uluru Statement from the Heart and its concept of “Makarrata” was a powerful step forward on the long road to reconciliation. The statement distils much of what the country has been striving for since the 1967 referendum.

The word Makarrata comes from the Yolngu language in Arnhem Land and it means, in part, “peace after a dispute”.

The aspirations of the Uluru Statement envisage a ‘fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood’ and a future based on two co-existing sovereign worlds. 

The Uluru Statement hopes to create a commission to reckon with ‘the truth-telling about our history’. By harnessing restorative justice principles and open dialogue, South Africa and Northern Ireland have embarked on a similar mission. After 250 years of Indigenous disenfranchisement, an Australian reconciliation project would be transformative. 

But opposition to the Uluru Statement persists.

Upon its release, the Turnbull Government proclaimed it would create a ‘third chamber of parliament’. Others argued a voice to parliament would divide Australians by race, by unfairly applying the constitutional race power.

Cape York lawyer and intellectual Noel Pearson says treaty is “a question not of race but of Indigeneity”. Indigenous sovereignty has never been ceded and to the same end, neither has British sovereignty. The locus of Indigenous sovereignty is in the land itself and “Madayin”, or customary Indigenous law. For British settlers, it is in the constitutional monarchy. Each remain separate and undiluted sovereign concepts.

Rejectionists to treaty rely upon the doubts and prejudices repeated throughout the Australian history wars. They are the same voices that upbraided descendants of the Stolen Generation, fuelled authoritarian intervention into remote Indigenous communities and who excised Aboriginals from the Constitution at Federation.

Makarrata is a profound attempt to do more.

The Uluru Statement speaks of sovereignty as a spiritual notion, tied to a connection to the land which First Nations people have cultivated over millennia. Sixty-five thousand years of ritualised exchange with the land is an indefeasible right to the continent — and an indisputable source of sovereign power.

In the words of Wiradjuri man Dennis Foley:

‘The land is the mother and we are of the land; we do not own the land, rather the land owns us. The land is our food, our culture, our spirit and our identity.’

This spiritual connection to the land has been disregarded by White Australia before. The Hindmarsh Island bridge case from the 1990s is a good example.

The case related to a conflict between the local Ngarrindjeri people and the proposed construction of a bridge by a property developer at Hindmarsh Island in South Australia. Local Ngarrindjeri women Elders objected to the construction of the bridge on the basis it was on culturally sacred land. The objection related to specific spiritual beliefs they did not wish to disclose.

Because they refused to disclose the exact reasons, the Ngarrindjeri women’s beliefs were lambasted as ‘secret women’s business’ and deemed ‘fabricated’ by a State Royal Commission that looked into the issue.

Following the Royal Commission, the Howard Government then legislated to permit the construction of the bridge. This outcome violated the customary laws of the Ngarrindjeri people and devalued the spiritual beliefs of its local Indigenous women.

Yet the spiritual beliefs of White settlers don’t seem to face the same distrust and suspicion. Marcia Langton described this distrust of female Indigenous spirituality as a national psychosis. A truth commission may serve to remedy conflicts like this in the future.

As history has demonstrated, rejectionism won’t disappear. In all pluralist democracies, a level of oppositional debate balances public discourse. But on this issue, it is stultifying.

Most Australians do envisage a reconciled future, headed towards Makarrata; reconciling the scars of the past, the realities of the present and the dreams of a co-existent future. 

It’s nearly four years since the Uluru Statement was released. A sense of urgency is needed to push the country toward a lasting and historical treaty with its First Nations people.

The Treaty of Waitangi was prepared in less than a week. And 181 years on, it remains an international success. As its closest neighbour, Australia owes itself to follow in New Zealand’s footsteps.

And as Nelson Mandela once said:

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Patrick Hannan is a solicitor and freelance writer from Melbourne, Australia.

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Makarrata: A vision of reconciliation for Australia

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