Last week I was a speaker and delegate at an aboriginal conference on treaty and sovereignty in Sydney. I went with both a sense of trepidation and expectation. What happened was not what I expected. What I saw and heard confirmed both my hopes and fears.
The topics of treaty and sovereignty are key to the ongoing presence of Aboriginal people in this country and this conference brought together a range of high profile Aboriginal leaders to speak about what has occurred, how we got to where we are and what we are to address to move forward. There were responsible and rational voices as well as passionate and rebellious voices. There were those who are patient, prepared to wait; and others who want treaty now. Like those seeking a prophet, many are impatient to get a result.
The difficulty is – what does that prophet look like and how do we know it is the right one? In other words, is treaty the solution to the Aboriginal quest for recognised sovereignty, and if so what does it look like?
Unfortunately various state Governments and State oppositions are muddying the water with the development or promise of a state treaty or treaties, some in the Aboriginal community are being seduced into accepting these as genuine treaties. They are not. They are simply agreements within the sphere of influence of State governments – basically they can only do agreements based on what they are constitutionally responsible for –basic state infrastructure. They cannot do sovereign treaty because they themselves do not have sovereignty. That lies with the Commonwealth government alone.
Here we have an example of a false prophet, resembling the real thing but unable to deliver what it promises. In the case of Victoria the State Government is aiming to do treaty with a corporation it has set up – in effect, doing a treaty with itself!
A number of well-resourced communities have flexed their muscle and completed treaties with State Governments. While these look like the real thing, deliver economic benefits and a form of self-governance, they are not true treaty. This approach suits those who seek quick benefits and who may have some position from which to force Governments into an agreement, but remote and dislocated communities who have no resources desired by the commercial or political world will not get the same results.
Here is another false prophet, dividing and ruling; and diminishing those who follow it. There is a promise of freedom but it is selective and random, not equitable and consistent.
The popular model is clan-based treaty –treaties that are negotiated with each individual clan. This is consistent with Aboriginal polity but not inclusive of the growing number of Aboriginal people who are unable to locate, connect and find the particular mob they belong to. It ignores those who live off country in other places and have no daily connection with their home country.
Another false prophet because it runs the risk, as the previous one of rewarding the haves, well organised and resourced nations; and destroying the have nots, those with little structure and financial support.
The most appropriate model is a national treaty with the constitutional government of Australia delivered through the various nations to all Aboriginal people. Now this will take time because it requires a commitment to unity and unification of Aboriginal nations, to working together and not just for their own particular family group; and the capacity to trust leaders to represent them fully at a national level. We are a long way from this yet.
The issue of sovereignty and subsequent self-determination underwrites the need for a treaty. The fact Australia was invaded and no treaty or agreement for the governance of the country negotiated, or compensation given means the occupation remains illegal.
The doctrine of discovery is central to this process. The Papal Bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1492 stated any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”
This Bull followed two previous Bulls, the first in 1095, Pope Urban II issued the Papal Bull Terra Nullius (“empty land”). This gave the kings and princes of Europe the right to “discover” or claim land in non-Christian areas.
This was extended in 1452 when Pope Nicholas V issued a bull declaring war against all non-Christians and authorising the conquest of territories. These documents treated non-Christians as uncivilised and subhuman, without rights to any land or nation.
The Doctrine continues to deliver lost sovereignty, loss of human rights, no recognition as a nation, no treaties, no self-determination. This is continued through such as the Northern Territory Emergency Response in 2007 and the subsequent continuation of that illegal act of invasion by government in which communities lost the capacity to manage their own business. This remains under the present government.
And there is another major outcome of this Doctrine– the impact of this situation on individuals and communities. The dislocation of Aboriginals from their country holding their entire law and identity, the destruction of sacred sites and song-lines, and the taking of children from families, which is now occurring at rates never before experienced, has resulted in deep inner personal and generational trauma. This trauma is expressed in addiction, violence, self-harm, mental ill-health and suicide. It is further accelerated by the out of control incarceration rates, below third world levels of education, health and more.
The mental ill-health caused by this Doctrine and its continued implementation must be addressed in order for us to move forward, finding common ground with all citizens of this land. I don’t know how to do it, I just know it is desperately needed other wise a sovereign treaty itself will become a false prophet failing to deliver what we need.
One of the healers is to get a sovereign treaty recognising Aboriginal people. This lays the platform to address the compound nature of the trauma individuals and families experience. It requires cultural awareness and mindfulness of the complex nature of Aboriginal culture. For example, the word Uluru is not only a place name but also a family name. To use that name for other than the recognition of a place requires permission from the family whose name it is. Therefore we now call the statement developed there, “The Statement From the Heart”. And there is much more.
One of the really positive things was the march we held finishing at Hyde Park. Of the 1000+ peaceful people on the march, I estimate 600 were non-Aboriginal people from all nations of the world. There was a girl from Nepal, backpackers from Sweden and a Muslim mum was seen in a full burqa pushing a pram with a small child carrying a large aboriginal flag. And it was hot!
False prophets there have been – 1967 referendum, Mabo, Rudds Sorry and the Statement From The heart are but a few of many. I fear we cannot experience another. We are hoping a sovereign treaty is the real deal and we call upon all Australians to work with us to right the wrongs of the past and the present.