ACT treaty needed to right past wrongs made against Indigenous people
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ACT treaty needed to right past wrongs made against Indigenous people

It is an interesting coincidence that the newly declared ACT Reconciliation Day public holiday falls between two significant anniversaries relevant to Aboriginal demands for sovereignty and self-determination without which reconciliation is illusory. It was held the day after the first anniversary of the presentation of the Uluru Statement and two weeks before the thirtieth anniversary of the Barunga Statement.

The Barunga Statement, despite having been effectively ignored for the last 30 years, has been given life by the Northern Territory government which has announced that it will, consistent with the demands incorporated in the statement, begin negotiations with the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory for a treaty.

In committing to negotiations for a treaty, the Northern Territory has followed the example of the governments of South Australia and Victoria where the path to a treaty has been the subject of detailed consideration. Regrettably, the incoming Liberal government in South Australia has terminated the process for a treaty in that state. However Luke Foley, the Opposition Leader in New South Wales, the jurisdiction with the largest Indigenous population in Australia, has accelerated the momentum for state-based treaties by committing a Labor government in NSW to a treaty with that state's Aboriginal people.

While differing in content and structure, the Barunga and Uluru Statements are in essence concerned with the same issues, namely self-determination, self-management, sovereignty, land rights, truth telling, an historical reckoning and justice. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia are calling for these rights to be recognised and guaranteed through a treaty or a makarrata.

The response of successive national governments, of both persuasion, over the last 30 years to the widespread aspiration of Indigenous Australians for a treaty has been disappointing, to say the least.

Then prime minister Bob Hawke receives the Barunga statement from Galarrwuy Yunupingu in Arnhem Land in 1988.

Then prime minister Bob Hawke receives the Barunga statement from Galarrwuy Yunupingu in Arnhem Land in 1988.

Photo: Fairfax Media
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On June 12, 1988 when the then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke was handed the Barunga Statement by one of its main proponents, the then-chairman of the Northern Land Council, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, he promised that he would enter into a treaty with Indigenous Australia during that term of government, before 1990. Unfortunately, after returning to Canberra with the Burunga Statement, the Prime Minister abandoned his commitment to a treaty. So disappointed was Galarrwuy Yunupingu that the promised treaty did not eventuate that he asked for the Barunga Statement to be returned to his people. In doing so he made the following comment:

“Sovereignty turned into a treaty, the treaty turned into reconciliation and reconciliation turned into nothing.”

He asked, therefore, for the Statement to be returned to Barunga, where he said: “. . . we will hold a sorry funeral ceremony. We will dig a hole and bury it. It will be a protest . . . The time has come to send a strong message to Canberra and the world about the disgraceful state of Indigenous Australia, where governments have failed . . .”

The rejection by the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, of the central features of the Uluru Statement from the Heart was far more categorical than that of Bob Hawke 30 years earlier. It is of course not only the federal government that has failed to meet the expectations or needs of Aboriginal people. ACT-specific data on Indigenous disadvantage in Canberra, whether it be incarceration rates, child protection, housing, educational outcomes, rough sleeping, homelessness, drug abuse, mental health or poverty, is as bad, and in many cases worse, than in other jurisdictions in Australia.

In response to the aspiration of Aboriginal people across Australia for formal recognition of their sovereign rights and rightful place in their own country, progressive governments in South Australia and Victoria, followed by the Northern Territory government and now the Labor Opposition in NSW, have not been prepared to wait for leadership or action from the Commonwealth, and each has formally committed to the negotiation of a state-based treaty.

However, in light of the example of these other jurisdictions, it is a matter of some surprise that the ACT government has not evinced any interest in exploring the question of a treaty with the Aboriginal community of Canberra. The fanfare greeting the declaration by the ACT government of the Reconciliation Day Public Holiday, and its purported commitment to reconciliation, should be considered against its apparent disinterest in a treaty and indeed the paucity of new Indigenous-specific funding in the recent ACT budget. It is, after all, a widely, if not universally-held view within the Aboriginal community that a negotiated treaty is a pre-condition to achieving reconciliation.

An additional barrier to reconciliation in the ACT is the assumption that native title in the Territory was extinguished by the conversion of all land in the Territory (other, perhaps, than some historical cemeteries and old stock routes) into leasehold following the transfer of the land from NSW to form the national capital. This issue presents a massive challenge to our capacity to ever achieve reconciliation in Canberra.

If we in the ACT cannot find a way of reversing the extinguishment of native title, even if that requires us to deem that native title is to be treated as having not been extinguished, or alternatively by establishing an appropriate compensation regime in recognition of the fact that it has been extinguished, then we are doomed to never be reconciled.

It is time for the ACT government to get serious about reconciliation. It is time we in Canberra began to talk about a treaty to acknowledge and right the wrongs perpetrated by the dispossession of Aboriginal people in the ACT from their lands, without consent and without compensation.

Julie Tongs OAM is the CEO of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Service