In May of 2017 the historic all-Indigenous constitutional convention was held in Uluru about changing the constitution for Aborigines. The outcome of these discussions is what has become known as the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart.’ Rachel Perkins describes it as an historic consensus from the First Nations. However, the ‘consensus’ has not been without controversy. An article in The Australian by Stephen Fitzpatrick states:
A small group of delegates from Victoria and NSW, feeling they weren’t being taken seriously on complex issues of treaty and sovereignty, stormed out of the Uluru Meeting Place ...
“It’s not a dialogue, it’s a one-way conversation,” Sydney-based political activist Jenny Munro fumed. “Every time we try to raise something in the room, we get shut down. I have asked how does our sovereignty remain intact when we go into the white man’s Constitution — that is about validating their sovereignty on our land, not ours.”
Changes that safeguard against discriminatory laws on the basis of race and the addition of words that acknowledge the fact that Aborigines occupied this continent before the British arrived are fine, and even welcomed. But anything more and it becomes problematic. Not surprisingly, much more is being asked for – nay, demanded.
There are strident and repeated calls for a treaty. A treaty is heralded by some as the solution to many of the problems facing Aboriginal people today, so it is well worth exploring the idea further. It is unclear exactly what a treaty is and how it would look if we did have one. After reading an article that was meant to discuss why we need a treaty, why it’s important, and how to bring it to life, I was still left wondering what a treaty is. In its simplest sense, a treaty can be thought of as an agreement or contract between two parties. In this case, between some representative Aboriginal body or structure, and the Australian government representing the rest of us (though of course the government represents all of us, including Aboriginal people). And let’s forget for the moment about what definition would be used for ‘Aboriginal’ that will likely turnout to be very problematic.
Proposing a treaty raises important questions that need answers. Normally in a contract, there are responsibilities for each party. What would these be for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians respectively? But more importantly: How would a treaty put food on the table? Get kids to school? Get adults into jobs? Make communities safe, clean, and vibrant places to live in? So far I have not heard answers to these questions. I just hear “Treaty now!”
Do we Really Need a Treaty?
The problems plaguing too many Aboriginal communities and people are ones that, I believe, can be addressed without a treaty. In fact I believe pursuit of a treaty will be a major distraction from addressing the real problems, as a treaty will be seen as a magic bullet. Those Aboriginal people who are suffering and condemned to live in conditions most of us would not let a dog live in should not have to wait for a treaty for solutions - and how many will die waiting? Let’s not forget that thousands upon thousands of Aboriginal Australians are already doing perfectly well without a treaty – including many of those who have descended on Uluru to promote their idea of a treaty, not to mention all the Facebook warriors calling for Treaty. They have benefited from good education and living where there are employment opportunities, so why should they be demanding one as a solution?
Calls for a treaty have been gaining momentum for quite some time now. Back in July 2016, Professor Chris Sarra, now a member of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, challenged political leaders, including the PM: “When you are ready, and when you have the courage and you are bold enough, I am ready on behalf of my people and my people are ready to speak with you about a treaty.” Are we to conclude that if someone is reluctant to talk about a treaty they must lack courage? I personally would rather see Professor Sarra talk about what has been his formula for success. I am sure that what has worked for him will work for other Aboriginal Australians.
One strong Aboriginal woman doing well without a treaty and helping to improve the lives of Aboriginal Australians is lawyer Dr Hannah McGlade, author of Our Greatest Challenge: Aboriginal Children and Human Rights, was reported as wisely saying, “Would indigenous women and children feel safer if constitutional recognition, or even a treaty, eventuated in Australia? The answer must be a resounding ‘No’.” That alone should surely be enough for us to abandon the pursuit of a treaty - at least until we eliminate these family violence problems. An opinion piece by Hannah on constitutional recognition can be found here.
Making a Difference
The best way to help Aboriginal people is the same way that works best for all Australians. The focus should be on strategies that bring social stability and unity. Only then will people feel safe, thrive, and be all that they are capable of being. Warren Mundine has rightly pointed out that social stability requires people to embrace the idea of contributing to their communities. And meaningful employment is one of the most effective ways of ensuring this.
Our primary focus must be on employment and education. These can be achieved irrespective of treaty discussions - but will take hard work. Talking about a treaty or changing the constitution is easy; improving employment and educational opportunities is considerably more difficult. So many activists actually think they are doing something constructive when they protest from the sidelines claiming that a treaty is the solution. They are not.
In 2017, let’s not be distracted by symbolism and ‘quick fixes’such as treaties, however alluring they might seem to be. Let’s focus on providing Aboriginal people with real hope and help, even if this means tackling the tough issues such as child abuse and violence, or making unpopular decisions like relocating people from dysfunctional and economically unsustainable communities to centres with facilities where they can thrive.
Aboriginal people are Australian citizens and as such are surely entitled to what Australia has to offer. But partaking in those offerings means abandoning the ‘us-them’ mentality which underpins the treaty mindset - a mindset that has only served to keep Aboriginal people marginalised and promote disharmony between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Let’s follow the advice of young Aboriginal leader Jacinta Price: “The way forward has to be a unified effort; not an ‘us and them’ approach but an open and honest journey together.” Does anyone remember the vision of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation? – “A united Australia that respects this land of ours, values Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, and provides justice and equity for all.” Let’s make that our vision in 2017.