Truth and treaty: Foundations for First Nations justice

Invasion Day 2017: Protests have been growing, as has the recognition that sovereignty is the central question. Photo by Alison Thorne
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When it comes to the rights of First Nations, Australia is a very long way behind the rest of the world.

In 1987, after decades of struggle by Māori, te reo Māori was recognised as an official language in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Since then, language proficiency has strengthened, and more than 60 percent of New Zealanders now think it should be a core subject in schools. Across Scandanavia, the Sámi people have parliaments. The body in Norway has the most far-reaching powers, dealing with all matters relating to the Sámi people, including language, culture and education. No one has the authority to issue instructions to the Sámi Parliament, which has its own budget, identifies its own priorities and develops its own policies. In the U.S. there are 350 treaties between tribal nations and the U.S. government. Canada also has constitutionally recognised treaties. In 1999 it created Nunavut, a self-governing territory in the Arctic north run by its Inuit residents.

In contrast, Australia has no treaties with First Nations. In 2005, a mere 15 years after it was created, the government abolished the body elected to represent First Nations people. Of the more than 300 languages spoken before colonisation, just 13 are spoken by children today.

The arrival of the British in 1788 unleashed 140 years of frontier wars, charcterised by acts of resistance by the First Peoples and brutal massacres by the invaders. This was followed by decades of forced assimilation, a policy in place until 1973 when it was officially replaced with “self management.” In reality, communities continue to experience paternalistic bureaucrats and a lack of resourcing. The Northern Territory Emergency Response, or Intervention, was one of the worst afronts. It imposed extraordinary controls over Aboriginal communities and required the suspension of the Racial Disrimination Act. In place for a decade and a half, it only ended this year.

The road to Uluru. In May, Anthony Albanese’s first statement as Australia’s newly elected Prime Minister was that Labor would commit “in full” to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The incoming government pledged a referendum to change the Constitution in its first term, describing the Statement as a “generous invitation” towards reconciliation from First Nations people.

Debate about recognising the original people in the Constitution has ebbed and flowed. A decade ago, the focus was on the merits of adding some kind of symbolic wording to the premable versus making changes of substance. The Freedom Socialist Party opposed mere symbolisim, supported radical grassroots voices calling for meaningful change — particularly treaties — and stressed that First Nations people must make a decision prior to anything being put to a broader vote.

Lidia Thorpe, Invasion Day 2020. Photo by Alison Thorne

Jenny Munro, Invasion Day 2018. Photos by Alison Thorne

In 2012, the Gillard government launched the Recognise campaign. This was essentially a multimillion dollar government-sponsored marketing project to promote the idea of Indigenous recognition. The campaign was renowned for its corporate backers, such as BHP and Qantas. A 2015 survey by IndigenousX found that the majority of First Nations respondents did not support the Recognise campaign. Opposition grew louder amongst First Nations people, particularly from the grassroots of the movement, until it was finally killed off in 2017, the same year the Uluru Statement was issued.

The product of a two-year process, the Uluru Statement started with twelve regional dialogues. First Nations representatives met to determine guiding principles and to consider a number of reform options. This culminated in a national constitutional convention at Uluru. Some delegates walked out, asserting their concerns about a loss of sovereignty and that demands for a formal guarantee of a treaty process were not being heard. Amongst them was Wiradjuri elder Jenny Munro, who said, “it’s not a dialogue, it’s a one-way conversation.” But a majority adopted the Uluru Statement from the Heart by consensus. It calls for a First Nations voice to parliament to be enshrined in the Constitution and the establishment of a Makarrata commission to supervise a process of agreement making and truth telling. Encapsulated in the formulation of Voice, Treaty, Truth, the Statement specifies they must come in this order.

In July, the Prime Minister used the Garma Festival, a celebration of Yolgnu culture held in Arneham Land, to release proposed wording for a referendum, claiming the proposition was “simple and clear.” Three sentences are to be added to the Constitution. Through a referendum, voters are to be asked if they support an alteration to the Constitution to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. The government is eager to frame passage of the referendum as “simply good manners.” Albanese declared, “The Uluru Statement is a hand outstretched, a moving show of faith in Australian decency and fairness.”

On the final day of Garma, DjabWurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara woman Lidia Thorpe used parliamentary question time to ask Senate Leader Penny Wong, “How does your proposed constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament affect First Nations people’s sovereignty in this country?” This question from the Greens Senator goes to the heart of the debate for First Nations people.

Delegates who developed the statement at Uluru agreed to ten guiding principles. Topping the list was that any reform must not diminish First Nations sovereignty. This is why progressing treaties holds the key. Treaty is defined as an agreement negotiated between two sovereign bodies.

In contrast, the Voice is a proposal to establish an advisory body to the Parliament. By enshrining this body in the Constitution, it could not be abolished without another referendum — an improvement on the status quo. However, there is no requirement for this body to be resourced or listened to. One of three phrases to be inserted into the Constitution specifies: “The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.” No wonder those unwilling to compromise on sovereignty reject establishing such a body prior to treaty making as doing little more than embedding the current relationship.

Representatives from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, Gomeroi woman Gwenda Stanley and Unary man Clayton Simpson, say that the Uluru Statement threatens First Nations people’s sovereignty. The Ngunnawal people are the traditional owners of Canberra. Only two Ngunnawal voices were at the convention, Serena Williams and William Tompkins. Both express the same concerns and support calls for more consultation and a Black parliament at the grassroots level. Lynda-June Coe went to the convention with a Wiradjuri mandate. She was instructed to amplify the unfinished business of sovereignty and treaty. Coe asserts that to claim that the dialogues were inclusive is “a disappointing and damaging representation of what took place.” Yolgnu leader Yingiya Mark Guyula described the Voice as “hopeless.” He told NITV News, “People here don’t want voice, we want voice included into treaty, and we want truth telling into treaty.”

Having announced the wording at Garma, Albanese’s next visit was to the Torres Strait to “consult” with the ethnically Melanesian people. Senior Meriam woman Melora Noah, from Mer Island, said the Uluru Statement did not speak for them. She called for a treaty. She raised the potential to become a sovereign nation with full control over their lands and waters — including the right to follow the Solomon Islanders in entering into an investment deal with China if that’s what they choose.

The voices of First Nations advocates backing the Uluru Statement are widely quoted. Dissenting voices — many women’s — concerned about the consequences of enshrining a Voice in the Constitution before addressing the crucial business of truth telling and treaty making need to be listened to.

Pointing the way. From Arrernte to Bundjalung, from Gunai Kurnai to Wurunjeri, from Yolgnu to Yorta Yorta, each of these entities — and more than 600 like them — are nations with common land, economy, language, psychological make-up and culture. Like all Indigenous people, what they experience is national oppression. The assimilationist methods used by the capitalist class running the show is a form of genocide.

Australia is built on a foundation of theft. The lands of the First Peoples were stolen. Indigenous children were taken from their families. Capitalist Australia is also built on stolen labour — the labour of Aboriginal people, many who received none of their meager wages. It is built on the forced labour of convicts and Pacific Islanders, the labour of immigrant workers and their descendents — none paid the true value of their work — and on the free domestic labour of women.

While all who are done over by capitalism have a common cause, unity against the thieves can only be forged if based on trust. This can’t be demanded, it must be earned. It is essential that all who suffer national oppression have the unconditional right to self-determination.

This means that First Nations people must have a say on the Voice before it goes to a referendum. With just 1,200 participants involved in the dialogues and 250 delegates at Uluru — including those who declared “we won’t sell out our mob” as they walked out — the number of First Nations people whose voices have been heard in the process is small. The First Nations population is about 800,000 — which means 99.85% have had no say.

In 1988, Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised a treaty process supervised by a Makarrata Commission. Just three years later, Treaty by Yothu Yindi topped the charts, capturing Indigenous anger: “Words are easy, words are cheap/Much cheaper than our priceless land/But promises can disappear/Just like writing in the sand.”

The fight for sovereignty by First Nations is littered with broken promises. The Uluru Statement — with its calls for Voice, Treaty and Truth — holds out the promise of sovereignty. But grassroots mob fear that enshrining a Voice in the Constitution — without simultaneously progressing truth telling and treaty making — risks being an obstacle to this goal. Listen to these grassroots voices.

The treaties, the representative bodies, the language recognition and the other gains that indigenous people across the world have fought so hard for are powerful tools to be wielded in the struggle. They are used to fight corporations seeking to destroy the environment and cultural heritage, to struggle for improved health and housing, to support education in Indigenous languages and to challenge police abuse. To win lasting solutions, it will take a society built on different economic foundations. Pre-colonial societies were not based on private property or a profit-driven market economy. These complex societies cared for the environment; they were matriarchal and communal. It’s the fight for a future based on these values that can unite First Nations people with the working class majority, who need the same thing. This unity can only be forged by first recognising the First peoples as sovereign nations.

The times are a changing. Solidarity with First Nations people is on the rise across the community. Schools are teaching about Aboriginal culture. Book sales by First Nations authors are booming. Rapper Baker Boy was a huge hit at the last AFL Grand Final. Many more people know whose lands they are living on. Calling the 26th of January “Invasion Day” has become mainstream. The reservoir of good will and the desire for meaningful change runs deep.

Truth telling and treaty making must not be left behind to disappear like writing in the sand. Get behind those advocating for a Voice worth having — one that is truly sovereign.