NAIDOC 2019: reconciliation requires more than symbolism

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday July 15, 2019

This year’s NAIDOC week has prompted discussions of meaningful change while events have unfolded which reflect the 2019 theme of “Voice, Treaty, Truth” and the growing demand for actions that recognise and empower Indigenous Australians, not just nice words and political symbolism.

The Productivity Commission’s new commissioner, Romlie Mokak, said in a speech at Old Parliament House that “NAIDOC’s impact must surely go well beyond a single week in July” as he discussed the new whole-of-government Indigenous Evaluation Strategy he is developing to analyse any federal policy or program in terms of how it affects Indigenous Australians.

Then, on 1 July, the National Indigenous Australians Agency was established. Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said the agency would provide opportunities for growth in many areas, but most importantly, it would listen.

“Historically, Indigenous Australians have been told what they’re going to get, and what’s going to happen to them, whether they like it or not,” he said in an address to the National Press Club on Wednesday.

“The agency will play a critical role in supporting me to meet the changing needs of Indigenous Australians.”

Wyatt highlighted the importance of truth in enabling all Australians to “walk together, side by side” and put forward his plan to hold a referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition within three years. However, the conservative wing of the federal Coalition moved quickly to oppose any move to enshrine an Indigenous “voice to parliament” in the constitution as proposed by the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The statement called for constitutional change that is more than symbolic and actually empowers Indigenous communities, as well as a Makarrata Commission that would oversee an open discussion of Australia’s colonial past and supervise a series of treaties between Indigenous groups and governments.

Meanwhile, roughly 10,000 Indigenous workers whose wages were stolen by the Queensland government between 1939 and 1972 under the guise of a so-called “protection” law are set to receive $190m in Australia’s fifth-largest class action settlement. Their success is likely to lead to further compensation for their counterparts in other states and territories.

Queensland’s Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, Jackie Trad, said the settlement represents a step towards reconciliation.

“Today marks an important day in rebuilding the relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders. Today I can announce that the parties in Pearson v the State of Queensland have agreed in principle to a settlement scheme, subject to the Federal Court’s approval at a date yet to be determined,” she said.

“This settlement has been reached in the spirit of reconciliation and in recognition of the legacy and impact of the ‘control’ policies on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders, including elders past and present.”

Townsville resident Hans Pearson commenced representative proceedings in the Federal Court on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in September 2016. He and his fellow Indigenous workers had their pay given to the state under the Protection Act over the course of three decades.

The real cost of their stolen wages could be up to $500 million — more than double the settlement.

Attorney-General and Minister for Justice Yvette D’Ath hopes the settlement will allow the state to progress.

“Subject to the Federal Court approving the settlement, I know that all parties involved in this matter hope it will provide some measure of closure in relation to this historic issue, and a way for all Queenslanders to move forward in partnership,” she said.

The settlement comes days after ANZSOG published the report and recommendations from its two-day conference, Reimagining Public Administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms, held in February. The report “outlines a vision for governments to give Indigenous communities more control over policy, incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing and being and increase representation of Indigenous people in public services”.

Professor Marcia Langton AM, Associate Provost and Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at The University of Melbourne, gave a keynote speech at the conference with a clear message to governments:

“Give the money to the Indigenous sector. Give the power to the Indigenous sector.”

The report directed recommendations at all governments across Australia and New Zealand, encouraging them to adopt a vision that “invests in Indigenous employment and leadership in the public service; recognises the need to reset relationships with communities; and acknowledges that Indigenous peoples, communities, culture and knowledge are central to delivering better public value”.

The ANZSOG conference delegates agreed on four key messages:

  • Give communities more control — Communities need the money, authority and power to identify their priorities, make their own investment decisions, and deliver their own services. Empowered communities exercising Indigenous jurisdiction can deliver better and more efficient outcomes for First Peoples.
  • Everyone can learn from Indigenous ways of knowing and being — Governments must support the expression, continuation and celebration of Indigenous language, culture and knowledge. Culture is essential to the wellbeing of Indigenous communities and investing in culture can improve trust and relationships between communities and government. Indigenous culture is also central to mainstream Australian and New Zealand cultural identity and positioning our countries as thought leaders.
  • Representation matters — We need Indigenous people represented across the public service at all levels, and particularly as senior decision-makers. Indigenous people bring unique perspectives, knowledge and experience and can challenge the status quo to affect positive change for communities.
  • We are all agents for change – All of us have a responsibility to challenge our own mindset and the mindsets of the people we work with, to achieve change in Indigenous public administration. While systematic changes and re-imaginings may be necessary in the long run, every individual can challenge the way things have always been done and assumptions about what works for communities. Individuals must reimagine themselves, their role in the system, and their relationship with Indigenous people and communities. Indigenous public servants must also reimagine themselves as leaders who have a right to be present, a story to tell, and a voice to be heard.

READ MORE: Marcia Langton: Government accelerating Indigenous people into ‘permanent poverty’

The Queensland government launched a “Tracks to Treaty” commitment on Sunday, marking the end of NAIDOC Week. The Palaszczuk government pledged to work towards negotiating treaties with First Nations Queenslanders, to promote and support “self-determination, truth-telling, local decision making, and better life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders”.

A panel of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders and Indigenous Queenslanders — co-chaired by Dr Jackie Huggins AM and Michael Lavarch AO — will focus on delivering the commitment.

A Treaty Working Group will be established to conduct state-wide consultation and engagement as part of developing the Path to Treaty process.

Jackie Trad said a discussion paper will be released in the coming weeks for Queenslanders to have their say on the process.

“It comes because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders are calling for a new relationship moving forward, where actions must speak louder than words,” Trad said.

“We hope that this process goes some way to right the wrongs of the past and sets the foundation for a new and just relationship towards our shared future.”

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