‘We’re not better. We’re different’: moving towards treaty

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday September 27, 2019

Karlu Karlu/Devils Marbles, NT. Ownership of Karlu Karlu/Devils Marbles was officially passed from the Parks and Wildlife Service of the Northern Territory back to the Traditional Owners at a ceremony held on the reserve in October 2008. Karlu Karlu are culturally and spiritually significant objects of the local Aboriginal people. Getty Images

An Indigenous leader has called on the public service to change the way it approaches Indigenous affairs.

Professor Mick Dodson, the first-ever Northern Territory Treaty Commissioner, delivered the Garran Oration at the IPAA National Conference in Darwin on Thursday.

He used his speech to explain why truth-telling and treaty are the only way to begin to overcome the “crossroads” that Australia currently faces in bridging the social and economic gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Truth-telling requires all Australians to know the shared history that continues to harm Indigenous First Peoples, Dodson said, “to appreciate what horror and devastation most of Indigenous Australia has gone through over the past 234 years”. 

He referred to the Northern Territory, where there has been “deep injustice” towards Aboriginal people. Violent dispossession, the repression of languages and cultures, and the forcible removal of children from their families, for example, have “left the legacy of trauma and loss”.

As part of the treaty process, the NT government has now agreed that the First Nations were the prior owners and occupiers of the land, and has accepted that they never ceded their sovereignty.

“This is an important starting point, because it means we don’t have to argue about these things,” Dodson said. “They are already agreed upon.”

According to Dodson, modern treaties have three key factors:

  1. Recognition that Indigenous peoples are distinctive, and differentiate their political communities from other citizens’ within the country, state, or territory. 
  2. Settlement is reached by agreement via respectful negotiations.
  3. The government recognises or establishes structures of culturally appropriate governance, with powers of decision-making and control, and provides the resources to make it happen.

“We’re not superior. We’re not better. We’re different,” he said.

There also must also be acceptance by governments of two truths:

  1. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies have been harmed by the colonisation process, and are owed recompense. 
  2. The status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait as First Peoples, the rights and special status that flow from that, and government programs aimed at bringing about equality alone will not provide justice for Indigenous Australians.

“Some still think that these measures are a form of compensation for past injustices. They are not,” he added.

READ MORE: NAIDOC 2019: reconciliation requires more than symbolism

He argued any “unfinished business” could be addressed or at least approached with a national framework treaty or agreement, which would allow Indigenous communities and local, regional, state, and territory stakeholders to sign treaties with each other “at levels in line with national minimum standards”.

“This framework could, moreover, allow for treaties that are comprehensive, deal with multiple or single issues, or mainly address some specific local issue,” he said.

One option for minimum standards, Dodson noted, would be to adopt those in the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which has four key themes: self determination; participation in decision-making; respect for and protection of culture; and equality and non-discrimination.

What can the public service do?

Dodson argued that if treaties are to be successful in Australia, then the APS will have to “dramatically” change the way it operates. 

“As I mentioned at the beginning, one of the features of modern treaties is that the government recognises and establishes resources structures of culturally appropriate governance, with powers of decision-making and control. In essence, this means that power is shared. And by definition, central power is diluted,” he said.

“To be honest, over time we have seen this is something the public service has struggled with. So, if we want treaties in this country, we want them to be implemented to the maximum effect.”

He said the public service must shift the focus of Indigenous Affairs policy from “what’s wrong with Indigenous cultures and communities”, to “what constitutes appropriate and effective public policy engagement”, and argued that the lack of commitment to self-determination and Indigenous decision-making is the key reason why Indigenous Australians are so socially and economically disadvantaged compared to the rest of Australia.

“So, the key challenge for government and public servants when developing and implementing policies aimed at Indigenous Australians is to think of workable models of self-determination, even within existing non-treaty-based frameworks,” he said. “And, as a minimum and in the spirit of Minister Wyatt’s co-design concept, that Indigenous Australians have a genuine story — participation in decision-making on matters impacting them.”

Read the full transcript on Mandarin Premium.

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