First Nations leader: ‘Treaties are an essential first step’

Raymond 'Bubbly' Weatherall. Photo: Maryam Sadatsharifi

For Raymond “Bubbly” Weatherall, a Gamilaraay man from the Gunu Gunu and Biridja clans, the outcomes of the Uluru meeting at the end of May have not changed his mind about the tokenism of Constitutional Recognition.

“Throughout the campaign, as well as at the Uluru meeting, no grassroots voices had really been listened to or given proper weight in the discussion”, he told Green Left Weekly.

“The Uluru statement was just another government voice through the mouths of Black people — Megan Davis, Pat Anderson and Noel Pearson.”

He is not alone in his view. Many grassroots First Nations people say the process, begun in 2011, has been flawed from the outset. They do not want tokenism.

The organisers of the Uluru Convention, which issued the rather vague aspirational Uluru Statement — from the heart insist that dissenting voices had been listened to and the campaign would take a different turn.

The Uluru statement acknowledged that sovereignty, which it described as “a spiritual notion”, had not been ceded and that the crisis facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples is “structural”.

“Proportionally,” it said, “we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.

“These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem.”

It ended by calling for “structural reform” — the “establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution”.

In many ways the Uluru meeting sought to resolve the problem of widespread Aboriginal community opposition to the official Recognise campaign, by raising the prospect of proposing to parliament that the referendum also include a Constitutional change to set up an elected Aboriginal advisory body.

The implication was that this advisory body could initiate some sort of truth and reconciliation process and develop the discussion about Treaty, the Makarrata process.

Pat Anderson, one of the organisers, had to admit after the conference: “People want Treaty. They don’t want acknowledgement, they want Treaty.”

Weatherall remains unconvinced about the process and its final goals. A counsellor and an activist, he knows just how marginalised First Nations people are.

He points out that the Referendum Council was appointed in December 2015 by Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten and its brief was to provide advice on the next steps for constitutional reform.

“The decision [to work for Constitutional Recognition] was made long before the meeting at Uluru. This was highlighted by some delegates walking out in protest in regards to their voices being silenced”, he said.

About 20 delegates and observers from NSW, Victoria, ACT, Western Australia and Tasmania walked away from the convention, saying they felt their views were being shut down by facilitators.

Another major difference expressed at the Uluru meeting was delegates’ attitude to Treaty and whether the Uluru agreement set down a new road for such agreements.

In the end, those supporting Recognise implied that the final agreement made provision for a discussion about Treaty. But, as Weatherall points out, those arguing for Recognise on the ABC’s special Q&A program on May 29 scoffed at any talk of Treaty.

“Noel Pearson said on that program that ‘Recognition is in its 10th year and soon it will be 11 and should be dealt with within 12 months’.”

Pearson said that after the referendum had taken place, a political advisory body needed to be enshrined in the constitution, the members of which would be elected by First Nations people. Pearson sounded like he thought he was a shoo-in for the job.

“Those who are pushing Recognition are being paid by the government to push that agenda — whether or not they fully understand the ramifications”, said Weatherall. “Treaties have never come into the conversation.”

In fact, Pearson made clear in the Q&A panel that Treaty was secondary to Constitutional Recognition of the “voice” which, despite not having statutory power, would have moral authority and would be charged with negotiating with the government on Treaty.

Weatherall believes the process is the wrong way around. “I can only speak as a Gamilaraay Birriwaa man. If we are going to have a representative body, then we need clan-specific treaties between nations that revive the songlines since time immemorial.

“Through this we can have elected representatives from each nation to create a document that is honoured by the international community.

“This can be served to the illegal government and it will make clear who are the true sovereigns of this country. We can then form a representative body to self-govern and create equity and equality for our people.”

The impression given by Pearson, Anderson and others on the Q&A is that some are seeking to turn this process into political brokerage politics.

The responses by government MPs since the Uluru statement suggest that none of these proposals are likely to get through any referendum process if it happens any time soon.

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