Treaty, yeah? Not yet

April 26, 2008

Aboriginal delegates to the 2020 summit, chaired by PM Kevin Rudd, expressed anger that it failed to agree on a treaty between Black and white Australia. They are also dismayed that there was no clear recommendation to form a new Indigenous representative body to oversee government policy.

Former Australian of the Year Fiona Stanley told the April 21 National Indigenous Times that the final document which emerged from the summit had "watered down" delegates' ideas and lacked commitment to real change.

Tim Goodwin, deputy chair of the National Indigenous Youth Movement of Australia, said the lack of a treaty had led to such disastrous policies as the Northern Territory (NT) intervention. "The intervention is a classic example of … where the relationship just isn't right between Indigenous Australia and non-Indigenous Australia", he told ABC Online on April 19.

Goodwin blamed the NT intervention's ineffectiveness on a lack of consultation and respect for Aborigines and called for a treaty that not only recognises the history but "that talks about the way this country has been built on the sacrifices of Indigenous people". He added that a treaty would "set the guidelines on which the relationship [between Black and white Australia] needs to be built, which can then contribute to how we can build practical policies and programs".

The NT intervention was initiated by the former Howard Coalition government supposedly in response to the Little Children are Sacred report, which identified widespread child abuse and neglect in remote Aboriginal communities in the NT.

The report's authors, Rex Wild and Pat Anderson, opposed the Howard government's militaristic response, which included widespread alcohol bans throughout the NT and the "quarantining" of welfare payments. This measure means that welfare recipients in targeted Aboriginal communities have a proportion of their payments replaced by gift cards for supermarket chains that can only be spent on food or clothing.

Tellingly, the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended as the NT intervention took place. This is another reason to create a treaty according to Aboriginal academic Professor Peter Buckskin from the University of South Australia, who was also a 2020 summit delegate.

"There is a real need to give some certainty that no government, whatever political persuasion, can suspend acts that are there for the protection of a certain group of people to suit their own political ends", he told ABC Online on April 17. He added that such a protection should be written into the constitution.

The campaign for a treaty between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia has been a long one. It is seen as a way to recognise the harm done to Aboriginal communities by European colonisation and would be a starting point for Aboriginal people to win back rights, in particular their ability to pursue Native Title claims through the courts (a process that, even when successful, has sometimes been overruled by state and federal governments).

Such a treaty could enshrine the rights of Aboriginal people to the same health and education standards as the rest of Australia.

It could also reinstate the right to learn Indigenous languages and cultures, a right that would go a long way to improving education outcomes in remote Aboriginal communities where English is often a second, or even third, language. In 1999, the NT government abolished bilingual education in schools.

Opening the summit, the PM claimed there was a need to break out of old thinking and find new solutions to the problems of Australia. But Larissa Behrendt, a professor of law and Indigenous studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, writing for NIT on April 17, attacked the ALP for what she described as a continuation of Howard-style discrimination.

"There was a great expectation that things would be different under Kevin Rudd … And these expectations were raised even further when Rudd delivered his powerful speech delivering the long overdue apology to the Stolen Generations.

"It was always going to be the case that the undermining of the rights framework and legacy of failed policies from 'practical reconciliation' to 'shared responsibility agreements' that Howard unleashed on Aboriginal communities would take a long time to undo.

"But the more days and months that pass under the new government, the question that cannot and will not go away is: how long is Rudd and his government going to continue to deny Aboriginal people the protection of the Racial Discrimination Act? How long is it going to be acceptable to this government to continue to support policies that require the [repeal] of the protection from racial discrimination that have formed part of the Northern Territory intervention?"

Behrendt called on Rudd to provide protection from such discrimination. "Until he does", she concluded, "his government sends us all a message that it is comfortable with repealing one of the most basic human rights — the right to be free from racial discrimination — from applying to the most vulnerable members of the Australian community".

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