Getting the treaty right

Wednesday, January 24, 2001 - 11:00


For a treaty between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to work, "first of all, [white people] have got to recognise, at the very beginning of the treaty, that this land belonged to Aboriginal people, and they stole it", according to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander commissioner Rodney Dillon.

"While they can't do anything about what their ancestors did, about stealing our land, and they're here now with us, they've got to acknowledge that that happened, and that's the reason why they've got to start sharing the resources that belong to us," Dillon told Green Left Weekly.

The theft of Aboriginal land and resources is one of the key social and political issues confronting Aboriginal people today, Dillon believes, and lies unresolved at the root of the social problems besetting the Aboriginal community.

Along with more radical-minded Aboriginal leaders, Dillon is critical of prominent Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, who has publicly attacked Aboriginal "welfare dependency". Pearson has "earned the pats he's getting out of his white friends", Dillon said.

"We know there are problems with welfare dependency, and we have been on it for something like 50 years. And we need to change it", Dillon freely admits. "But we need to change it by talking about why we're on welfare: the resources that our people were using have been taken off us, and we've got no control over our resources."

Dillon called on the government to develop a strategic plan to share the natural resources, such as minerals, forests and fisheries. He called for radical changes to native title, which he said was "divisive" and "is only for a certain group of Aboriginal people".

Native title legislation excludes Aboriginal people who have been removed from their traditional land from being able to claim that land. "Well, who removed our people? They did! And they know very well they did! It's just an excuse!", Dillon said angrily.

Instead, the government has "got to accept that if Aboriginal people come from an area, then that is the area that needs to be set aside for those people".

The resources should be managed state by state by an elected group. "In Tasmania, a group like the Aboriginal Land Council would own the titles, so no-one sells them individually, but they're used throughout the community to create culturally appropriate jobs and wealth, which could be used for Aboriginal education, training Aboriginal teachers and doctors, and in other ways to benefit the community."

The rest of the treaty needs to be about "recognising Aboriginal rights and concretely addressing the social well-being of Aboriginal people", Dillon believes, the details of which should need to be worked out by a process of consultation with the Aboriginal community.

Referring to social and economic well-being indicators, such as life expectancy, birth rates, homicides, family separations, educational attainments, Dillon said Aboriginal people "are miles behind in every one of these. What true reconciliation and a treaty should do is bring these all back to square, so that Aboriginal men and women are not dying 25 years earlier than men in the wider community men, so our prison rate changes."

'What can we do?'

"People are saying that they're really sorry but what can we do?", Dillon said. "Well, we've got two grades of people. Let's bring this grade up to the other grade, so we're all the same. All that, the whole lot of that, is what the treaty is all about."

One of the pitfalls Dillon sees with the process of developing the treaty is the possibility of a sell-out. "We know that the politicians can be bought out, but we've got to make sure that the Aboriginal people are not bought out. I'd be a bit frightened if we just had ten Aborigines negotiating the treaty for the rest of Australia. We need to be strong and make sure that until they come up to the right standard, that it's not acceptable."

Dillon sees the rising popularity of putting a treaty back on the agenda as one of the outcomes of the reconciliation process.

"The reconciliation marches have been a really positive show that there is a group of Australians who are saying, 'we've got to address these problems'. People recognise that a lot of the problems with Aboriginals are caused by the wider community and we need the wider community to help to fix the problems. They're not problems that can be fixed by the Aboriginal community ourselves, because they're so big."

The federal government's reluctance to do that "goes a lot further than John Howard", Dillon stated. "I think it goes to the people who vote him in. A lot of those people own the resources that were talking about. And of course they wouldn't want us to have their resources, cause they're making millions of dollars out of them. So he's only the front man for that group, and they pour a lot of money into those governments. I've got no doubts in my mind that he's thinking of those voters when he makes a decision about Aborigines."

So where to now for the struggle against racism?

"We have to break down those barriers," Dillon said. "We're not here to take people's backyards, and we're not here to take all the fish. We're here to share. White people have been here for 200 years. It looks like they're going to stay. So we've got to now work out that we've got to share the resources. We had 'em, then they had 'em — now, we should all have 'em."

From GLW issue 433