Zac Wone is a proud Kabi Kabi man working as a wharfie at Port Botany. He is also National Convenor of Labor for Treaty.
Well I heard it on the radio
And I saw it on the television
Back in 1988, all those talking politicians
Words are easy, words are cheap
Much cheaper than our priceless land
But promises can disappear
Just like writing in the sand
Treaty yeah treaty now treaty yeah treaty now
Most Australians would be familiar with the song “Treaty” by Yothu Yindi. The song with lyrics in both Yolgnu and English language became a number-one hit and catapulted the band Yothu Yindi into the international fame. Unfortunately for all its success on the charts, the song did not achieve its main aim, to create the widespread public awareness, support and ultimately pressure needed to ultimately hold the Government to its promise of Treaty. “Treaty” is more than just a song, it is a call to action.
The Barunga statement
The events of 1988 to which the song refers, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke visited the community of Barunga in the Northern Territory and committed to a Treaty within the term of his government.
Sadly Hawke was unable to deliver on this promise and this led to great disappointment in the community which is still felt and remembered to this day.
Hawke was unprepared for the resistance he would face from the powerful vested interests notably the pastoralists and mining executives who have always opposed land rights as well as the general apathy of the broader community at that time.
The Barunga statement which was presented to Hawke by the Yolngu people still hangs in Federal Parliament today, the promise made that day as yet unfulfilled.
What is Treaty?
A Treaty is essentially an agreement which sets out a legal framework laying out the rights and responsibilities inherent in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.
There are various models about what this would look like in detail but most agree that it would involve multiple agreements between Federal, State and Local governments and First Nations across the continent. I believe recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and the right to self-determination would need to be integral elements of such an agreement.
The advantage we have in Australia is that we have a wealth of lessons to draw on by looking at other Commonwealth nations such as Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Turtle Island (U.S and Canada) who have been in the process of Treaty making for centuries. We should look closely at their examples while also ensuring our Treaties are suited to local circumstances and needs.
One thing for me is clear however, any Treaty must first and foremost allow communities to regain greater power and control over resources and decision making.
Currently the direction and priorities of Indigenous affairs is subject to the whims of each incoming government and leader with funding given and taken away with no rhyme or reason, decisions made in distant State and Territory capitals or Canberra with little say from the community which it will affect impact.
The failures of this current system are apparent and ongoing. The Gap is not closing, incarceration rates are rising and we are seeing more Indigenous kids being taken from family than ever before. It is clear we need a new way. I believe Treaty can provide the foundation.
The Treaty making process will be a long one which should be viewed as an opportunity for dialogue and exploring possibilities rather than an inconvenience. The alternative is more wasted years perservering with a broken system which further entrenches disadvantage and despair.
For almost three decades discussions of Treaty was kept off the mainstream political agenda, a dream kept alive only by the staunchest of grassroots activists.
In recent years however there has been a series of promising developments which have increased momentum behind the Treaty movement.
In early 2016 in Victoria, a forum of 500 community leaders organised by the government funded Recognise campaign provided the spark for negotiations in that state. Those in attendance rejected unanimously constitutional recognition and called instead for the Government to make Treaty.
Unlike constitutional recognition, no referendum is required to make Treaty, just the political will and courage. The Andrews government to their credit responded by beginning talks, a historic moment which gave many, including myself the hope that we may finally see Treaty in our lifetime.
Soon after the Labor government in South Australia became the second state government to begin negotiations allocating $4.4 million dollars to the process and the creation of a Treaty commissioner position.
In a December 2016 speech Opposition Leader Bill Shorten showed an increased openness to Treaty stating his belief that “to me post recognition settlement, or treaty or treaties, is about building new frameworks for local and regional level for government to engage with, and empower, the First Australians”.
Chansey Paech, the newly elected Eastern Arrente/Gurindji Member for the seat of Namatjira in Central Australia in a 2017 speech to NT Parliament expressed his hope that "A treaty will give rise to stronger, and more capable, institutions of Aboriginal governance and will for once actually pave the way to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage". The newly elected NT Government has “committed to commencing discussions on developing a Treaty in the Northern Territory with Aboriginal Territorians”.
Labor for Treaty
Founded by a group of mostly Young Labor and branch members in June 2016, Labor for Treaty has gained remarkable traction within the party and broader community.
In December 2016, having gained NSW MP Lynda Voltz and Senator Malarndirri McCarthy as state and Federal parliamentary patrons, Labor for Treaty became an official Labor Action Committee.
2017 has seen successful State and Territory launches in Sydney, Darwin and Brisbane featuring a number of high profile speakers including WA Senator Pat Dodson, NSW MP Lynda Voltz, NT Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, MUA NT Secretary Thomas Mayor, union stalwart and respected elder Uncle Bob Anderson, Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Minister Mark Furner, Queensland Indigenous Labor Network Chair Darren Godwell and the first Indigenous woman elected to Queensland Parliament Leanne Enoch all speaking in support of Treaty. All three launches so far have been well attended and supported by rank and file party members, unionists and Labor MPs.
Labor for Treaty representatives have also been invited to speak at a number of branches across the country and community forums in Western Sydney and the Central Coast as well as a Fringe event at this year’s NSW State conference with keynote speaker Tony McAvoy SC.
Our aim for 2018 is to continue to build on this momentum through a branch by branch campaign with the ultimate aim of getting Treaty back on the Federal Party platform at the next National Conference.
The growing support for Treaty is encouraging but it is important that we do not let the opportunity “disappear like writing in the sand” as happened in 1988. We cannot allow this to remain, as Paul Keating has called it, our “unfinished business as a nation”. We must also manage our expectations of what Treaty can deliver by itself.
If the experience both here and internationally has taught us anything, the signing of Treaties will only be the beginning. As with any significant victory for social justice and equality, conservative forces will immediately work to erode the gains made.
Both the process and implementation must not be left to lawyers and bureaucrats. We will still need to continue to build ongoing and increased solidarity between First Nations communities, the union movement, left wing political parties, students and civil society groups. If anything, such alliances will become even more crucial to ensure the best possible deals for First Nations communities and to hold the Government accountable to the agreements made.
I believe it is a fight worthing fighting though. Experiences of Treaty making internationally has shown that the Treaty is itself not the solution to everything and is not without its disappointments but regardless it can be a powerful tool in upholding those rights and form the basis for mutual understanding and respect. Treaty is about much more than the words on paper but also the relationship which it represents.
For these reasons I believe it’s time to set out in formal terms the rights and responsibilities of the relationship between Indigenous and non Indigenous Australia. It’s time for the Australian Government to make Treaties with the First Nations of this land.
The Liberals don’t have the will. The Greens don’t have the power. The challenge falls to us, as the Labor Party to make Treaty a reality.
For information about Labor for Treaty, like them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Labor-for-Treaty-244219649280617/