Towards the end of 2016, an Indigenous forum in Hobart insisted that preparations for a referendum on the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Australians must be accompanied by treaty talks, with co-chair Pat Anderson rating a treaty “the No 1 topic.” This treaty business has been on the agenda for a long time – more recently, “treaties”, plural. It is a topic, and a passion, well worth exploring.
I don’t outright dismiss the possibility of benefits that might flow from a treaty, but if we are to entertain the notion of proceeding toward this goal it should only be for the right reason. Will it improve the lives of Aboriginal people in a major way? And if it will improve those lives, how will it improve them?
There are many wrong reasons for wanting a treaty, but I will mention only two: First, consider this ridiculous headline on an online news site: “We don’t have a treaty, it shows how racist Australia is” — more evidence that the victim brigade is, as usual, prefers to froth rather than think.
Second, pursuit of a treaty should not be for the oft-quoted reason pointed out by a sceptical Peta Credlin: “Supporters of a treaty always point to the fact other countries have treaties with their Indigenous people.” Treaty supporter Stan Grant, in the latest Quarterly Essay (issue 64), demonstrates her point with the following question: “Must we lag as the only Commonwealth nation not to have a treaty with Indigenous people?”
A treaty, adopted merely because other countries have treaties and “it’s the right thing to do”, hardly represents a good reason. Indeed, in diverting needed attention from child abuse and neglect, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, suicide and community dysfunction, the effort and distraction of treaty negotiations would be grossly counterproductive. How would a treaty put food on the table? Get kids to school? Get adults into jobs? Create communities that are safe, clean and vibrant places to live? A treaty would do nothing to address these problems, nothing whatsoever, and even less to remedy them.
And let’s not forget that thousands upon thousands of Aboriginal Australians are doing perfectly well without a treaty – including, ironically, many of those demanding one. These advocates and supporters have benefited from good educations and the benefits of living where there are jobs and functioning communities. Ironically, the situation is well summed up by Stan Grant in his recent Quarterly essay. “One thing is undeniable,” he writes, “tens of thousands of Indigenous people are transforming their lives through their own efforts: they are doctors, lawyers, teachers, plumbers and film stars.”
Obviously some see merit in pursuing a treaty. For example, 2015 NAIDOC Person of the Year Rosalie Kunoth-Monks has stated, “Treaty can bring us together.” But will a treaty foster that desired unity, or will it further underline the existing ‘us vs. them’ mentality between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians? Is this what is inspiring some Aboriginal-identifying people: affirmation of their Aboriginality? so one might conclude from the recent comment of 2016 NAIDOC Person of the Year Dr Chris Sarra, who challenged political leaders, including the Prime Minister: “When you are ready, and when you have the courage and you are bold enough, I am ready on behalf of my people, and my people are ready to speak with you about a treaty.” His 1,500-strong audience responded with a standing ovation. Are we to conclude that if someone is reluctant to talk about a treaty they must lack courage? Personally, I would rather hear Sarra talk about what has been his own formula for success. I am sure what has worked for him — work, study, dedication, commitment — will work for other Aboriginal Australians.
Sarra is also quoted on an SBS website as saying, “Clearly we are not at a point yet where our humanity is being acknowledged and embraced positively by new Australians,” adding that, in his view, a treaty can help address this. It is unclear what Sarra means when he refers to not “acknowledging our humanity,” but if the ongoing statistics on high rates of violence and child neglect in Aboriginal communities are anything to go by, then shouldn’t it be incumbent on some sectors of the Aboriginal community to first acknowledge their own people’s humanity by addressing the dysfunction and the abuses listed above? While Sarra talks about the purported benefits of a treaty, he also sees it as having benefits for white Australians because it will enable them to “move beyond living this lie that you’ve lived for the last 200 or so years.” So which white people are living the lie, Professor? All white people, one gathers. Stereotypes, anyone?
So how, exactly, will a treaty help? This is a question I have asked many times and put to many people, yet never have I received an adequate answer. Most recently I have turned to the Treaty Australia website for some answers. What I first noticed on the page was the two slogans I have seen many times — two slogans which, in my opinion, are two of the most meaningless and often shouted clichés in Aboriginal affairs: “We never ceded our sovereignty to this country” and “Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.” Such rhetoric substitutes for substance. Once again I searched high and low on the website for any explanation of how a treaty would help those Aboriginal Australians suffering the most. Once again I could find none.
One strong Aboriginal woman doing well without a treaty, author and lawyer Dr Hannah McGlade, is reported as saying, “Would indigenous women and children feel safer if constitutional recognition, or even a treaty, eventuated in Australia? The answer must be a resounding ‘No’ ”. McGlade’s unarguable and self-evident wisdom should be enough for us to abandon the pursuit of a treaty, at least until we eliminate these family violence problems.
Talking sense, Aboriginal politician Alison Anderson identifies who will benefit from ‘treaty’:
“A treaty movement will undoubtedly improve the lot of lawyers in cities and regional towns and provide fodder for debate by numerous pundits. Meanwhile, out bush, we are still seeking the practical measures that will allow Aboriginal people to thrive both culturally and economically.”
The best way to help Aboriginal people is the same way that works for all Australians, regardless of colour and heritage. The focus should be on strategies that bring social stability. Only then will people be safe and begin to thrive, be free to become all that they are capable of being. Warren Mundine rightly points out that social stability requires embracing the idea of contribution to communities. And meaningful employment is one of the most effective ways of ensuring this.
The focus must be on employment and education. Then, perhaps, we can consider a treaty.
Postscript: If a treaty is to have a reasonable chance of getting off the ground, one aspect in particular needs to be addressed: a small, loud group of Aboriginal commentators and ‘blaktivists’ bent on promoting hate and disharmony among the Aboriginal population. Question their stance, ask for a civil and rational debate and the snarling response will be to be branded “traitor”, “Uncle Tom”, “coconut” or “house nigger”. Those who resort to ad hominem attacks, rather than argument, do not represent the Aboriginal population or anything like it, but they are of sufficient mass to sow disharmony and rancour — so much so that the consensus neeed to develop a treaty is almost certain to fail.
A treaty is an agreement between two parties, in this case white and black Australia How is such a pact to be achieved if one of those groups is unstable and divided? Welcome to the world of Aboriginal politics.
Anthony Dillon identifies as a part-Aboriginal Australian who is proud of both his Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestries. Originally from Queensland, he now lives in Sydney and is a researcher at the Australian Catholic University. For more, visit www.anthonydillon.com.au