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January 16th 2017 print

Treaty Talk: An Exchange

In the interests of balance, I asked Indigenous affairs commentator Gerry Georgatos to challenge my viewpoint. Gerry’s questions, along with my answers, follow:

Georgatos: It is argued that education and employment are the ways forward towards equality between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Aboriginal Australians. But the fact remains that if you are born Black in the Northern Territory you have a 3 in 4 chance of living your life below the poverty line, a 2 in 3 chance of not completing a basic education, a 1 in 6 chance of finishing up in prison. If you are born Black in Western Australia you have a nearly 2 in 3 chance of living your life below the poverty line, a 1 in 2 chance of not completing a basic education and, like the Territory, a 1 in 6 chance of finishing up in prison.

These harrowing statistics have got worse during the last couple of decades, so it is understandable that there are calls for greater autonomy. What are the Western Australian and Northern Territory governments doing wrong to languish in these inequalities?

Dillon: I’m not sure what ‘greater autonomy’ is exactly. But if it means Aboriginal Australians having the same rights and opportunities as most other Australians, then yes, more autonomy is needed. Many already have it, so governments should be looking at what distinguishes those who have autonomy from those who don’t have it.

The governments of the jurisdictions you mention should focus on relocating people to where the opportunities are (this often means leaving remote and dysfunctional communities) and provide special assistance to those Indigenous people who may be in the ‘right’ location but lack support, role models, and a basic knowledge  of day-to-day living skills needed in modern Australian. Rather than relying solely on government, Indigenous leaders can proclaim “I want you to have I want, and I will help you get it!”

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GeorgatosIs it right that regional and remote Aboriginal towns and communities are denied equivalent social infrastructure, services and opportunities, compared to nearby non-Aboriginal communities? Is it right that there are communities that have to beg for clean water, beg for the upgrade of water tanks, beg for power lines, beg for quality schooling and is it right that they have these denied? Do you think Treaties could have the capacity to remedy this?

Dillon: Without specific examples, I cannot comment on “nearby non-Aboriginal communities.” For the goods and services you mention, of course it is right for the people to have them. To achieve this, the focus needs to be on location, education, and guidance and mentoring. Further, excuses like colonisation and racism should not be entertained as causes of failure. A treaty may have the capacity to remedy problems, but a faster remedy is also available without a treaty, as evidenced by the several thousands of Aboriginal people do live a good life already.

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Georgatos: If you were to have the opportunity to determine the content of a Treaty, to include in it mechanisms that could improve the lot of others, everyone, what would you include in that Treaty?

Dillon: It would include processes for expedited access to modern services, education, training, and clean living environments. This may mean relocation (which would be government-sponsored), or investment in locations where there is potential for a viable economy. Of course, many Aboriginal people already have this access, so a treaty would prioritise the needs of those who are most disadvantaged. The goal of the treaty must be to help those who are most disadvantaged.?