Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Treaty, yeah! A Treaty with Aboriginal Australia - for Australians, by Australians

On the ABC News this morning (7.45am on ABC 774), Les Malezar was speaking saying that overnight the United Nations had said that Australia should make a Treaty with the Aboriginal people of Australia.  (Apologies: have looked for an ABC text link but have been unable to find one).  

The idea of a Treaty has always been rejected by white politicians of all persuasions.  Some have said that a treaty usually comes after a war.  Mmmm...?  When will Australians officially recognise the Aboriginal wars in this country and the frequent fightback of Australia's First Nations for the integrity of their land and access to their land?

The idea of a Treaty, nonetheless, is no newfangled 21st century idea dreamed up to annoy the whitefella.  It has a long - and proud - history even among white Australians.

An Aboriginal Treaty Committee operated in Australia from 1979 to 1983 chaired by H.C. "Nuggett" Coombs.  Its purpose was to promote the idea of a treaty among non-indigenous Australians.
The names on this advertisement calling for help were:
Mrs Eva Hancock
Mr Hugh Littlewood

The current Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Robert French, says that it is possible for Australia to make a Treaty with Aboriginal Australia.  

Some of us who have been around Aboriginal stuff for a while will still be cautious about such a statement even from such a distinguished man with a keen interest and experience in Aboriginal matters.  Chief Justice French was President of the National Native Title Tribunal (1994-1998).  You see, for Aboriginal Australia, the concept of Treaty is based on sovereignty, based on the fact none of the more than 700 First Nations of this land ever ceded their sovereignty in any legal way to British rule.

Can white Australia deal with the concept of Aboriginal sovereignty which is the driving force of Aboriginal Australia's call for a Treaty?  My view is that it would be a bitter pill for many white Australians to swallow.

A major driving force behind the dual concept of sovereignty and treaty was Kevin Gilbert, the distinguished black writer and poet.  Kevin Gilbert's work is carried on to-day in the life and work of many, many people - not least by his widow Eli Gilbert. I include artwork by Kevin Gilbert below along with some significant thoughts by Hugh Littlewood of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee.

"Justice denied"

By Hugh Littlewood

My first contact with the Treaty Committee was in answer to Dr Coombs' search for someone to do the mundane tasks of ordering the finances, creating an office and keeping the records of the Commit­tee. A person of high ability in mundane tasks, I suggested I could be useful. (There didn't appear to be too many others offering.)

I had a great deal in common with the vast majority of other white Australians. I knew little about Aborigines and less about a 'Treaty'. But I began to learn. I learnt that the role of the Committee was to publicise the perception of a prob­lem and to educate the community towards the resolution of that prob­lem.
Basic to the nature of our society is a need for the formal recognition of relationships between individuals and groups. We seem to be inherent­ly unable to accept a moral position without its ratification by law or code. 

While superficially a Treaty would be a mechanism to give justice to Aborigines, it always seemed to me that I, and my ilk, would be the greatest beneficiaries. Aborigines have a clear sense of their cause and their relationship to and with this country. It is we who flounder, pa­tronising or exploitive, unprepared to commit ourselves to a relationship with the Aboriginal people. We lack the directive of law or history to bind us to this country.

I have learnt about loss. I have been able to stand before an ochre painted wall in Central Queensland and realise that what I saw had been made meaningless for me by sheer pig ignorance. How easy it would have been to be a participant of the mind rather than an observer on tour in the country where I was born.
I have learnt about justice denied. Without a clear definition of purpose, my Australia will continue to avoid facing up to the fact that we have denied human rights and often humanity itself to the Aboriginal people. I have seen the alacrity with which we will support our actions by legal precedents which excuse the past, and which will forever be used, unless we are prepared to join in a new foundation.

I have learnt that a group of people prepared to work for a cause can change the order of things. The support given to the Treaty Commit­tee has surpassed our expectations. We may be castigated for "preach­ing to the converted", but I believe each of those "converted", you in fact, and certainly me, has achieved a deeper understanding; for some a move from sympathy to commit­ment; for others a focus for that commitment.

An Aboriginal Treaty is not a panacea. 
Its creation will lead us all into areas of painful self-examina­tion. 
But it will be something that we have done for ourselves, by ourselves. 
The Committee may be disbanding 
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