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A treaty is not the way forward
Canberra Times, 11th January, 2001
Instead of debates over treaties, the important thing is to change outdated policies that are antipathetic to long-run Aboriginal interest, says PETER HOWSON
The celebration of the federation’s centenary has reminded us of Australia’s many great achievements, not least the peaceful formation and development of a nation. Surprisingly, however, there has been only limited acknowledgement either of the contribution by individuals and private enterprises to modernizing our economy and society or the failures of many government policies.
Even today the potential for government action to solve problems is over-emphasised and past government failures are often overlooked. There remains, for example, only limited recognition of the evident failure of the major government Aboriginal policies of the past thirty years. Those policies attempted in a modern society to combine the encouragement of separate development of Aboriginal communities along traditional lines with the too-ready provision of social welfare that Noel Pearson has rightly characterized as undermining.
Yet the poor living conditions now experienced by many in such communities are all too rarely seen as a product of such policies. The deteriorating situation over the past twenty-five years of the Yolnu tribe despite their land richness highlights the problem. As former missionary, Richard Trudgen, sadly observes in his recent book “if the status quo remains then the(se) great warriors of Arnhem Land will just lie down and die”.
Today there remains support in the Australian community for reconciliation between indigenes and non-indigenes for both symbolic and practical reasons. But that support would not extend to agreement on provisions against the interests of indigenes and non-indigenes. In any event, in August 1999 the Federal Parliament passed a motion of reconciliation reaffirming the central importance of practical measures to overcome disadvantages faced by Aborigines and expressing deep and sincere regret for injustices suffered under past policies. Why isn’t this an appropriate culmination of the reconciliation process that commenced in 1991?
One answer is that those regarded as Aboriginal leaders have continued in recent weeks to propose the extension of reconciliation to include a formal agreement. Cunningly, they want a plebiscite on a treaty but doubtless without divulging specific clauses that would be unacceptable, such as the recognition of Aboriginal customary laws, a national apology (mainly for the stealing of Aboriginal children), and the right to self-determination.
Important questions are raised by such specifics.
First, how relevant are they to the majority of Australian Aborigines when traditional Aboriginal practices and lifestyles are now confined to an increasingly small group? For example, with over 70 per cent living in urban communities and professing Christianity, customary practices appear increasingly of historical interest. Similarly, with 64 per cent of indigenous adults now married (de facto or de jure) to non-indigenous spouses, and the majority of Aborigines now of mixed descent, the Aboriginal community essentially comprises two nations, one part of the broader community and the other largely separate and comprising full-bloods.
Second, such characteristics raise the question of whether those portrayed as Aboriginal leaders can legitimately claim to represent the diversity of interests and views amongst people who claim Aboriginal lineage. For example, there is now a significant difference of views between full-blood and part Aborigines, as well as within those groups. The majority of Aborigines do not even vote in the elections for ATSIC.
Third, there is a very real question as to whether the conclusion of a treaty would be in the interests even of the relatively few Aborigines who live in tradional type communities. True, those Aborigines have more than others retained some links with their traditional cultures, as have migrants from non-Anglo-Saxon countries. But the latter have participated more widely in the Australian community, as have the majority of Aborigines.
For the remaining minority, a treaty that included self-determination and customary law would encourage the continuation of the disastrous separatist policies of the past thirty years. The report by John Reeves QC on Northern Territory land rights concluded that these policies have resulted in "hopelessness, despair, and anti-social behaviour ….and contempt and hostility." Other reports have also revealed the horrific violence in traditional Aboriginal communities.
Fourth, with the dismissal of the stolen children claims in the Cubillo-Gunner case, and the accompanying evidence, there is no basis for apologising for past policies of removing part-Aboriginal children from their mothers. It must be emphasised that the most recent survey again showed over two-thirds against such an apology. Nor has any apologist reconciled those past policies with existing policies under which, today, many more aboriginal children are being forcibly taken into care because of severe neglect and abuse than were ever removed in the 1950s and 60s.
The important thing now is not to debate treaties and the like but to change the outdated policies of the 1970s to 1990s that are antipathetic to long run Aboriginal interests. The essential need is to provide Aborigines with enhanced incentives and opportunities to adapt to life in Australia in the 21st Century.
Peter Howson was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971-72. He chaired last year’s Quadrant Forum on Truth and Sentimentality: After the Cubillo & Gunner Judgement on “Stolen” part- Aboriginal children.