Voice – Treaty - Truth

Discussions about constitutional recognition, treaty, sovereignty and truth-telling are important on the road to reconciliation.

The Statement from the Heart
Reconciliation NSW supports the Statement from the Heart.  The Statement from the Heart, based on the direction of the 12 First Nations Regional Dialogues, is the continuation of calls over many decades by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to move past Australia’s colonial legacy by being recognised and heard in their own countries, and with the right and capacity to practice self-determination.  It outlines a series of reforms – Voice, Treaty, Truth – where a constitutionally enshrined “First Nations Voice” which would be able to speak into Parliament is supported a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process for both agreement making between governments and First Nations, and historical truth-telling.

It provides a clear and practical path forward for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Statement from the Heart is a generous and heart-felt invitation from First Nations to non-Indigenous Australia “to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”.

The Federal Government initially rejected the statement. It has since formed a Joint Select Parliamentary Committee, co-chaired by Senator Pat Dodson, to consider a referendum question on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution, due to report in November 2018. Read Reconciliation NSW’s submission to the JSCCR here.

Read the Statement From the Heart here.

Constitutional reform: Voice
The Australian Constitution, Australia’s guiding document.  It outlines the rules by which government holds power, and the principles by which legislation should be created.  The Constitution does not mention Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and contains clauses that allow racial discrimination. The Constitution can only be amended by a national referendum.

Successive governments have made little progress towards a clear path to agreement and a referendum – despite calls over many decades from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be recognised and heard in their own countries, and a litany of government-initiated reports outlining the case for reform.

The main aim of the current position on constitutional reform is to enshrine a Voice to Parliament in the Constitution a mechanism for participating actively in our democracy and addressing the unmet and pressing need for First Australians to have a voice in the policies and decisions that govern their lives.  It is proposed as a body without veto power over the functions of Parliament.

It is argued that a constitutionally guaranteed Voice is important for permanency and endurance. The demise of Indigenous bodies set up in legislation such as ATSIC and the more recent establishment and then defunding of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples as political priorities change illustrate this point.

The current proposal for Constitutional reform rejects symbolic recognition in the Constitution in favour of a reform agenda that can achieve the outcomes required of a fully reconciled and fair Australia.

The way representatives are selected or elected to represent communities through the Voice has not been determined definitively, however it is agreed the process must be driven by the principle of self-determination; it is up to the First Nations to determine how they are represented.

The most recent previous campaign constitutional reform was led by RECOGNISE, and centred on an acknowledgement in the Constitution of Indigenous peoples as the traditional custodians of the land, and as its First Peoples. The campaign also aimed to remove several sections of the Constitution that allow the government to create legislation that can be applied to groups specifically on the basis of race – provisions that can be (and previously have been) used to create discriminatory legislation.

There was considerable debate in the community as to whether the model for constitutional recognition proposed by the RECOGNISE campaign was a step in the right direction for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Many people expressed concerned that the proposed model for constitutional recognition was a tokenistic gesture with no real power to address the discrimination and disadvantage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience today. There was also concern that if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were to accept inclusion in the Constitution, they would be accepting inclusion in a document, and recognition by a government body, they do not recognise as having authority.

Australia is the only Commonwealth nation without a treaty with its First Peoples. A treaty would be a legally binding agreement between the government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, with clauses regarding sovereignty, self-determination, customary law and land rights. Ideally, a treaty would ensure that any laws government attempts to create and implement exclusively for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would have to occur in consultation with these peoples. Treaty is widely viewed as a way to foster empowerment, healing and self-determination, and is widely supported by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Many prominent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been speaking out about the need for a treaty for many years. However, calls for a treaty have largely gone unacknowledged by various Australian governments. Recently, however, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has said that a Labor government would consider signing a treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  In March 2018 the Victorian Parliament became the first to introduce treaty legislation. Several other jurisdictions are progressing their own treaty and agreement making processes and looking to Victoria with interest. The South Australian Government had commenced treaty negotiations with Traditional Owners before a change of government paused negotiations until outcomes of a review, and discussions are also underway in the Northern Territory and Queensland.

Discussions around treaty are becoming more prominent in NSW. NSW Labor has committed to negotiating and signing a treaty with NSW First Nations peoples if elected to government in 2019.

Truth-telling is fundamental for Australia to be reconciled.  The growing momentum to establish an Australian truth-telling processes aim to promote awareness of the historical and ongoing impact of colonisation, and the dispossession and trauma that First Nations Peoples and encourage all sides to come together towards unity and equity.

“… a nation cannot recognise people they do not know or understand. The Aboriginal experience in Australian history is critical to recognition. From pre-contact to invasion, from conciliation to the frontier wars and killings, from compulsory racial segregation to assimilation, from self-determination to the return to neo-paternalism, it is time now to make peace and the Uluru reforms are the road map to peace.” (Professor Megan Davis)

The Statement from the Heart states:
“Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.”

Truth-telling about past injustices has long been used in the international sphere as a starting point for coming to terms with a period of conflict, upheaval or injustice. Formal processes of truth-telling, such as truth and reconciliation commissions, exist in numerous countries around the world.  The 2008 Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission aimed to mend the deep rifts between Aboriginal peoples and the settler society that engineered a system that removed their children.

Indigenous sovereignty is grounded in the fact that Indigenous peoples did not surrender their sovereignty rights when Australia was invaded by the British, and that they therefore retain the right to govern their lives and communities as they see fit. The claim to sovereignty includes the rights to autonomy, cultural respect and self-governance.

Sovereignty has been at the heart of the debate around constitutional recognition reforms. The issue of whether these reforms would serve to undermine a campaign for sovereignty-based options in the future has caused many members of the Aboriginal community and the wider community to be hesitant in their support of the constitutional reform options.

However, legal experts generally believe constitutional recognition is an important step towards the acknowledgement of Indigenous sovereignty and the establishment of treaties. You can read Professor George Williams AO’s analysis of the relationship between constitutional recognition and Indigenous sovereignty here.

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