NAIDOC Speech 2019
The national theme for NAIDOC this year is Voice, Treaty, Truth. This is a summary of the Aboriginal community demands in the Statement From The Heart developed at Uluru 2 years ago.
Achieving these goals, based on the recognition of Aboriginal people in the Australian Constitution, is regarded by some as the basis for reconciliation – as enabling Aborigines and non-Aborigines to move forward together towards a better future.
The proposal for a ‘Voice to Parliament’ is the most controversial of these demands. The former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull immediately dismissed the idea calling it a third chamber of the federal Parliament: the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Aboriginal Voice. In fact it would have only the power to advise and so would be less a decision making body than the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission which did have some power to determine policy and make financial decisions.
Instead of the risky business of trying to get changes agreed to the Australian Constitution, many are now advocating State level treaty making as a means of changing the power imbalance between Aboriginal people and the State. That would have to go very much further than the simple wording changes to State Constitutions made by the Tasmanian Parliament and others which simply state the obvious fact that Aborigines were the first people of this country.
A treaty would need to cover matters like the return of lands, a guaranteed income through a share of the gross domestic product of the country or a similar formula, and protections for Aboriginal language and culture. The benefits of a treaty were summed up by Michael Mansell in his book about treaty and statehood as follows:
Aboriginal communities need essential and fundamental tools to replicate what once was – an ordered, civilised, united Aboriginal society that took care of its own and managed its affairs – and restore it in a modern world. The fundamental tools needed include land ownership, empowerment, financial guarantees, cultural integrity and self-determination. The longer Aboriginals are denied these essential assets the longer we will see despair and frustration, and the more we will have to revisit the consequences of disadvantage.
We would expect these fundamental requirements to be additional to basic services provided to everyone in Australia like health, housing and education. These service areas are still failing Aboriginal people, starting from the significant gap in life expectancy.
How do we reach equivalent life outcomes for our people without becoming just like white people, without becoming assimilated into the values and lifestyle of those who invaded our lands and nearly destroyed our people?
We start by the truth-telling referred to in the Uluru Statement. We’ve seen the beginning of that process in the massacre mapping of the continent by Dr Lyndall Ryan and others, decades after the first version of Lyndall’s book on Aboriginal Tasmania was published. We see it increasingly in the story telling of Aboriginal writers, play wrights and song writers like puralia meenamatta/Jim Everett, Cheryl Mundy, Nathan Maynard, and Dewayne Everett-Smith. And in the art works and photographs of Ricky Maynard, Janice Ross Lowery Maynard, Rodney Gardner and many others. And now in the curriculum materials in Tasmanian schools through the highly praised ORB multi-media package.
Truth telling must start with being clear that this country and this State were not settled peacefully but through violence and treachery. In our case, the treachery occurred when our Old People were persuaded to give up their guerrilla war against the invaders and board the boats bound for Flinders Island. They were persuaded that this was the only way to prevent the rest of their people being slaughtered and that they would soon return to their home lands. Instead most of them died on Flinders Island.
This is how Walter George Arthur described the treachery in 1846, writing from Wybalena on Flinders to Queen Victoria in London, England:
The humble petition of the free Aborigines Inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land now living upon Flinders Island …That we are your free children that we were not taken prisoners but freely gave up our country to Colonel Arthur then the Governor after defending ourselves, Your petitioners humbly state to your Majesty that Mr Robinson [George Augustus] made for us and with Colonel Arthur an agreement that we have not lost from our minds since and we have made our part of it good. Your petitioners humbly tell Your Majesty that when we left our own place we were plenty of people, we are now but a little one.
In any normal human understanding, this must surely be an undertaking to make a peaceful settlement with a treaty. Lutruwita/Tasmania is well over due to make good on this promise. And not just any promise: an undertaking between equal sovereigns.
What the Education Department’s ORB lacks is Aboriginal decision making and control, things that the national Coalition of Peak Close the Gap organisations has stressed to be every bit as important as targets and indicators. As recognised by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody nearly 3 decades ago, it is the lack of Aboriginal control and decision making that has resulted in the disparities in life outcomes so prevalent today. Let’s keep in mind that this is the main area that needs to improve if we are to get anywhere near reconciliation in this country.
We are very pleased that so many people keeping coming back year after year to help us mark the start of NAIDOC week. In the future we may be able to use this occasion to celebrate together but for now at least we must use the occasion as a reminder that we still have a long way to go.