Australia Truth-telling high on the agenda at treaty meetings in the NT, as Victoria announces first formal process

22:18  09 march  2021
22:18  09 march  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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a man smiling for the camera: Jeannie Gadambua, one local community leader in Maningrida, said she thought treaty negotiations were a matter of urgency. (ABC News: Jeannie Gadambua) © Provided by ABC NEWS Jeannie Gadambua, one local community leader in Maningrida, said she thought treaty negotiations were a matter of urgency. (ABC News: Jeannie Gadambua)

Across Australia, Indigenous leaders are grasping with both hands the opportunity being offered by some state and territory governments to start a cathartic process of truth-telling.

Yesterday, Victoria announced Australia's first formal truth-telling process, under a new truth and justice royal commission.

In the Northern Territory's remote communities, Aboriginal leaders have been keenly interested in hearing about NT Treaty Commissioner Mick Dodson's plans to recommend a similar truth-telling commission be established.

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He's been travelling across the NT consulting on the plan for a commission, which he hopes would sit for three years and be funded by the federal government.

Professor Dodson has advised communities that the starting point for truth-telling and treaty negotiations should be that Indigenous peoples did not surrender sovereignty during Australia's colonisation.

He is planning to recommend a process of public truth-telling and recording history about massacres, land dispossession, the Stolen Generations and policies suppressing Aboriginal language and culture, should start as soon as possible.

"We have to examine our past, we have to confront it, we have to acknowledge it, and to use that as a foundation to plan how we go into the future together as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians," he said.

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"Until we do that there will always be this sense of loss and grief that Aboriginal people have suffered under the colonisation of the country."

NT Treaty Commissioner's visit to Maningrida

In the remote community of Maningrida, 500 kilometres west of Darwin, young Aboriginal traditional owners, like Clint Kernan, are seething with frustration about their dealings with governments.

Mr Kernan said that the wet season and people returning home during COVID-19 has led the usual population of 3000 to swell to 4000. He said families are jam packed together into too few houses.

"At the moment we're finding it hard with the government, we feel like cattle here," Mr Kernan said.

He said many people in Maningrida feel they could not influence how and where government resources are spent on housing, education and small traditional homeland communities.

He and other Maningrida leaders are excited by the prospect that the Northern Territory Government is prepared to negotiate a treaty or treaties, which could offer a return to self-government and substantial compensation for past dispossession.

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Mr Kernan is one of many Aboriginal leaders who have attended meetings with Professor Dodson is holding around the Territory.

"Our countrymen, need to know what treaty really is," Mr Kernan said.

"Lets teach our kids about governance and self-determination and how to run government structures.

"I want them to be prepared because this Treaty business could take a long time, so we need to educate our young indigenous leaders now."

Meetings are gauging what a treaty or treaties could offer in the Northern Territory

Professor Dodson said his consultations are to determine whether Indigenous peoples want a treaty with the NT Government, whether there should be more than one, and what treaties should offer.

He will report to the NT Chief Minister next March.

"The key objective of a treaty must be to achieve real change and substantive long term benefits for Aboriginal people," he said.

"The ultimate goal, I'd suggest, is First Nations Self Government."

Using examples of treaties signed with indigenous peoples in British Columbia in Canada, he is asking NT indigenous people to consider whether they want to negotiate for similar outcomes.

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This could include eventually taking over control of the delivery of services including health, education, policing and prisons as well as powers including tax raising.

That should come, he said, with an appropriate share of government revenue to deliver those services and compensation for indigenous people's loss of land and culture during colonisation.

"The key element of self-determination for First Nations peoples is to be able to be in control of particularly those decisions that affect their daily lives. They should be making those decisions, not someone in Darwin," he said.

"We have to be realistic about what resources are required and a lot of those resources are there already. The challenge is for them to make the decisions on how to spend it.

"And a proper plan for economic development is crucial."

Professor Dodson is warning communities that like in other countries, such negotiations could take decades.

"In British Columbia in Canada the quickest treaty they've done in British Columbia took 11 years, the longest 25 years.

"People have to appreciate this is a long game because we're seeking to, in lots of ways, undo 234 years of mistake making when it comes to Aboriginal affairs.

"We're a rich country with enormous resources and we should have done this long ago."

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Some of the strongest historic calls for an Australian Treaty have come from NT leaders, including through the 1988 Barunga statement given to Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

In the absence of a federal treaty process, Victoria, Queensland and the ACT, along with the NT, have started their own talks.

Maningrida leaders express interest in a treaty process

After attending Professor Dodson's Maningrida consultation traditional owner Reggie Wuridjal was among local leaders very keen to negotiate a deal.

"We want treaty to get a good self-governing body, and self-determination so we are able to do and manage our own affairs," he said.

"We want to secure our land and sea, and our homelands, and we want to be recognised in the treaty, to secure our sacred sites and everything that we value."

Community leader Jeannie Gadambua said she hopes treaty negotiations will not take decades because she said the need for change is urgent.

"We need more support, mainly on domestic violence, and housing and people out in homelands need more support," she said.

"I'd like to have a better future for my children and my grandchildren."

'Truth-telling required'

After attending the Commissioner's consultation meeting in the Arnhem Land community of Gunbalanya, traditional owner Gabby Gumurdul said he would like a truth-telling process to be held.

"I think it would be the right step for Australia as a whole to tell the story about what happened in the past," he said.

"If people start talking up and telling the truth, then people will be able to forgive it and it will take the load off the families who have dealt with that and it will probably give closure."

The principal of Gunbalanya's school Esther Djayhgurrnga said she also wants such a process.

"They have got to be honest, the whole of Australia, about how the Aboriginals have been treated," she said.

"Then we can get over that hurdle and work together on the future, to erect something that is new and possibly good for Aboriginal people."

Professor Dodson said because the NT is a territory, without full state powers, achieving a treaty and compensation will require federal government support.

"The Commonwealth ran the place from 1912 right through to 1976 and a lot of terrible things happened to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory during their watch," he said.

"I think they have, if nothing else, a moral responsibility, not only to be supportive, but to provide some of the resources to achieve what Aboriginal people and the Northern Territory Government want to achieve."

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This is interesting!