After a 30-year wait, Aboriginals are finally seeing treaty progress

by Bernard Lagan / 21 June, 2018
A section of the Barunga Statement.

A section of the Barunga Statement.

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The Northern Territory Government in Australia has signed a promise to begin treaty negotiations with Aboriginals across the territory.

Within the sea of often fussy public art around Australia’s Parliament, a sparse bark painting made by the Aboriginals of the far north has hung like a spectre for decades.

Those who study the ochre desert colours of the Barunga Statement may be shamed by the quiet words in the centre or see a foretelling of calamity, as successive Australian prime ministers have.

Thirty years ago, the painting was presented to Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke in the tiny Aboriginal community of Barunga, on the edge of the desert 400km south of Darwin. It contains a written appeal for a treaty with Aboriginal people that recognises their prior ownership of Australia and continued occupation.

Back then, Aboriginal band Yothu Yindi and Australian bard Paul Kelly wrote the worldwide hit Treaty to commemorate the statement, Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) had just been handed back to its Aboriginal custodians and new land-rights laws recognised their dispossession.

An Aboriginal renaissance seemed possible. Hawke captured the mood, telling the Barunga gathering that it wasn’t until a treaty was in place that “we will have an Australia within which the Aboriginal and the non-Aboriginal Australia will be able to live together truly in peace and in dignity”.

Aboriginal people were emboldened. The Prime Minister promised a treaty would be reached by the end of that term of Parliament. It was a promise they expected him to keep.

He didn’t.

By the time those returning home after the Barunga presentation got 90km up the road toward Darwin, Opposition leader John Howard was already on the radio vowing to destroy any treaty.

A treaty would be a “step into the dark”, Howard warned, likening it to South African apartheid, which was still six years away from ending. Howard went on to become Prime Minister for more than 10 years and never changed his position.

Support for a treaty – on both sides of the political divide – has since withered.

New Zealanders who have witnessed the gains to Māori and to their nation’s race relations since Whina Cooper led the 1975 Māori land march to Parliament, forcing the Treaty of Waitangi to be taken seriously, may be puzzled by Australia’s distaste for a treaty.

Perhaps, though, it is less a matter of broad animosity than a lack of familiarity: along Australia’s populous eastern seaboard there is only a marginal Aboriginal presence. For most Australians, existing alongside descendants of their nation’s first peoples is not a lived experience. In much of New Zealand, a more compact geography has usually meant the opposite.

Which helps explain why this month, exactly 30 years after the elders put their request for a treaty, Aboriginal leaders again met at Barunga. They witnessed the Northern Territory Government sign a promise to begin treaty negotiations with Aboriginals across the territory’s 1.4 million square kilometres.

With the hindsight of three decades of Canberra’s stalling on a national treaty, it makes sense for Aboriginals to instead seek separate treaties with willing states and territories. The Northern Territory is the place to start; it is more Aboriginal than anywhere else, counting a third of the 244,000 population as descendants of the land’s first occupiers.

As Michael Gunner, the territory’s Labor chief minister, told the Barunga crowd: “It is right we lead this process because it is decent, because we are alive to Aboriginal culture like no other jurisdiction …”

Twelve years ago, furious over how progress on the treaty had stalled, Aboriginals threatened to go to Canberra, seize back the Barunga Statement from Parliament and hold a funeral for the treaty process.

Wisely, they left it to continue haunting the nation’s leaders in their big house.

This article was first published in the June 23, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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