New 'treaty' for Aboriginal empowerment owes much to New Zealand Maori

by Bernard Lagan / 27 June, 2017

Ken Wyatt, the first Aboriginal in the Australian House of Representatives. Photo/Getty Images

An overdue voice for Aboriginals is wildly misinterpreted by those who should know better.

Unveiling a portrait, recently, of the first Aboriginal to represent an electorate in Australia’s Parliament, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull turned to the Maori language to capture the subject – Ken Wyatt.

“Ken has, the New Zealanders would call it – it’s a Maori word – ‘mana’. Ken has a presence, a life force, a calm, an aura,” Turnbull said of the gentle, greying former teacher in the painting, wearing a kangaroo skin cloak, a symbol of his West Australian Noongar people.

Wyatt, 64, born on an Aboriginal mission to a mother forcibly taken from her parents as part of a eugenic policy to breed out Aboriginality, was elected to Australia’s pre-eminent lower house in 2010. That it happened 142 years after Maori MPs entered New Zealand’s Parliament was judiciously overlooked at the prim Canberra ceremony.

As that unveiling occurred, Maori history was resonating more audibly 2500km to the north-west, where 250 Aboriginal leaders were meeting in the shadow of Uluru in central Australia.

They were discussing – 50 years after Australians voted in 1967 to include all Aboriginals in the census – fresh changes to Australia’s constitution to elevate Aboriginals. Many non-Aboriginals had been expecting the Uluru meeting – a government-backed initiative – to favour a comfortable, minimal change that simply provided overdue recognition of Australia’s first occupiers in the 116-year-old constitution. Instead, the Uluru meeting dropped a bombshell – one of New Zealand design.

The declaration, read out in an evocative gathering in the red desert, seeks the creation of two new organisations to give Aboriginal people what it called a rightful place in their own country.

Both owe much to New Zealand Maori. The first would be “a voice to Parliament”, a body that conveyed the views of Aboriginal Australia to lawmakers dealing with Aboriginal issues; read the Maori Council. The second, the Makarrata Commission, would supervise agreements between Aboriginals and governments and “truth-telling” about Aboriginal history; read the Waitangi Tribunal.

As the leading Aboriginal activist and lawyer, Noel Pearson – an architect of the Uluru declaration – later told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: “So it would be in the form of an eminent umpire, like the Waitangi Tribunal in New Zealand.”

The Uluru declaration strained not to use the word “treaty” – a red rag to Australia’s jumpy conservatives. It instead substituted the words “agreement-making” as the role of the Makarrata body – although the name is an Aboriginal word meaning treaty.

Absurdly – if predictably – the Uluru declaration was wildly misinterpreted by some who should know otherwise. Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, the hot-headed Barnaby Joyce, said Aboriginals were seeking a new chamber in the Australian Parliament and “that’s not going to happen”.

They are seeking no such thing. A New Zealander familiar with the Waitangi settlement process, reading the 12 tightly crafted paragraphs of the Uluru declaration, would likely better recognise its aspirations – an enshrined voice for Australia’s Aboriginal people and some recompense for all the first occupiers had lost.

The path ahead is neither assured nor clear. Changing the Australian constitution to give effect to the Uluru declaration would require a national referendum overwhelmingly supported by Australians. There have been 44 such referendums over the past 116 years. Of those, 36 were lost. The odds are against Aboriginal success.

It could well be that Aboriginals find empowerment without waiting for constitutional change that may never come. In March, a young lawyer of Aboriginal descent became the Treasurer in Western Australia’s new Labor Government. Ben Wyatt, 43, is Ken Wyatt’s nephew – and the first Aboriginal to take charge of the purse strings in an Australian state. Mana has a way of being passed on.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the June 17, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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