This Is A Huge Week For Indigenous Rights; Here’s Everything You Need To Know

"These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem."


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In what’s shaping up to be an absolutely historic move, roughly 250 First Nation leaders at yesterday’s Uluru constitutional convention have outwardly rejected symbolic constitutional recognition and have instead called for change that allows for a national treaty, structural reform and a new Parliamentary body.

Co-chair of the government-appointed Referendum Council, Pat Anderson, also said mere constitutional recognition was “totally rejected” by speakers at the summit and deliberations around the country over the last six months. Any changes would instead have to enact tangible results, such as land rights, and political governance.

A walkout on the second-day of discussions on Thursday exposed the multiple challenges and complex arguments from groups in the space.

What’s Happening Here?

The Uluru Statement follows three slightly-controversial days at Uluru, and comes on the ninth National Sorry Day and the 50th anniversary of the symbolically important, if practically limited, 1967 referendum.

And folks, nine years after Kevin Rudd apologised for the historical and ongoing injustices perpetuated against Australia’s First People, there is so much to be sorry for.

With First Australians still recovering from the impact of invasion, dispossession, the Tasmanian genocide, the Stolen Generation, and a litany of other Western-induced tragedies, the country is still not on track to close seven of eight major gaps in Indigenous and non-Indigenous living standards or enact constitutional change that offers anything other than “minimalistic symbolism“.

We are the only Commonwealth country without an indigenous treaty, or even the tokenistic constitutional recognition rejected yesterday.

Australia’s First People still die roughly ten years younger than other Australians.

There have been no significant improvements in child mortality rates, employment or education since 2008, to say nothing of endemic mental illnesses, incarceration rates, and a lack of responsibility or action politically, with our then-Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs labelling remote communities as expensive “lifestyle choices” as recently as 2015.

Basically, things have got to change, and Reconciliation Week 2017 offered a powerful opportunity for First Nation leaders to create a plan.

Uluru Walkout: Who Is Saying What?

Seven NSW and Victorian delegates left the Central Australian convention along with dozens of their supporters yesterday, where leaders had met to discuss possible constitutional changes and, after their third day yesterday, create a draft report to eventually be handed to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition leader Bill Shorten by the end of June.

NSW delegate and Wiradjuri elder Jenny Munro argued that her group’s calls for a treaty were diminished in an unequal discussion forum process that focused heavily on constitutional recognition.

“It’s not a dialogue, it’s a one-way conversation,” Munro said. “Every time we try and raise an issue our voices are silenced. They are not looking at any alternative options other than the Noel Pearson road map. And, like Native Title, that will prove to be an abject failure.”

Dubbo delegate and Murrawarri man Fred Hooper insisted that these tokenistic recognitions only work to alleviate white Australians’ guilt.

The activists instead called for treaties similar to those in Canada and New Zealand that offer compensation and land rights schemes to indigenous people.

Still, the majority of First Nation delegates remained at the summit — the largest of its kind on a decade — and while co-chair of the Referendum Council Pat Anderson respected that this “is difficult conversation [and] it’s inevitable that there will be some robust debate”, the group remained committed to finding meaningful constitutional change and has ultimately incorporated the treaty demand into its final submission.

Anderson, who has ultimately landed on the idea of treaty, also shied away from using the term “consensus”, which would misrepresent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a homogenous group, although she does hope to find “common ground” with their submission.

Other critics included local Anangu owner Alison Hunt and noted anthropologist and academic Marcia Langton. “We’ve got to give the government a strong message by tomorrow,” Hunt said. “We have to be seen as responsible people, speaking together. We might have our differences but by tomorrow we have to speak as one… for our future generations.”

To The Future

In yesterday’s statement, the Uluru delegates firmly rebuffed mere acknowledgment, instead demanding a treaty, legislative justice and Parliamentary representation.

“Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people,” they asserted. “Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.

“These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness. We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

“We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.”

While specifics are still limited at this point, the new statement would require that the new constitution “tells the truth of history”, “does not foreclose on future advancement”, “does not waste the opportunity of reform”, “has the support of First Nations” and “does not interfere with current and future legal arrangements”.

Of course, a treaty and constitutional change are not even the only options on the table, nor should they be. There are current calls for a national Stolen Generations compensation fund, with smaller state funds currently operating in NSW, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

Tasmanian lawyer and Palawa man lawyer Michael Mansell is also campaigning for a seventh, Indigenous state, as a means of both returning land, political power and self-determination to First People. SA and Victoria are also currently considering their own treaties.

No matter the outcome from this week’s summit or the proposed referendum, this is not and rather cannot be, the end of these discussions.

Feature image: Buddy Franklin/Instagram. This week also marks the Indigenous round of the AFL. All clubs are wearing guernseys with Indigenous art.

Chris Woods is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist.