Lost Treaties To Land Rights: Everything You Need To Know About SA’s Indigenous Voice

a picture of a First Nations man celebrating South Australia's legislation of an Indigenous Voice

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

With both the “yes” and “no” campaigns for the national referendum to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to Parliament just getting underway, you might have been surprised to hear that South Australia has pipped all the other states and territories to the post by legislating the Voice in a special parliamentary sitting over the weekend. 

While South Australia’s version of the Voice differs from what we’ll be presented with at the federal referendum later this year, there’s a lot to unpack about how the state government got here in the first place and what impact the legislation will have on the national movement in general. Without further ado, let’s explain! 

How Is SA’s Voice To Parliament Different From The Federal Model? 

Just like the federal model of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, South Australia’s version would implement structural reforms that would compel the government to consult First Nations people when drafting policy and vice-versa, providing advice to the government when drafting legislation that would affect Indigenous communities. 

A nifty infographic of how South Australia’s legislated Voice to Parliament will function (credit: Government of South Australia).

While the government hasn’t announced how First Nations representatives will be chosen for a federal Voice To Parliament, the South Australian system will divide the state into six regions which are represented by a total of twelve members, with an equal number of male and female representatives chosen via an election. South Australia’s Voice to Parliament also isn’t permanent, unlike the proposed federal Voice which would be enshrined in the Australian constitution. Politicians in South Australia could remove or change the addition in the future. 

“This is about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people having a platform to share knowledge, wisdom, and aspirations for the future, and to be included in the decision-making process,” the South Australian Commissioner for the First Nations Voice Dale Agius said as the bill was passed over the weekend. 

What Does This Mean For Treaty And Truth-Telling In South Australia? 

The Indigenous Voice to Parliament — a crucial aspect of the Uluru Statement from the Heart — was suggested along with a truth-telling commission and a formal treaty between First Nations people and the Australian government. While the specific order of these policies has been debated at the federal level, Agius has committed to implementing the policies in their intended order: Voice, Treaty, Truth. 

“It is hoped that by enshrining a Voice to Parliament first, Treaty and Truth can occur on a more equal footing between First Nations people and the government (at all levels) by being included at the front, rather than at the end of the process.” Agius wrote in a report to the South Australian government last year. While a date for treaty legislation hasn’t yet been set in South Australia, the state’s Attorney-General Kyam Maher — the first First Nations man to hold the role in Australia — has cited Treaty and Truth as important goals in an interview with National Indigenous Times

However, there’s still doubt as to whether the Voice will be able to achieve meaningful outcomes for First Nations communities. Kaurna elder and CEO of the Kura Yerlo community organisation in Port Adelaide Tim Agius told the ABC that despite supporting the idea in theory, the legislated voice was “not a voice that we own”, arguing that it belonged to the state government.

Gamilaraay writer Natalie Cromb likens the government’s political will towards achieving better outcomes for Indigenous communities as a pendulum, listing former Liberal prime minister John Howard’s abolishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission as an example.

“What our communities want is to be able to practice proper self determination,” Cromb wrote in an essay published by IndigenousX.  “To be able to point to a mechanism that will stop deaths in custody, a clear path to justice for wrongs committed against us, be able to get land back and stop the destruction of our respective Countries, and for governments to stop taking our kids.”

South Australia’s Forgotten Treaty With First Nations People 

South Australia differs from every other Australian state or territory in one big way. It was technically established as a free province instead of a penal colony. This means that rather than being populated by convicts shipped from Great Britain, South Australia was designed to be inhabited by free citizens. Following the South Australia Act 1834, officials outlined for Great Britain how the province would operate in what was known as the Letters Patent.

Aside from setting out the boundaries of South Australia, the Letters Patent actually included a general treaty with First Nations people in the area, declaring “… nothing in those our Letters Patent contained shall affect or be construed to affect the rights of any Aboriginal Natives of the said Province”. Crucially, instead of the earlier South Australia Act that described the land as “waste” or “unoccupied”, the Letters Patent specifically acknowledged First Nations people as having title rights to the land they lived on. 

But instead of developing a formal treaty with First Nations people in South Australia, nothing happened. Colonial settlers were freely able to buy and sell land in the state, effectively dispossessing First Nations people living on the land. The first major recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty was promptly ignored for over one hundred years until the South Australian Parliament passed the Aboriginal Lands Trust Act in 1966. The earliest recognition of First Nations people’s land rights in the country, the act selected prominent Aboriginal members who would hold land titles on behalf of First Nations people living in the state. 

While implementing a Voice to Parliament is just the first step in fixing South Australia’s 187-year-old broken promise to First Nations people, it could set an example for other states – and the nation – in rebuilding First Nations relationships going forward. 

Photo Credit: Marielle Smith