ANU First Nations Treaty Forum 2019: Reflections

Professor Asmi Wood,  Interim Director, National Centre for Indigenous Studies  

Sean Innis, Director, Public Policy and Societal Impact Hub                                          


This article flows on from the ANU Treaty Forum, held in collaboration with the National Centre for Indigenous Studies.

Few more important questions face the Australian nation than the relationship between the modern Australian state and the First Nations and Peoples of the place we all call home. Indeed, for many there is no more important question.

While most Australians would agree that a better relationship is needed, widely varying views exist on what the relationship should be and how it should be expressed. This is just as true within Australia’s First Nations and Peoples as it is in the community more broadly. Progress, it must be said, has been slow. Even in periods of strong goodwill, history and the complexity of the issues involved have made reaching agreement difficult. It has been a long and winding road.

ANU has a special role to play in supporting the nation to meet this challenge. And many parts of the University are contributing. ANU research on, and engagement with, First Nation communities and issues together with the work of the Tjabal Centre in supporting our Indigenous students are key elements of this. A particular contribution ANU is making is in convening crucial conversations to build a better understanding of the issues and to expose policy makers to new thinking on Indigenous issues. This has been a particular focus of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies and the Public Policy and Societal Impact Hub, which have been collaborating on a series of policy events.

In 2018, ANU hosted the First Nations Governance Forum. At the time, the government had rejected the Uluru Statement from the Heart, stalling progress on an important national conversation about the role Australia’s original custodians should play in the governance of the nation. The Forum drew on international experience to provide a timely reminder that the modern Australian nation had nothing to fear from, and would be strengthened by, creating a place for Indigenous people in the decision-making of the nation. This fed into a joint select committee of Parliament which recommended a restart to discussions.

In November 2019, the focus was on the role of Treaty.  Treaty means different things to different people. For some, it has a deep and important technical meaning – an agreement between equal nation states governed by international law. For others, technicalities matter less. More important for them is an agreement that recognises the sovereignty of Australia’s First Nations and Peoples, affirms rights to self-determination and creates a basis for the enduring economic and cultural wellbeing of Australia’s original custodians. And for others, Treaty is not a needed part of the future, with other approaches offering more practical benefits.

two embracing silouettes in smoke

The Treaty Forum brought together Indigenous elders and participants from across the nation as part of a week of engagement with the University. The Forum was designed to provide an opportunity for an Indigenous-led conversation to discuss and debate different views and conceptions of what Treaty means and what it could bring. The discussion was rich and respectful, involving more than 100 people with links to more than 30 individual First Nations. A particular feature of the Forum was bringing together views from across generations and the use of yarning circles to facilitate discussions. Former Chief Justice of the High Court, Robert French, provided an important perspective on the state of the common law. And elders from a number of Indigenous communities provided clear views on the priorities and pathways forward as they saw them.

No single view emerged from the discussion on the role Treaty could play. This is not surprising. A key point made by many at the Forum was the need for patience and that time, space and resources were needed for Indigenous people to properly consider the issues involved. This is not to slow progress, but instead is a recognition of the historic nature of Treaty, the complex issues involved, and differing starting points across First Nations.

While no single view emerged, a highly valuable dialogue took place on a range of issues which any consideration of Treaty would need to address. Four areas of discussion – sovereignty, land, self-determination, and truth-telling – stood out as providing potential signposts for the future.

That sovereignty has never been ceded by Australia’s First Nations was emphasised at the Forum and sits as clear historical fact. For some, this raises questions over the validity of the modern Australian state that only Treaty can address. For others, Treaty provides an opportunity to clarify the shared sovereignty that the common law already recognises. Either way, questions arose around how to balance the sovereignty held by individual First Nations versus that held by Australia’s First Peoples as a whole.

Land remains a critical, if controversial, issue. Dispossession and its consequences were highlighted by many at the Forum, as was the uneven legacy left by Native Title laws. In looking forward, two dimensions were raised. First was the question of compensating traditional owners for the use of land for which native title had been extinguished. And, second was providing First Nations with a say over the use of land for which they are traditional custodians.

Broader issues around the self-determination sovereignty entails were also raised. The right to promote and assert culture was universally stated. Many also argued that Treaty should entail First Nations having a greater say (or, for some, control) over the operation of justice, health and education at a local level, with this being part of a broader ‘voice’ in government. Economic independence was also emphasised, with ideas being put forward on ways to share nationally generated income with Australia’s original custodians. 
Truth-telling emerged as a critical issue, if not one necessarily related to Treaty. Concern was expressed that the broader Australian community remains unaware of the truth of history and many emphasised the importance of investing in an understanding of history at a local level.

The Treaty Forum emphasises the powerful role ANU plays in bringing experts, community leaders and policymakers together to discuss issues of national (and international) importance. Discussion and outcomes from the Forum will continue to guide the work of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies and Public Policy and Societal Impact Hub in this key area of policy.




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