Underpinning all discussions and arguments about the best approach to policies and programs affecting indigenous people is the fundamental question of ‘Why?’.
Why are Aboriginal peoples around the country plagued by the well known and often flouted statistics: more likely to die from suicide, to go to jail, to have children removed, to die younger… the list goes on and on.
The ideological divide in identifying the key causes for these statistics couldn’t be further apart. One the one hand we have those who point to the ongoing impacts of colonisation and systemic racism, and on the other hand we have those who claim it to be the result of deficiencies in Aboriginal culture. In the middle there are those who argue that the ideology doesn’t matter and that all people are, or at least should be, seen and treated as equal. This is the ‘colour blind’ approach to Indigenous affairs policy and usually ends up reinforcing the deficiency of culture argument by its refusal to acknowledge the role of colonialism and racism in creating the conditions affecting many Aboriginal people.
This is what underpins comments from political leaders when they say that there is no racism to address within our major institutions, or in their own approaches to Indigenous affairs. If racism and colonialism, past and present, aren’t factors in the conditions faced by Aboriginal peoples then the answer can only lie within.
The arguments pointing to colonialism and racism are pretty obvious and can be seen by even the briefest of glances of the history of government policies right through to today; from dispossession, regulation, and attempted assimilation through to the rhetoric of ‘practical reconciliation’, ‘mutual obligation’, and other frameworks used to justify racist and punitive approaches to Indigenous policy. This is further backed up by the lack of transparency and accountability that Australia holds its government to when it comes to major stuff ups in Indigenous affairs, seen most recently in the under reporting of the Senate Inquiry into the poorly planned and rushed Indigenous Advancement Strategy.
The arguments pointing to deficiencies in Aboriginal people and culture are less tangible, and are certainly not backed up by history, modern science, basic human decency or common sense, but they are backed up by a popularist approach that alleviates responsibility from governments and Australian society and conveniently places the blame squarely on the shoulders of Aboriginal people. These beliefs often stem from very outdated scientific beliefs along the lines of eugenics, Social Darwinism, and other frameworks manipulated to reinforce and justify white ‘supremacy’ and the gross mistreatment of ‘inferior’ races.
This is why the ‘History wars’ are so important, not just to our understanding of history itself, but to our fundamental approaches to ‘Indigenous advancement’ and justice, and to government responsibility, transparency and accountability in Indigenous affairs.
For some, ideology is irrelevant, and outcomes are all that matter. For example, if there is someone who didn’t have a job before but now has meaningful long term employment then what does it matter if people talk about this change in condition as ‘breaking welfare dependency’ or ‘self-determination’ or ‘independence’? For that individual, it may not matter much either way as long as their own outcomes are tangible are sustainable. For those who are facing a similar challenge it may matter though, for how we look at another’s situation can impact whether the next person is supported to do similar or is condemned and penalised for not having already done it, the impacts of these different approaches can mean the difference of success or failure, of being the exception or the rule.
Similarly, in situations of escalated abuse, alcoholism, and violence, the how and why of how such an environment came to be may seem far less important than coming up with an immediate response to alleviate the situation. This would be a fair argument too, if the ‘immediate responses’ that we have seen in the recent past didn’t include the ideologically driven ‘NT Intervention’ which was based not on evidence and best practice, but instead was based on demonisation, racism, land grabs on a breath taking scale. Even such racist and punitive approaches could have been vindicated if they had achieved their intended outcomes of keeping women and children and communities safe, getting kids to school and adults to work.
This is why the ‘why’ matters, in instances like the rushed implementation of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy which was used to justify massive blind cuts to expenditure, the why takes precedence over the ‘what’, ‘when’ and the ‘how’. It is used to justify actions based not on evidence, actions not designed to achieve stated outcomes, but simply designed to be seen to apply a ‘big stick’ approach Indigenous people and communities. The government is far more concerned about what it is seen to be doing than what it is actually doing. It is far more concerned with maintaining a public discourse that keeps the focus and the blame on Aboriginal people and on Aboriginal culture than it is with acknowledging the role of government in creating and maintaining these conditions. It is far more concerned with pretending that everything that happens is solely the responsibility of Aboriginal people ourselves, and that therefore everything the government does is an act of charity, and that government failures are actually the failure of Aboriginal people for being too backwards, too primitive, too greedy, too drunk, too everything bad to make use of the governments good will.
So long as we are seen as the problem, there is literally nothing that the government cannot justify, there is no level of incompetence or racism from the government that cannot be justified, and there is no amount of arguing from anyone else that will be seen as anything other than ‘reverse racism’, wanting ‘free handouts’ and refusing to accept responsibility.
But as Rosalie Kunoth-Monks famously said on ABC’s Q&A, “Don’t try and suppress me and don’t call me a problem. I am not the problem.
I have never left my country nor have I ceded any part of it. Nobody has entered into a treaty or talked to me about who I am. I am Arrernte Alyawarre female elder from this country. Please remember that. I am not the problem.”
This is the heart of how we can shift from being judged in the court of popular opinion, judged by white Australia, and found as always to be lacking, to be less than, to be at fault for refusing to assimilate, for refusing to say ‘thank you, white Australia’, for refusing to go away altogether – A Treaty that unequivocally recognises our Sovereignty.
It is only a Treaty that can empower us to elevate the conversation away from racist rhetoric and ideology that plagues Indigenous Affairs and give us some hope and opportunity to negotiate on equal terms with the Australian government. Beyond that, it can give us scope to move beyond being the guinea pigs for punitive social policies and the whipping post for both sides of the colonial anguish at the intersect of where white pride meets white guilt. A Treaty can do this in a way that Constitutional Recognition could never do, even if the campaign hadn’t been so poorly framed over the past few years and left too many Indigenous people feeling spurned and cynical towards it.
A treaty will not eradicate racism. It will not eradicate media misrepresentation, or improve education or stop mistreatment within the justice system, at least not overnight. It won’t instantly heal all of our intergenerational traumas, or give back what was taken. It won’t end the ideological debates of white saviours trying to save us either with big sticks or with bridge walks.
What it might do though, is help us create a set of opportunities that are not there at the moment. Opportunities for true social, cultural and economic developments that are not reliant on being given permission, on having to argue for basic human rights, or on new names for old approaches with every change in government.
As Tony McAvoy recently said in Sydney, “if we are to take advantage of the opportunity that has been presented to us we must organise ourselves. We must create a national collective voice that allows us to harness all the power at our disposal to ensure that this treaty process results in as fair and as equitable an outcome as possible.
I know, and I have seen it many times, when we as Aboriginal people stand on our land with our ancestors there is a truth in our existence, and our condition which is undeniable. That is, we were here, and we have been subjected to the worst forms of genocide and dispossession and we are still here.
When each of us comes together with a collective voice, it is my view that is when we are at our strongest. That is the form that we need to take for the purpose of negotiating final settlements with those that have dispossessed and disenfranchised us.
In my view, we need an Assembly of First Nations to achieve the outcome that we all seek, and I call upon each First Nation to commit itself to the creation of an Assembly of First Nations and the pursuit of final settlement with the Governments of Australia though a treaty process.”
Unlike Constitutional recognition, or even the process of Treaty itself, this Assembly of First Nations is not something will need to be instigated by government, although their support or opposition, or elements of both, will undoubtedly be felt. But they cannot dictate it, and they cannot stop it. It will be our first major opportunity towards creating the best possible position to negotiate a Treaty from; a position of strength and unity.
Old grudges will need to be resolved, where possible. Long distances will need to be travelled, both literally and figuratively. New voices will need to emerge, to be heard and respected alongside those voices who have until recently enjoyed a largely singular and unchallenged privilege in speaking to the nation ‘on behalf of Indigenous Australia’.
A Treaty is within our grasp, but ‘Treaty; is just the heading of the document, the fine print will not be taken lightly by government and should be taken lightly by us either. Those words, when finalised will affect all generations yet to come. Our sovereignty, and our very survival, may well hang in the balance.
For the first time in my lifetime I can see truth to the words recently uttered by Malcolm Turnbull, “There has never been a more exciting time to be Australian.” – Treaty Now!
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