NATIONAL: The words, ‘Aboriginal sovereignty’, have given rise to a diversity of meaning.
For some, recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty demands the creation of a black state.
For others it is synonymous with self-determination.
Regardless of how one defines the term however, talk of Aboriginal sovereignty inevitably leads to a treaty.
Some would argue that a treaty is unrealistic in the current environment and therefore, we should focus on goals that have bipartisan political support, namely, constitutional recognition.
That is a point of view that this little black duck will never subscribe to. I believe that a treaty is not only crucial, but inevitable, for four reasons.
Firstly, it is likely that a treaty would deliver genuine self-determination to our people.
While we are yet to experience genuine self-determination, evidence from North America suggests that it is imperative.
Since 1987 the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development has been examining the conditions that stimulate economic and social progress in Native American nations.
A few years ago the Project’s co-founder, Professor Stephen Cornell, delivered a paper at the University of New South Wales.
Professor Cornell identified two critical conditions – the vesting of real decision-making power in communities and the exercise of that power through competent governing institutions.
He concluded that, “in a century of U.S. efforts to improve Indian economic and community conditions, Indigenous self-determination is the only policy that has had broad, positive, sustained results. Nothing else has worked.”
Research from Canada also suggests a link between self-determination and better health. Michael J Chandler and Christopher E Lalonde examined Aboriginal youth suicide rates in British Columbia, in order to determine why it was that some First Nations communities were suffering an epidemic, whereas in others, youth suicide was relatively unknown. Although complex, their work revolved around the notion that cultural continuity could provide a protective hedge against suicide.
They identified six markers of cultural continuity – self-government, litigation for recognition of Aboriginal title to lands, local control over health, education and policing services; and community facilities for the preservation of culture.
Those communities that had all six markers experienced no youth suicides during the period of the study.
They concluded that individual and cultural continuity were “strongly linked”.
First Nations communities that had maintained their cultures and were the masters of their own destinies were also successful in protecting their young people from the risk of suicide.
The need for genuine self-determination should not be a revelation in Australia.
After all, the National Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody asserted that widespread disadvantage could only be eliminated through the, “end of domination and an empowerment of Aboriginal people”.
Over the supervening 21 years, other inquiries have expressed similar sentiments.
Secondly, most of the intellectual heavy-lifting that would precede a treaty has already been done.
Over the past four decades, many non-Indigenous and Indigenous advocates have created blueprints for a possible treaty.
It would be impossible to acknowledge all such efforts in this column, but it would be remiss of me not to mention a few.
In 1979 the National Aboriginal Conference called for a treaty that would, among other things, provide protection for Aboriginal languages, compensation and regulation of mining on Aboriginal lands.
In the 1980s watersheds such as the Barunga Statement and the work of the late Kevin Gilbert served to fuel the treaty dialogue.
The campaign was reignited by ATSIC in 2000.
Also in that year, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation recommended that the Commonwealth parliament enact legislation that would put in place a process for the negotiation of a treaty. Although politicians are yet to heed those calls, it is crucial that we keep such important work alive.
Thirdly, most arguments against a treaty are debateable.
One objection found reflection in John Howard’s statement that a “nation … does not make a treaty with itself”.
In practice, however, the exercise of power is shared between various levels of government, with the High Court as the umpire. Conceding some of this power to Aboriginal peoples would pose no threat to the nation.
Another such argument suggests that Aboriginal people could never reach consensus on an issue as complex as a treaty.
But this flies in the face of the recent proliferation of agreements negotiated between Aboriginal communities and a host of other parties, such as government agencies, universities and mining companies.
Finally, a treaty would provide a touchstone for co-existence.
For the past two centuries governments have made decisions, which have in turn been imposed on Aboriginal peoples.
This coercion has caused immense harm to us, manifest in the appalling statistics that we are all too familiar with.
Although their scars are less obvious, white Australians have also been injured by the illegitimate means by which this country was founded.
The trauma will not begin to heal until we create ground rules for how to live together. For that reason, a treaty is inevitable.
*Nicole Watson is a Murri lawyer and researcher with the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney.