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Sovereignty: not a radical concept

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NATIONAL: Nganyaywana journalist Callum Clayton-Dixon spent a week with a Tuhoe family in New Zealand – a country where Indigenous sovereignty and treaty is not a concept on the margins of public debate.

If you read everything you read in the newspapers, you may have thought the current push for constitutional reform, encapsulated in the “Recognise” movement, is at the forefront of black activism.

And while it does have support in some sections of the community, if you speak to legends of Aboriginal protest, you’d get a vastly different view.

Veteran Gunnai activist Robbie Thorpe told Tracker the current focus on constitutional reform equates to “taking us onto the back of the White Australia Policy, 100 years later”.

Kombumerri philosopher and academic Mary Graham warns that the government’s campaign is not to be trusted. “Constitutional recognition is a way of promising something, but with no real substance.”

Gumbaynggirr historian Dr Gary Foley believes that like with Reconciliation, government “only ever pump millions of dollars into things that are going to go nowhere, things that are essentially meaningless and that are designed to divert our attention from the real issues”.

For many Aboriginal communities, the goal is not constitutional reform. It is sovereignty and a treaty. But those who want to catapult these aspirations to the forefront are painted as radical and their voices are marginalised.

Why is it that talk of autonomy, political independence and control over our own lands is so alien to the mainstream Australian public, government and media? Indigenous peoples across the globe have attained varying degrees of tribal sovereignty, which is recognised by colonial society and governments.

Given the progress in countries like New Zealand, Norway and Scotland, it is fair to say the right of autonomy for First Nations peoples has become an established international norm.

Earlier this year this writer spent a week with a Māori family in Wellington. For the Māori, everything comes back to the Treaty – land title, cultural awareness programs in the workplace, protection of culture, language revival, control of natural resources and even
political representation.

If it weren’t for the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, Māoridom would be nowhere near where it is today.

The Tuhoe hosts, who are heavily involved in the politics of their own iwi, said the Waitangi Tribunal followed by the Māori Council and political representation were among the most effective catalysts of change for Māori in Aotearoa.

Established in 1975, the Waitangi Tribunal is responsible for dealing with Māori claims relating to breaches of the Treaty by the Crown.

The Tribunal has been instrumental in launching and growing iwi radio, Māori Television, establishing Te Reo as one of New Zealand’s official languages alongside English, the handing back of tribal lands, financial redress and providing for Māori self-governance structures.

The Māori Council has been the national representative body for Māori since 1962, but holds far more sway compared to both ATSIC and now the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.

Not only does the Māori Council have significantly greater influence when it comes to negotiating
policy and legislation, this organization actively advocates Māori autonomy and incorporates a system of iwi based representation.

What’s more, 22 out of 120 Members of Parliament in NZ are Maori, of which seven are dedicated Maori seats.

The first Maori MP was elected in 1869, the same year Victoria enacted the oppressive Aboriginal Protection Act. Firebrand Hone Harawira, who stood up in NZ Parliament and called former Australian Prime Minister John Howard a “racist bastard” for his Northern Territory intervention, split off from the Maori Party (three seats) in 2011 and formed Mana (one seat). It seems Mana’s purpose is to keep the Maori Party honest.

Then there’s the right-wing conservative Winston Peters, who heads up New Zealand First. Even the co-leader of the Greens is Maori. The successful gay-marriage bill passed in April was also introduced by a Maori woman, Labour MP Louisa Wall.

Four party leaders are Maori and close to one in five MPs are Maori – that’s not too shabby considering they make up only around 15 percent of NZ’s population. To top it off, the Minister of Maori affairs is actually Maori.

Standing outside the Beehive (Parliament House), Tracker noted there was no sign of the Tino Rangatiratanga (Maori sovereignty) flag.

It’s a rare sight excluding Waitangi Day and at Maori institutions. On the other hand you have Australia, and the “historic” moment on January 26 this year when the red, black and yellow flew alongside the Australian flag on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The Aboriginal flag also flies outside many Australian universities, local and state government buildings. In NZ there is currently a review of the nation’s Constitution which happens to include both the Treaty and a Bill of Rights – documents noticeably absent in Australia’s legal system.

Two of the central focuses of the Constitutional Conversation instigated by the Maori Party, are the role of the Treaty and Maori representation in parliament. This ‘partnership’ between Maori and the Crown is put on a pedestal within public life in New Zealand, but that’s not to say it hasn’t rattled the cages of the nation’s right-wing factions.

One petition aimed at scaremongering claimed, “The treaty was Britain’s reluctant response to pleas by Maori chiefs to rescue the tribes from a culture of cannibalism, slavery and intertribal warfare that had wiped out about a third of their race by 1840…”

But while a Treaty has had enormous benefits for Maori, in an Australian context, it would mean nothing unless it is honoured by government.

Commonwealth nations are notorious for their tendency to violate treaties, as seen in the struggle by Canadian First Nations groups against a conservative government giving precedence to the interests of mining multinationals.

The Tuhoe tribe was one of only two that never signed the Treaty, but they are still able to access the same benefits as tribes that did. In September last year Tuhoe reach an agreement with the Crown which will include a $170 million settlement as redress for past breaches of the Treaty and the return of stolen lands.

It begins a 40-year plan to establish strong self-governance, sustainable tribal infrastructure, education, health, media and social services programs – the Tuhoe people say the tribe will eventually finance all of these services themselves as reliance on the NZ government is phased out.

Tuhoe may be a ‘rural’ iwi, but that doesn’t mean the same kind of tribal autonomy can’t be implemented in urban areas. This writer visited Atiawa Toa 96.9fm in the nation’s capital, and was taken on a tour of what can only be described as a tribal hub – radio, health clinics, football fields, housing, gyms, education institutions, a marae (meeting hall) and central administration, all owned and operated by the local iwi.

Looking at international examples of how other Indigenous peoples are attaining self-determination is simply a method of identifying potential pragmatic steps towards our own autonomy.

Arrentre man Dennis Braun from Katherine in the NT recently embarked on a research trip to the Navajo Nation, the largest federally recognized tribe in the United States. Braun worked five years for the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) and is currently studying law at Bond University.

“Everything on the [Navajo] reservation is run, managed and owned by Navajo people – shops, laundromats, bus services, medical and legal aid, universities, schools, youth detention centres and domestic violence services,” Mr Braun told Tracker.

“This all comes from the money they [Navajo] get from their Treaty. Our youth today are missing out on a lot. They’d feel pretty proud if we had Aboriginal universities run by Aboriginal people. At these [Navajo] universities, they are taught the histories, the massacres, everything. We are very far behind. We’re still holding the White man’s hand, picking up the sit-down money and being treated like babies. And with the Intervention, we don’t own anything now, and we don’t have a say in anything.

“Navajo have their own police department which seems to have a good relationship with Navajo citizens. They have their own government where they make their own policies to suit and look after Navajo people.”

This example illustrates just how conservative the Australian dialogue really is.

*Callum Clayton-Dixon is an up and coming Nganyaywana journalist and editor of Aboriginal rights-based publication Brisbane Blacks.

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