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NAIDOC Week: why don’t we have a treaty?

This year on Australia Day, people marched in the streets, campaigning for a change to the Australia Day date. January 26 marks the arrival of The First Fleet. It marks colonisation, but it also marks the beginning of a tumultuous relationship between the colonial settlers and the Indigenous Australians.

On January 26 1938, Indigenous Australians held a Day of Mourning protest against the unjust treatment and unreasonable accumulation of native land. While there is much work to do, some progress has been made to strengthen the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

NAIDOC Week is one such example. It is a positive celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ history, culture and achievements. The recognition of Indigenous people and their traditions boosts rapport with non-Indigenous Australians.

How far have we come?

As the Indigenous Studies curriculum developer for Deakin University’s Institute of Koorie Education, Terry Mason says that the relationship between Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians has certainly improved. He cites reconciliation as a major driver of the strengthened relations. ‘If there was anything positive that came out of reconciliation it was the opportunity for all people to feel comfortable in the same space,’ he says.

Mason believes there is an overall positive relationship in the community and says he can see a number of examples of all people working together to bolster relations. For example, he highlights mentoring schemes where business people mentor Indigenous people in some sectors. ‘People who’ve had some success are working within programs that support people to transition into tertiary education and business,’ Mason says. In addition, there are union-driven enterprise agreements that provide a range of rights in terms of equal opportunity and career progression for Indigenous workers.

Most recently, tens of thousands of people turned out to march in the 2017 Invasion Day Melbourne Rally – proof that we’ve come a fair way in improving relations and further proof that there’s a groundswell in community support to change the date of Australia Day. ‘There’s a responsibility of accepting the shared history leaves a legacy,’ Mason explains.

But there is still much work to be done, particularly in terms of education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. ‘The initial learning patterns are established in early childhood. We need initiatives where there’s a core unit for pre-service teachers to care for Aboriginal children. We’d find more success down the track,’ Mason suggests. He adds that the relationship with the Government is still strained, particularly because of the $534 million cut to Indigenous program funding over five years, which began in 2014.


'There’s a responsibility of accepting the shared history leaves a legacy.'

Terry Mason,
Curriculum Developer, Indigenous Studies, Deakin University

Why don’t we have a treaty?

The only Commonwealth national government that has not signed a treaty with its Indigenous people, Australia’s Federal Government has failed to follow the examples set by several of its states. This continues to cause issues in the relationship between the Government and Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders. In the 1980s Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised a treaty, but through the political process it became a ‘document of reconciliation’, which is not the same. There is a call for a treaty on claims for Indigenous sovereignty. Sovereignty would give Indigenous people more control over their own lives.

According to Mason, treaties are of great importance. ‘In 1988 people were marching for land rights – there has always been a push to have one, they’re nothing to be afraid of,’ he says and highlights countries such as Canada which recognise sovereign rights. ‘Treaties gives people the framework to solve disputes. It would be more equitable,’ he explains. Discussions about treaties at state and territory government level are occurring in Victoria, South Australia, and the Northern Territory. Western Australia has started negotiations on a treaty, too. Mason is optimistic that a national treaty and further state treaties will be put in place down the track and says it can only be a good thing. ‘When you look overseas there has been an increase in the outcomes for Aboriginal people. The benefits have flowed just in recognition,’ he concludes.


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Mr Terry Mason
Mr Terry Mason

Curriculum Developer, Institute of Koorie Education, Deakin University
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