Understanding Voice, Treaty Truth

Every year, NAIDOC occurs each July all across the country, where our culture, history, and achievements are celebrated in a variety of ways. And each year, there is a new theme. This year, for 2019, the theme is Voice, Treaty, Truth, Let’s Work Together. Aligning with the International Year of Indigenous Languages, the theme highlights our need to recognise that the Indigenous voice was not only the first voice that was heard on this continent, and that what comes with this is the knowledge, practices, skills and know-how of thousands and thousands of years of connections with this place, but just as importantly, that the Indigenous voice needs to be heard today. For generations, Indigenous Australia has been seeking and working towards significant and lasting change, and ‘Voice, Treaty and Truth’, were the three key elements to the reforms set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Too many Australians do not even know what the Uluru Statement from the Heart or Makarrata even is or where these words/concepts came from.

There is also a long history behind this movement which started generations ago. Here’s a quick snapshot:

In 1979, the then Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser, announced that his Government would enter into negotiations for a Treaty, and that they were only prepared to negotiate with the elected National Aboriginal Conference (NAC).

Following this, the NAC recommended a Treaty of Commitment be entered into between the Australian Government and Aboriginal nations. It was decided that the Indigenous word, Makarrata, should be used for the process. After the NAC sub-committee on Makarrata undertook community consultations across the country with Aboriginal people, they made a number of recommendations of what it believed was a “faithful expression of expectations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

These recommendations included recognition of prior ownership, and negotiation of a Makarrata with the Australian government as an equal party. It also covered issues of education, compensation, the return of lands, as well as reserved Indigenous seats in government, Indigenous employment in government agencies, and the return of artefacts and human remains from museums.

So what happened? The NAC prepared 27 points for discussion. Ultimately, a major point that represented pre-negotiation concessions was a point that contributed to the demise of the Makarrata/Treaty process.

“Sovereignty” was viewed by some Aboriginal leaders as an unrealistic ambition; they argued that other matters such as Land Rights had greater need for representations. Because the Aboriginal opposition refused to talk to the Makarrata/Treaty body, they failed to realise that the NAC had been in the process of developing a Land Rights Regime for National discussion but this proposal never saw the light of day.

The opposition came primarily from the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils and was known through individual and collective submissions to the appointed Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs National Enquiry into the Legal and Constitutional feasibility of entering into a Makarrata/ Treaty between the National Government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

Lobbying and internal debate within the NAC between the pro-Makarrata people and the supporters of the newly formed National Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils took its toll; eventually the whole of the NAC succumbed. Without the new Labor Government support, the members of the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils were accepted by the Labor Government then to be a truer representation of National Aboriginal issues.

Then, more recently, in 2017, a constitutional convention bringing together over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders met at the foot of Uluru in Central Australia on the lands of the Aṉangu people.

The majority resolved, in the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’, to call for the establishment of a ‘First Nations Voice’ in the Australian Constitution and a ‘Makarrata Commission’ to supervise a process of ‘agreement-making’ and ‘truth-telling’ between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

As the first major meeting of the nation’s Indigenous leaders in the wake of the historic Uluru summit, Garma 2017 had a central theme around Makarrata.

Yothu Yindi Foundation chairman and Gamatj Elder, Dr. Galarrwuy Yunupingu, outlined the principles of Makarrata, these principles have guided the conversation around Constitutional recognition and related issues, and offer a framework for the next stage of that process.

At the 2017 Garma, Dr. Galarrwuy Yunupingu gifted the term Makarrata to the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull to instigate the process and requested that he lead the nation in a journey of truthtelling to right the wrong done to the First Nations people of Australia and steer our nation towards unity and healing.

The Uluru Statement articulates two clear reform objectives that can be put forward for further public consultation: a Makarrata Commission and truth-telling about our history.

In late 2017, the Government rejected the idea of an ‘Indigenous voice to Parliament’ – this was a central recommendation of the convention at Uluru and the Referendum Council’s report - because it was not “desirable or capable of winning acceptance in a referendum”.

The government said there were doubts about how the body would function, as well as whether such a “radical change to our constitution’s representative institutions” would have any realistic prospect of being supported by a majority of Australians at a referendum.

Coming back to this year’s NAIDOC theme, Voice, Treaty Truth - these three powerful words call us all together. They are a call to action for the Australian people and an invitation for all Australians to walk with Indigenous Australia in a movement towards a better shared future for us all. One in which true history is told and understood. One in which the Indigenous voice is heard, celebrated and valued in its rightful place as the first voice of this country. One in which Treaty is established. Significantly, Australia is one of the few liberal democracies around the world which still does not have a treaty or treaties or some other kind of formal acknowledgement or arrangement with its Indigenous minorities.

Riley Callie Resources supplies educational resources primarily for the early years, and one might question how educators in the early years can contribute towards this movement of truth-telling. As a mum of two pre-school children myself, I have found myself wondering how I can age-appropriately, share truth-telling of our history with my little ones. The answer though, is of course to look to age appropriate resources. There are many Indigenous picture books out there that age-appropriately, touch upon this subject with our early learners. Do Not Go Around The Edges is one. Young Dark Emu is another (for primary school kids). Books like these encourage our children to think about aspects of our history they might not have thought about before…for our early learners, it is planting the seed to question, and this is what we must gift our children; the ability to question and to consider things from a different perspective.

The second thing I feel we can do as educators and parents of young children is to educate ourselves. To ensure that we learn our own histories of where we live, and educate ourselves about the uniqueness and beauty of Indigenous culture. It is then our own knowledge, understanding and insights which we will pass onto our children and the children we teach.

Deborah Hoger