Why wait? Treaty and Federal election

As Australia’s federal election approaches, we have seen some early jostling around the politics of entrenching an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the Australian Constitution, as called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The creators of the statement convened a meeting of Indigenous leaders at Yarrabah in April, from which emerged two proposed dates for a referendum on Voice.

Australia’s ruling Coalition – made up of the Liberal and National parties – has a policy of legislating for local and regional Voice bodies but has ruled out holding a referendum to enshrine a Voice to Parliament in the Constitution.

The Labor party, meanwhile, has restated their commitment to holding a referendum during a first term of government but has not committed to the timeline proposed by the Uluru convenors.

But Voice, of course, was not the only element in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which also called for a Makarrata Commission to oversee processes of agreement-making and truth-telling. Makarrata – a Yolngu word that describes a process of peacemaking after a conflict – is a word that has been associated with the call for Treaty in Australia since the 1980s, when it was first proposed by the National Aboriginal Conference.

Indeed, it was resistance to the very idea of constitutional recognition – a view that grew in strength during the life of the now-discontinued Recognise campaign – that saw the emergence of both the Referendum Council (that facilitated the Uluru Statement process) and a commitment from several sub-national jurisdictions to advance Treaty processes first rather than waiting for the outcome of an eventual referendum on Voice.

The country’s southern state of Victoria is the jurisdiction most advanced in this work, having announced a commitment to Treaty back in February 2016.

The work that has been done since this time has been slow and careful, leading to the creation of the First People’s Assembly in 2019 – the body now working on developing the key pieces of Treaty architecture that will support the Victorian process.

We can expect more detail of this work to become public in the coming months of 2022. Victoria has also launched the first formal truth commission in Australia, with the Yoo-Rrook Justice Commission beginning its work in April this year.

As these structures and processes have emerged, it’s clear that work on Treaty in Victoria has produced rich and generative conversations about the truth of colonisation and its ongoing impacts on First Nations today.

The Victorian government is working to prepare itself to become a model Treaty partner including by ensuring that public servants are learning about Treaty through the University of Melbourne’s Professional Certificate in Treaty.

There remains a range of views about what might be possible for Treaty in Victoria, and there has not always been agreement – but why would there be? This is a new path for both First Nations and the state of Victoria.

In the years since 2016, however, it has become clear that both state and First Nations’ parties have taken stock of exactly how much work lies ahead and are planning and organising in ways that will help sustain negotiations over what many people assume will be several decades.

And it’s in light of that timeline that we ask, ‘why wait’?

Even if a referendum on a Voice to Parliament or some other form of constitutional recognition does take place in the next two or three years, there’s work to be done, conversations to be had, to prepare for Treaty at the national level.

An election commitment to this work from all parties would not only be more than welcome, but it is necessary to keep us on the path. Other countries are managing this.

The modern Treaty process in the Canadian province of British Columbia, for example, which has informed much Victorian thinking about Treaty, relies on tripartite negotiations between First Nations, the BC government, and the Canadian federal government.

It’s clear that the Australian government and its people have never done the necessary work to commit to proper, lawful relations with First Nations. We have baulked at this at every opportunity, including, most famously, when Bob Hawke reneged on his commitment to a national Treaty and instead gave us a ten-year reconciliation process as a consolation prize.

The need for reconciliation was explained as a necessary step in preparing mainstream Australians for Treaty.

So, all these years later, why are we still waiting?

First Nations shouldn’t have to wait for non-Indigenous people to catch up. There is work to do in order for everyone to be ready for Treaty on both sides of the relationship – and the time to start that work is now.

Treaty has been a polarising word in Australian politics for at least half a century. The work underway in Victoria shows that it doesn’t have to be. Australia doesn’t need to be scared of Treaty but Treaty does require bold political commitment and slow and careful work to ensure it’s done the right way.

Now is the time for all parties to commit to treaties with First Nations – before Australia gets a new federal parliament.

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