Toying with Treaties

As I have remarked on many occasions before, although Australia is a wonderful country, the plight of our indigenous people is a cause of great concern and not something we should be proud of. I have provided my readers on previous occasions with the appalling statistics of the plight of indigenous people with respect to longevity, health, incarceration, domestic violence, alcohol and drug addiction, and so on.

Our Federal and State Governments have spent a huge amount of taxpayer’s money in trying to rectify the situation but with little effect. Indeed the situation is exacerbated by the fact that the bureaucrats who are in charge of the spending on indigenous programs and the activists who seek to influence them in their spending, seem to believe that the quantum of the spending is what is important even though history shows that the expenditure is having little impact on the quality of indigenous lives. What’s more a whole industry has evolved about this expenditure which is keen to see the status quo remain and the money flow continue, irrespective of the outcomes on the ground.

We know that there is a huge wastage in the current system with multiple programs trying to achieve similar ends working independently of each other and huge overheads being incurred to finance the attendant bureaucracy siphoning off funds which should be directed at indigenous communities.

One of the reasons our efforts to improve the lot of our indigenous fellows are failing is because we have allowed activists and indigenous apologists to convince many indigenous people that they have no part to play in their own rehabilitation. They have come to believe that they are victims of an inimical white society that has malignantly quashed their opportunities to take their rightful place in Australian society.

And yet we see many successful indigenous people who have not succumbed to such a disempowering message. Our universities are graduating more and more indigenous students who are taking their place in Australian society as well-paid professionals. Indigenous people are increasingly becoming managers and small business owners. They are well-represented in the Arts as artists, actors, musicians and dancers. Our governments could learn a lot from examining the lives of these successful indigenous people rather than listening to the activists and those who have assumed victimhood.

It seems clear that indigenous disadvantage will continue until such time that indigenous people as a whole (just like those successful role models mentioned above) take a more proactive role in pursuing their own betterment. (I know this will cause some to accuse me of “blaming the victims” but years of passive welfare dependence hasn’t improved their lot. What’s more the more enlightened voices from the indigenous community itself are saying similar things.)

But attached to indigenous affairs are some symbolic (some might say cosmetic) issues. The Federal Government has undertaken to put before the Australian people a referendum seeking their approval to amend the Australian Constitution to give formal recognition to the original inhabitants of our country. A committee formed by the Government to progress the issue has undertaken to hold a series of consultation meetings with indigenous representatives around the country. The first such meeting was held late last year in Hobart.

The biggest obstacle I see to the referendum process is actually gaining a consensus from such people on what question to put to the people in the referendum. The indigenous people of Australia seldom (for good reasons I will elaborate further below) speak with one voice. Oft times those purporting to speak for them are the activist academics and intellectuals who live in our cities who have never endured the indignities of living in the remote indigenous communities where the most disadvantaged indigenous people reside.

Consequently I am starting to believe that the referendum will fail. Australians I believe, generally, are sympathetic to the indigenous cause. And although we are inherently egalitarian and wish to see our indigenous fellows take their rightful place in our society, we are also conservative and any attempt to elevate indigenous people to a special status is likely to be rejected.

But more worryingly, at the very first consultation meeting in Hobart, the forum insisted that any discussions about the referendum and constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Australians must be accompanied by talks regarding a treaty with the Aboriginal peoples. Some have even suggested that the fact we don’t have a treaty with the descendants of the original inhabitants of our country is a reflection of how racist Australia is.

As indigenous researcher Anthony Dillon points out what difference is a treaty going to make to the welfare of indigenous people? Will it help reduce domestic violence? Will it help put food on the table? Will it reduce indigenous incarceration? Will it improve indigenous health outcomes? And what’s more, as he reasonably points out, many indigenous Australians are living successful lives without the aid of a treaty so surely it can’t be a necessary condition for the enhancement of indigenous welfare.

Anthony has written in a recent essay for Quadrant:

And let’s not forget that thousands upon thousands of Aboriginal Australians are doing perfectly well without a treaty – including, ironically, many of those demanding one.

But the notion of a treaty introduces more practical problems. I would ask who actually is the treaty with, and who would have the authority to sign such a treaty on behalf of indigenous people?

In my essay After Bennelong I wrote:

“Before European settlement, it is fair to say that Australia was very sparsely populated. Some historians studying the prehistory of Australia have suggested that, at the time of European settlement the indigenous population numbered no more than 300,000. Some favourable environments, for example the northern and eastern coastal margins and the Murray valley, permitted more concentrated populations. The arid interior however could only sustain very low population densities, often as low as one person per 35 square miles (approx. 90 square kilometres).

Survival in the harsh Australian conditions required a much different response to human development than that required to prosper in the temperate climes, fertile lands and generous rainfalls of most European communities. So although they never had the resources or the knowhow to invent the steam engine, the Australian Aborigines had nevertheless adapted to one of the harshest environments on earth and survived.

As the wonderful Australian historian, D J Mulvaney proclaimed:

The dispersal of the Aboriginals throughout this vast land, their responses and adjustments to the challenges of its harsh environment, and their economical utilisation of its niggardly resources, are stimulating testimony to the achievements of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

Estimates vary, but it seems some 300 tribes occupied Australia at the time of European settlement, varying in size from less than a hundred in the most arid regions to several thousand where conditions were more favourable. Their long separation resulted in many languages. (In view of all this it seems somewhat euphemistic to bestow the title of “first nations” on these disparate tribes as some are wont to do.)”

And herein lies the crux of the first problem. If the pre-European occupiers had so many tribes with different languages and cultural mores, and who were often belligerently antagonistic to each other, how is it possible to have a treaty with them as some artificial composite grouping?

This of course leads inevitably to my second point. Who has the authority to sign such a treaty on behalf of the indigenous population?

Chris Sarra, at a recent event offered his services to negotiate with government on a treaty. Sarra came to prominence from his work as principal of the Cherbourg school. Cherbourg is a largely indigenous community in the South Burnett district in Queensland. His work at the school improved attendance rates and academic outcomes. He has promoted pride in Aboriginal culture as a mechanism for engaging indigenous students. But this hardly seems to qualify him as the indigenous spokesperson for such matters. As Anthony Dillon has pointed out, Sarra is an accomplished educator and a successful indigenous man with indigenous heritage. He would probably serve the indigenous community better by mentoring other indigenous people in how to succeed in mainstream society.

Finally, even if Australia was somehow able (under these difficult circumstances) to conjure up a treaty between the nation and its indigenous inhabitants it raises other dilemmas.

To begin with this is an act of separation. It suggests either indigenous people are not part of the Australian nation or they are such a significant part of it that they warrant special consideration. These concepts directly threaten our sense of unity and fly in the face of our egalitarian culture. As I have pointed out previously in such social issues many Australians are quite conservative and it is unlikely the proponents of a treaty would gain sufficient support to enact it.

But also the elephant in the room has always been the notion of indigeneity. Who would such a treaty cover? We have seen numerous disputes around the country about who is entitled to label themselves as indigenous, and frankly as an outside observer the process of approving such identity rights seems quite arbitrary.

As well, the irrationality of seeking a treaty is highlighted by a knowledge of the prehistory of Australia.

Underlying the need for a treaty is a sense of injustice coming from the displacement and ill-treatment of the indigenous population following European settlement.

But historians suggest that the original settlement of Australia occurred with at least two waves of migration from peoples to the North and West of Australia. Later settlers who arrived in this way would have displaced and conflicted with earlier settlers, ostensibly mirroring the activities of the European settlers. No doubt the European settlers had the arms and technologies to inflict greater harm and more quickly, but the results were largely the same but perhaps over a more protracted period of time.

So my belief is that if we are really concerned about our indigenous fellows, we should be striving to solve the problems around domestic violence, child abuse, health, incarceration, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment and welfare dependency with respect to indigenous people. What’s more we have to convince indigenous people that such improvements can only come with their proactive involvement in the processes. The activities surrounding the recognition referendum and the rhetoric about treaties will have little impact on these issues. The indigenous malaise I have outlined previously is ruining thousands of lives and deserves our urgent attention. So let’s not be distracted by these more symbolic issues until such time we have made real progress in improving the everyday lot of the most disadvantaged indigenous citizens of Australia.

5 Replies to “Toying with Treaties”

  1. “To begin with this is an act of separation. It suggests either indigenous people are not part of the Australian nation or they are such a significant part of it that they warrant special consideration. These concepts directly threaten our sense of unity and fly in the face of our egalitarian culture.”

    When I read that I think of the Biblical passage – “A house divided ….”

    1. A very pertinent observation Anthony. You know that philosophically I believe that “we all are as One’. Any effort to delineate people on such artificial basis as their race or belief systems carries with it the likelihood of dividing us on very superficial grounds. The basic philosophy of the major religions is the so-called reciprocal law (that Christians acknowledge as “the golden rule”) that we should treat others as we would wish to be treated. My definition of love is that it is the dissolution of separateness. All attempts to separate us, one from another (or create, as you describe it a “house divided”) inevitably cause distress and fear.

      My desire is that we should embrace all people in our commonality and put aside those egoic attempts to maintain our separateness.

  2. Your posts are always worth reading, but when references are made to ‘our indigenous’ it suggests that all indigenous in Australia are struggling or in need of help and they are not.

    Would it not be better to clarify that some indigenous are in need of help, a minority in fact?

    1. Well Roslyn I certainly suggested in my essay that many indigenous Australians are successful. I also suggested that instead of always looking at the disadvantaged we should try to learn the lessons from our successful indigenous fellows about how they have been successful and try to propagate that message. We will get nowhere in indigenous affairs if we only take notice of those who have opted for victim status.

  3. I agree – treaty is really just political show pony and will mean nothing to the small percent of indigenous people who are suffering in third world conditions. The way forward for those in disadvantage indeed involves those suffering to embrace interaction and integration with the mainstream, I cannot see how separation and segregation would achieve favourable outcomes. Trying to recapture a past idealistic tribal existence through ‘treaty’ will not work.

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