Australia indigenous treaties: Historic steps ‘beginning of journey’

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An Aboriginal flag in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge Image copyright EPA
Image caption Australia has not negotiated a treaty with its indigenous people

Australian states have taken historic steps this week towards the nation’s first treaties with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Australia is the only Commonwealth country that does not have a treaty with its indigenous populations.

In a national first, a bill committing to a treaty was approved in Victoria’s lower house of parliament on Thursday. The Northern Territory and Western Australia have pledged their own, separate actions in recent days.

All of this has intensified discussion about whether others, including the Australian government, will follow suit.

What is a treaty?

It is a formal agreement that can define the relationship between a government and indigenous peoples.

A treaty might include binding pacts on specific issues, such as protecting rights and acknowledging past wrongs, or set out mutual goals. For many indigenous Australians, it also carries symbolic value.

Why doesn’t Australia have one?

In 1988, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised a treaty after he was presented with a landmark document, the Barunga Statement, from indigenous leaders.

Despite public momentum, the discussions were sidelined amid concern over its implications such as financial compensation.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Former PM Bob Hawke receives the Barunga statement in 1988

Over the years, government focus shifted to other forms of reconciliation, including progress on land rights, debates over constitutional recognition, and programmes intended to reduce indigenous disadvantage.

Last year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected calls to set up a parliamentary body that would have overseen a treaty progress. He argued that most Australians would not support it.

More: Why Australia remains without a treaty

What does the Victorian bill say?

If passed in the upper house, it will legislate a process for establishing a state Aboriginal representative body and a treaty, or treaties.

The bill will also require the Victorian government to provide annual updates on progress.

“It is about the recognition of us as the first people of this country,” said Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner Jill Gallagher.

Aboriginal history Prof Richard Broome, from La Trobe University, told the BBC: “It is very significant because it is the first move from any government in the country.”

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Media captionOne man’s march for an Aboriginal treaty

What is happening elsewhere?

Prof Broome described the Victorian step as “the beginning of the journey”, pointing to efforts by other governments.

On Friday, the Northern Territory government signed a memorandum of understanding with indigenous groups to formally start work on a treaty.

Meanwhile, Western Australia has also announced plans to establish its own official Aboriginal representative body.

The Australian government has not responded to the state and territory developments.

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