13 November 2015
by Michael Gordon
Indigenous push for treaty gathers momentum
Aboriginal educational leader Chris Sarra is calling for a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians
Aboriginal educational leader Chris Sarra has backed a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, saying constitutional recognition will never deliver the substance of a treaty.
The chairman and founder of the Stronger Smarter Institute has also welcomed Malcolm Turnbull's elevation, predicting that he will have a far more engaging approach to Indigenous policy development than Tony Abbott.
Dr Sarra will call on Australians to have the courage to contemplate some form of treaty in a speech at Parliament House on Friday, saying it would acknowledge, embrace and celebrate the humanity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The call reflects a growing push among Indigenous leaders to include discussion of a treaty or compact in debate on constitutional recognition.
"Obviously, matters of constitutional recognition are important, but ultimately what is required is a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia," Dr Sarra told Fairfax Media.
"Before people get spooked by the ideas of a treaty, you have to understand the essence of what a treaty is. It's a negotiated document between Indigenous Australia and non-Indigenous Australia and neither side signs up until they are satisfied that it says what is needs to say.
"I think it is worth putting a stake in the ground and being committed to that kind of outcome, even if it takes five years or 10 years or 15 years – an outcome that will finally see the humanity of Aboriginal Australia honoured in the way that it should be."
Dr Sarra's remarks on treaty were support by prominent Indigenous constitutional lawyer Megan Davis, who says the lack of resolution on constitutional reform "is animating renewed confidence in the community to push for a treaty or settlement agreement".
"It is the conventional path, well-trodden around the world, to settle the fundamental grievance at the heart of the Australian federation which is not so much the constitution but dispossession; that is to say, the land was never ceded," Professor Davis said.
While he conceded that debate on recognition appeared to have lost momentum, Dr Sarra said he believed the ascension of Mr Turnbull to the prime ministership brought "the potential for things to be better than they have been in the past".
Dr Sarra said Mr Abbott's decision to take Indigenous affairs into the prime minister's portfolio had been a distraction and stifled the work of Indigenous affairs minister, Senator Nigel Scullion, "who should have been trusted who get on and execute his role adequately".
"We saw former prime minister Abbott spend time in remote communities, and that's all commendable, but in many ways that was all choreographed and didn't allow for the depth of insight that is required to make good policy decisions.
"I think what we gain with Turnbull as prime minister is a far more intelligent way of embracing the challenges of sound Aboriginal policy development and I think what we gain is a kind of mindset that is not afraid to listen to views contrary to his own, rather than talking to people who will only confirm the view that is stuck in his mind."
While Mr Abbott saw himself a prime minister for Indigenous affairs and focused on getting children to school, adults to work and making communities safe, Dr Sarra said his approach was "one-dimensional, ineffective and costly".
In the lecture, Dr Sarra calls on Mr Turnbull to "bring us policy approaches that nurture hope and optimism rather than entrench despair" and to "do things with us, not to us".