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Ellsmore, Sylvie --- "A Re - evaluation of the Treaty Campaign" [2002] IndigLawB 74; (2002) 5(21) Indigenous Law Bulletin 16

A Re-evaluation of the Treaty Campaign

by Sylvie Ellsmore

As an activist working in the reconciliation movement, I have observed 'treaty' become a focus of many anti-racism and Indigenous rights campaigns over the last couple of years. The message behind the campaigns has been that a treaty could be a powerful way to advance Indigenous rights. For this reason I am a strong supporter of a treaty being developed between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. However, I am concerned that it may be time for those in the treaty campaign to re-evaluate their tactics about how to gain support within the wider community.

Whether it be a legal document securing defined rights or a symbolic document such as a preamble to the constitution, the treaty as a concept has the potential to force the Australian government and people to examine the very basis of Australian sovereignty, identity and history. When it concerns Indigenous Australia, historically this is the sort of debate we have been very reluctant to have.

In a time of increasing xenophobia it becomes an even more enormous task just to bring such a debate to the national consciousness. We live in a time when notions of equality and rights that are based on the recognition of difference are very unpopular. The effect it could have on the national psyche if we had a government willing to enter into the debate would be great. Unfortunately, we do not have such a government.

Consequently, it is left to those leading the campaign to define the terms of the debate. However, even after participating in many forums, conferences, community events and speeches about 'treaty', what it means on a tangible level still remains fuzzy around the edges for me. When I speak to people, especially young people, the questions they ask first are – What would a treaty actually mean? The establishment of a separate national Indigenous government? Or a separate Indigenous Territory like Nunavut in Canada? Land rights? Reserved Indigenous places in parliament? Financial compensation? An apology? Who would sign it?

There has been much great material published that answers these questions. At its most simple level a treaty is just an agreement, and potentially could include any of those things. However, the generality of the terms remains my central frustration with the treaty debate. The goal of many involved in the reconciliation movement has been to bring the issue to the national consciousness, and to educate the general community, so that in five or ten years Australia might be a bit more comfortable with the idea of a treaty. ATSIC, which is taking a lead, seems to be attempting a difficult balancing act of trying to build support up around the idea of the treaty, while remaining cautious about speaking specifically about whether it has a mandate.

When we have a government that is so successful at avoiding the issue altogether, and instead directing attention towards basic service provision ('practical reconciliation'), I am concerned that the treaty campaign is not having success engaging both the general population and those who could be its greatest supporters - the grassroots. This is where much substantial work is being done. More could be made, for example, of the many local agreements (what some have dubbed 'treaties') negotiated between Indigenous communities and local governments, mining companies and rural land holders - agreements which often secure legal rights in addition to (or in spite of) existing legislation.

To gain support for its cause, the treaty campaign must be one in which people can actively participate. Whilst the concept of the treaty remains an important tool to stimulate those philosophical issues of national identity, if it limits itself to the long-term, and change at a national level, it risks alienating those working for substantive change at the community level. Even in these dark political times, there is great goodwill in the Australian community towards achieving reconciliation. It would be a shame if the debate about the treaty, which could be so powerful, continued to be confined to the hypothetical.

Sylvie Ellsmore is a law student at the University of New South Wales and an organiser with the Community and Public Sector Union. Sylvie is the interim coordinator of the ReconciliACTION Network and has previously been a member of the New South Wales Reconciliation Council.

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