How one Australian state is rethinking its relationship with Aboriginals

No Australian government has signed a treaty with its indigenous population. But now in the state of Victoria, the premier sees a treaty as a way to enhance Aboriginals’ well-being and self-determination.

David Gray/Reuters/File
Robin Mildjingi and his grandson Gasier of the Yolngu people sit outside the front of their house in the Australian Aboriginal community of Ramingining, located in East Arnhem Land in this file photo from 2014.

On a recent Tuesday morning, dozens of indigenous people have gathered in this struggling town some 120 miles north of Melbourne to discuss a radical reimagining of their relationship with their government.

Far removed from the center of Victoria state politics, the residents are focused on a proposed treaty between indigenous people and their state, which, if ratified, would be Australia’s first such legal document since the arrival of British settlers in 1788.

“We are making history with this dialogue, and it is an opportunity,” Richard Frankland, an indigenous activist, writer, and filmmaker, tells the forum in Shepparton, one of a series organized by the Victoria government. “With all the scars we’ve got on our soul for the last 228 years, this opportunity has taken this long to come around.”

Unlike the United States, Canada, and New Zealand, no Australian government has signed a treaty with the country's indigenous peoples. Just 3 percent of the population – a result of the disease and frontier violence that accompanied colonization – they have struggled to make their way in modern Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lag far behind the general population in terms of health, education, and wealth; alcohol and substance abuse have had an outsized impact, and on average, an indigenous person's life span is more than a decade shorter than his non-indigenous neighbor. 

In Victoria, known as one of Australia's most liberal regions, the need for radical change has gained strong political momentum.  The state's center-left premier, Daniel Andrews, has embraced the treaty cause, seeing it as a way to enhance Aboriginals’ well-being and self-determination, as well as heal deep divisions between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. In recent weeks, his Labor Party government has organized public meetings around the state to gauge indigenous sentiment about what such an agreement should look like. While nothing has been decided, common expectations include land rights, greater self-determination, and an apology for the harm inflicted by colonization.

“Everyone has a different construct of what a treaty will provide,” says Leanne Miller, an Aboriginal woman at the meeting in Shepparton, which is home to about 60,000 people. “It is a bit like going down a passageway, you don’t know until you get there. I don’t think anyone has an agenda other than goodwill.”

That diversity of views within the Aboriginal community is likely to challenge efforts to reach a consensus on a treaty with Victoria, as well as constitutional recognition at the federal level, a parallel debate taking place nationwide. 

The state government plans to have an agreement reached by December, after which activists hope other parts of the country could be persuaded to follow a similar path. Half of Australia's eight states and territories have larger indigenous populations. 

Mixed support for a treaty

Nationally, both Labor, whose former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered a landmark apology to Aborigines in 2008, and its rival center-right Liberal Party support a referendum to recognize Aboriginals in the Constitution as the continent’s first peoples. The Commonwealth’s highest legal document, which took effect in 1901, was drafted without indigenous input and still contains controversial race powers that theoretically allow legal discrimination by the government.

While opinion polls have showed 75 percent of Australians to support constitutional recognition, support for a treaty – which would likely have more practical impact – is much less clear. National polls at the turn of the millennium put support at just over 50 percent.

Some indigenous activists see recognition as a distraction from a more pressing treaty – or, at the very least, an empty gesture to placate the guilt of non-indigenous Australians.

“Myself, personally, I don’t acknowledge myself as an Australian person,” says Neil Morris, a young indigenous man, at the Shepparton gathering. “I don’t acknowledge the Australian Constitution as a legitimate document. So to even invest any energy into that document for me has no relevance.”

In his eyes, it is indigenous people who should be seated at the head of any negotiating table. He says they should be inviting the rest of Australia to live by their laws and customs, not the other way around.

In Shepparton, which, at 6 percent, has the largest indigenous population in Victoria outside of Melbourne, the divisions between the two communities aren’t hard to find.

Even as they acknowledge that many Aborigines are good people, non-Aboriginal residents here quietly complain about their involvement in crime, which has risen sharply in recent years, although figures don’t break down offenders by race. In 2014, the town made headlines across the state with a 15 percent rise in crime – commercial burglaries, thefts from cars, and assaults – in a single year. Nationally, indigenous people are overrepresented as both perpetrators and victims of crime, and are some 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than the general population, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology.

An over-reliance on government support is another complaint in this town and farther afield. In a survey released by Australian National University last year, 30 percent of Australians said land rights for indigenous people were unfair to other citizens, while 22 percent said that government help generally had gone too far.

“I don’t really have a big problem with it, no problem at all,” says a white Shepparton shopkeeper of more than 30 years, referring to constitutional recognition. “But it’s these layabouts – they are half the ones that are making all the noise: 'We need this and we need that.' ”

The man, who refuses to give his name for fear of reprisal, acknowledges past injustices. But he is skeptical of special claims to land that might come with a treaty, and of what he sees as an opportunist element claiming distant aboriginal ancestry for personal benefit. Among those who echo this latter claim is Andrew Bolt, one of Australia’s most prominent conservative commentators.

For this business owner, activist agitation has often reinforced rather than narrowed differences. He considers it “offensive” to deny Australian nationality and equally objectionable to claim true ownership of the country.

“This country is big enough for everybody,” he says.

Racists incidents cast a shadow

Incidents of outright racism against indigenous people have also cast a shadow over relations in the town, which is one of a handful of Victorian communities chosen for a pilot government initiative to collect reports of discrimination. Last July, a derogatory sign was placed on top of a sign for the local Australian football club for indigenous youth, Rumbalara Football Netball Club. In February, photos of two men in blackface at a party in Ballarat, another regional Victorian town, sparked stinging rebukes from a range of well known indigenous people, including Shepparton rapper Adam Briggs.

Levi Power, the team’s captain and an employee in the indigenous health service, believes a treaty and constitutional recognition are important, although he has yet to form a strong opinion on the specifics of either.

Right now, his bigger priority is improving perceptions of people like him in the community.

“We’ve come a long way in recent times, just trying to make those relationships with the broader community, through the footy club, the health service,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of organizations in Shepp now [so] that we sort of can’t be avoided. We are sort of there in everyone’s face.”

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