Date: 
Tuesday 6 June 2017
Image: 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar has delivered a landmark speech linking Constitutional reform and a treaty with Australia’s First Peoples to the “unfinished business of the 1967 Referendum and the Mabo decision.”

Australians should not be unsettled by the idea of a treaty, the Commissioner said, because we already have more than 1,000 treaties in the form of Indigenous Land Use Agreements.

She said the High Court’s Mabo Native Title decision, reached 25 years ago, had entrenched the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australian law.

“It is only logical that we advance our rights to be constitutionally accepted so that we have a voice which will be heard forever.”

Commissioner Oscar drew a standing ovation and deafening applause after she delivered the annual Mabo Lecture in Townsville on 6 June as part of the National Native Title Conference 2017.

She said last month’s Uluru Statement delivered overwhelming support for substantial change to the Australian Constitution “because we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples know that nice words do not get us very far.

“We have ridden the waves of good will and hope of the 1967 referendum, the national apology and the early days of the Mabo decision.

“But we are practiced in the experience that nice words do not keep our kids at home, our people out of gaol or address the yawning health gap between us and our fellow Australians.

“Only action can do that. We need a government who has the courage to take these [Uluru] proposals to a referendum and into the future with a Makarrata or Treaty Commission.”

Commissioner Oscar said during the 25 years that have passed since the Mabo decision, Australia’s First Peoples have borne a heavy personal cost in fighting for Native Title while watching governments continue to water down Indigenous rights.

“It is sad for me to reflect on the efforts of so many of our old people who have made their cases over years and even decades but have never lived to see the settlement of their claims.

“I understand how frustrating it is for all of us and the hurt and pain that Traditional Owners and native title holders feel. But we must not give up, we must have hope, we must continue.

“We all know that we have much, much further to go if we are to truly reconcile our past with our present, and ensure that the aspirations that we have for future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are realised.

“Last month, hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples gathered on the lands of the Anangu to take part in the Uluru National Convention. They came from the furthest corners of this country, to discuss a matter of great importance that has occupied the minds of our peoples for some time – how we, as the First Peoples of this country stand in Australia’s founding legal document – the Constitution.

“This was the culmination of months of Regional Dialogues, conversations which took place across the country, about what if any change should take place. This coordinated effort brought together a great cross section of our communities, with diverse voices at each location.

“This process brought these discussions out of the football stadiums and our television screens and into our communities, it brought together people of all ages, young and old, from community members, to those from our organisations and some of our people who who were involved in the 1967 referendum process.

“As I travelled to Uluru, I was conscious of the eyes that would be upon us and the need for consensus to determine the way forward for this issue – because a proposal that does not have the fundamental support of our peoples should not be taken to a vote.

“Uluru delegates expressed diverse views, but there was consensus about the need for change, for the need to have greater control over our lives and for the long-held aspirations around treaty and a final settlement to be answered.

“The Australian nation should not be unsettled by the term ‘treaty’. That is agreement making and is already entrenched in public policy and practice through Indigenous Land Use Agreements.

“Many of us in this room already have treaties in the form of ILUAs – and there are nearly 1200 of them currently across the country delivering outcomes for our peoples. We have nearly three times more ILUAs than successful native title determinations but we know that this system is not perfect.

“We know that treaties as they exist in other countries, have not been the magic bullet for the Indigenous peoples of Canada, New Zealand or the United States. But having a requirement to consult with us on the nature and extent of these types of agreements can only enhance a treaty process. The Uluru Statement says that both goals are important for our peoples. And I agree.

“An Indigenous body gives us an opportunity to elevate our voices in a country where we are a minority and occupy a space on the fringe of government policy. A voice gives us the ability to address Parliament directly through our connections to our communities and regions.

“I don’t believe that we should underestimate the goodwill of our fellow Australians, nor the resolute determination and patience of our peoples.

“We might be patient, but we also see the urgent need to address the situation facing our peoples today. We cannot wait another 50 years.”

Read the full text of Commissioner Oscar’s 2017 Mabo Lecture.

Photo: Mabo Native Title