Tuesday, 13 June 2023
Matters of Urgency
First Nations Australians
A proposal has been submitted by Senator Thorpe:
Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice that today I propose to move "That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:
'The government progresses the unfinished business of Treaty now and without delay, being a key mechanism to address systemic injustices towards First Nations people in this country and allowing us all to unite and heal as a nation.'"
Is the proposal supported?
More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:
The government progresses the unfinished business of Treaty now and without delay, being a key mechanism to address systemic injustices towards First Nations people in this country and allowing us all to unite and heal as a nation.
Treaty is an end to the war that was declared on First Nations people 230 years ago. Yes, it is a war. Yes, we are still in a war. The war contains over 500 deaths in custody. The war contains 23,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children taken away from their families, from their mother's breast. War is destruction of land, sea, waterways and totems. That is a war against First Peoples and this country—this country's beautiful natural resources that were used by our people before invasion. It's how we survived as a race of people, the oldest continuing living culture on the planet. We survived. We survived genocide by those who came 230 years ago.
That's why we want peace today. A treaty is about coming together as a nation and having peace amongst us. It's having a day we can all celebrate. It's removing the systemic racism that we deal with every single minute of every single day in this country. Treaty is what Bob Hawke called for. Treaty is what the Redfern speech by Paul Keating was all about. Now what are we doing? We're doing everything but treaty. We're tinkering around the edges because the true sovereigns of these lands have never ceded their sovereignty.
When the Crown invaded these shores, they planted their flag and said that they were sovereigns. The King over there in another country says he is sovereign of these lands. How is that possible? How does someone come and knock on your door—in fact, not even knock; they just barge right in—and take you and your family out of your home and say, 'Good luck; do your best; this is ours now, and we're going to rape and pillage every part of this continent to make ourselves very wealthy for our future generations', not First Peoples' future generations. The only inheritance we have in this country is misery, genocide and a continued war on our people—230 years of a war and no treaty.
We need steps to treaty. This government promised. They said they would do treaty. The Minister for Indigenous Australians herself said we can do everything together. But are we seeing that? No. Labor are too scared of treaty, just like Hawke couldn't get it over the line, or Keating. And do you think they'll do it again?
Oh, well, that's for you; that's not for me. They're not 'Mr' to me. They're people who also failed to deliver justice for First Nations people in this country, who promised the world and delivered absolutely nothing. And now everyone is swallowing this assimilation pill that is going to harm any treaty going forward. We want a treaty now, today. (Time expired)
I'm speaking today on this matter of public importance because I disagree with its premise. A treaty is an agreement between two or more sovereign states. It is not an agreement between a state and its citizens. It seems to me that many people want to treat Indigenous Australians as if they are not in fact Australian, as if we are different and separate. But the reality is that Indigenous Australians are Australians. We have the same legal rights as every other Australian, including the right to participate in the democratic process. I have had the right to use my vote as my voice to have a say on who was going to be my local representative since I was 18, and I've had the right to nominate myself for public office, just like every other Australian. This matter of public importance claims that a treaty would allow us all to unite and heal as a nation, but I disagree. I do not believe that a treaty is a way to unity or healing. I think it is divisive. I think it creates an us-and-them situation in the country that should be treating everyone as equal.
Like most other Australians, I also come from mixed heritage. I am a Warlpiri woman, but I also have European heritage, and in my European heritage there were those who were dispossessed of their own land and brought to an entirely new country. On which side of a treaty would I be? What would a treaty mean for the huge number of Australians with similar diverse backgrounds? If, as the case seems to be in Queensland, there are reparations involved, would those of us with mixed backgrounds be on the paying end or the receiving end? What about the Australians who have come more recently? What would a treaty mean for the immigrant population or recent-generation Australians?
The reality is that the push for treaty from the Left has nothing to do with addressing the real problems facing marginalised Indigenous Australians now. A treaty will do nothing to stop alcohol and substance abuse. It'll do nothing to stop domestic violence and sexual abuse or violent assaults in Indigenous committees. A treaty will do nothing to address child abuse or fatherlessness. It won't bring better medical care or health outcomes. It won't stop fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. And it won't lead to better education for Aboriginal children.
I'm more interested in using this parliament's time, money and resources in pursuing real solutions that will have real impacts on the lives of marginalised Australians. We know there are things we could be doing right now to improve these lives, but we're not doing them. Australians have an incredible capacity to care for their fellow Australians. The people of this country want to see real effort to improve the lives of Australians who need help. Instead, we argue over grand gestures like treaties or the Voice that divide Australians and have no guarantee whatsoever of providing any improvement in the quality of life for those who need our help the most.
The government opposes this urgency motion. In 2017, over six years ago now, 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates gathered at Uluru to endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart and deliver the invitation it offers our nation to walk along a path of reconciliation to a better future for all. The Uluru statement calls for tangible forms in multiple stages to start to heal the wrongs of the past and bridge the gap that exists between First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians. Those reforms are voice, treaty and truth, in that order—that is, voice first, then a makarrata commission to supervise agreement-making and to oversee a process of truth-telling. This was the order decided by the delegates who gathered at Uluru in 2017.
It is that sequence of reforms that makes up the generous offer designed to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians, extended to government through the Uluru statement. It is only right to deliver the reforms of the Uluru statement in that order, as they were requested by First Nations Australians. And that is the order the Albanese government has committed to implementing in full. In support of this, the October budget committed $5.8 million to start work on establishing an independent makarrata commission to oversee the truth-telling process. The order of reform is important because progressing a voice to parliament is the first step in the process and offers a practical way of addressing the political disempowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, which contribute so much to the unacceptable gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
We know a policy disconnect exists between bureaucrats in Canberra and Aboriginal communities on the ground, who daily face significant issues in housing, health and education. The Voice recognises this disconnect and recognises that, for reform to work, the government needs to make policies with Indigenous people, not for them. I was privileged to sit on the joint select committee on the Voice legislation, and time and time again we heard this from Indigenous people who took the time to appear before the committee as it deliberated.
The Voice seeks constructive and practical change that recognises that decades of often well-meaning government policies haven't worked to improve the lot of First Nations people. This is a positive and hopeful opportunity for Australia, for all of us. It will make a difference for Indigenous Australians who live, on average, nine years less than non-Indigenous Australians. It will make a difference for Aboriginal communities experiencing homelessness and overcrowding in housing. It will make a difference in addressing suicide rates of Indigenous Australians, which are increasing. After all, addressing systemic issues like these is what the Voice is all about.
Opportunities like this to change the country for the better are a big affirmation of fairness and optimism, and they don't come along very often. I believe fairness is an innate part of the Australian character, and I believe giving the most disadvantaged people in our society a voice to help make their lives better is only fair. That's why I am campaigning for yes—
I listened to you in silence, so maybe you could be a bit quiet while I'm speaking. We can disagree in a civil way. Getting a successful result won't be easy; it will depend on every Australian talking to their friends and family about why it's time to recognise Indigenous Australians in our Constitution and time to start listening to their voices. It will be these conversations which decide the referendum, not the political games being played in this chamber.
I note that across Australia there is great support from business, sports, arts and entertainment sectors. Most importantly, there's an overwhelming support for the Voice from among the Indigenous community. This widespread support exists because Australians understand this referendum is the best chance we have at implementing real and lasting change. I can imagine how uplifting it will be for Australia when the nation wakes—
The Voice represents an opportunity to make our country better. I can imagine how uplifting it will be. It gives me a great sense of hope to think of that morning, and what a force for a more cohesive Australia a successful vote will be.
In closing, I want to remember these words from the Uluru statement:
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
or COX () (): I rise to speak to this urgency motion on treaty. The Greens wholeheartedly support the calls for treaty across the country; indeed, we have echoed those calls. We are the only Commonwealth country without a treaty with its First Peoples. This is in fact shameful, but it's not due to a lack of interest or a lack of trying. First Nations people of this country have called for a treaty since colonisation began over 200 years ago, and we continue to call for a treaty. Treaty is a part of acknowledging historical wrongs and providing an opportunity for these wrongs to be actually addressed. A treaty will provide a much-needed structure to navigate the relationship between First Nations and non-First-Nations people for the betterment of everybody.
First Nations people have had treaty dangled over them, but we are yet to see that come to fruition. In 1979 the Aboriginal Treaty Committee was established. It ceased in 1983. In 1988 former prime minister Bob Hawke promised a treaty. This was abandoned in favour of reconciliation. In 2017 the Uluru Statement from the Heart called for truth, treaty and voice. As we know, we are in the process of—hopefully—implementing only one aspect of those so far, which is the Voice to Parliament. In last year's October budget, there was $5.8 million set aside for preparatory work for a treaty, but we've yet to see any real progress. It is crucial that we see progress on all elements of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and that includes truth, treaty and voice. Importantly, progress on all three can happen at the same time. Truth and treaty will take years and possibly decades, but there is always more truth to be told, so why not start now? Governments can't keep mentioning treaty when it suits them, to get some good media or to look like they will take action. We actually need progress. We need a treaty commission established. We need negotiations to begin right now. My colleague will dive into more of this information.
But we don't just need a treaty; we also need investment in First Nations community led solutions, good governance to help support them and also legal reform. A key reform is implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in federal law. A crucially important element of this declaration that I've spoken about many times in this chamber is free, prior and informed consent. Another important aspect of this is nation building in preparation for treaty negotiations.
However, it's important to note that there's not one single thing that will solve everything. There is no silver bullet, no panacea. There is so much work to be done in this space. We need to listen to what First Nations people have been calling for.
We know what we need. And a treaty is great, but it's only part of the story.
I want to begin by acknowledging the hardworking members of the First Nations caucus and the leadership that they've shown in the Labor Party not just in this term of government but in the many years leading up to government. In particular, I acknowledge my colleague Senator Patrick Dodson today.
This urgency motion highlights the false proposition that has been propelled in this debate by those that oppose the Voice—that somehow you can't have a voice to parliament, makarrata and agreement making and also make meaningful and urgent investments in closing the gap, that somehow you need to do one of those things but not any of the others. But that's not what the Uluru statement calls for. The Uluru statement calls for all of this work to be done and for all of this progress to be made together. I acknowledge the comments made by Senator Cox just previously. We don't agree on all of the terms, but I think it's worth acknowledging that many people can agree that all of this work can be done together and should be done together. A voice to parliament is an important part of this conversation. It's important because we as a government believe that we need to start work on this important part of the Uluru statement. It's because we're starting with this, constitutional recognition through a voice, that we believe we can achieve makarrata, truth telling and agreement making. That's exactly what the Uluru statement from the Heart calls for.
It also made clear the sequence of this process and this work. It's a sequence of a voice to parliament enshrined in the Constitution, followed by a makarrata commission to supervise agreement making and to oversee a process of truth telling. The sequence is important because the voice coming first will start to address the political disempowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. For too long, governments and bureaucrats have made policies for Indigenous Australians, not with Indigenous Australians. Generations of discrimination, systematic racism and entrenched disadvantage mean that they are starting from a very long way behind. We need a voice now—urgently, I would argue—to address the entrenched disadvantage that First Nations people experience.
In referring to this debate, I want to quote from someone who I think has done a magnificent job in arguing the case for the Uluru Statement from the Heart to be listened to and then arguing the case for the Voice to Parliament to be actioned and accepted by the parties of government—before the election, we believed that was the case, but that is no longer the case—and now continues to work for the 'yes' campaign, and that's Thomas Mayo. Something that resonated with me and with many others on this side of the chamber was when he said:
Can you imagine a section of workers, who have no union, trying to negotiate an agreement with a huge company?
& 1 worker demands: We must have an agreement b4 we form a collective voice?
Yeah, this is the same as demanding: Treaty before a First Nations Voice to Parliament.
Power and representation always precede a meaningful agreement. It's as if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have a strong desire for treaty would establish a representative body and not go on to pursue agreement making and truth telling. These are important words because they acknowledge that there is a process and a sequence that a voice to parliament is incredibly important in terms of providing power and representation in a meaningful way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders so that we can deliver on the call of the Uluru statement.
I will finish, as one of my colleagues did, on the words of the Uluru statement:
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish.
I will say that I believe that not only will Indigenous children flourish but children of all Australians will flourish in a country where we walk together in two worlds, in two cultures. That is a gift to our country. It is a gift from Indigenous people to the rest of our country, and I, for one, will be accepting it when we get the opportunity to vote for the bill later this week in this chamber.
Senator Thorpe is calling for a treaty as a matter of urgency. A treaty between which parties? Who would represent Aboriginal people? What would be in the treaty? Billions in compensation and reparations, perhaps? The white and black Aboriginal industry already receives billions of dollars in grants and projects. Even if a treaty had been considered in the early days of settlement, it could not have been completed as there was no representative Aboriginal leader. There was no means of establishing representation of widely distributed tribes of Aboriginal people across the vast continent of Australia. It was impossible. Some tribal groups were simply unknown to others.
There was no universal legal system in place when Europeans settled Australia. A treaty is a legal arrangement between parties authorised to represent their side. Treaties are a two-way street. Each party would agree to do or refrain from doing certain things. The process is essentially contractual.
Senator Thorpe has indicated that a treaty should address historic systematic injustices. How does she see this as a uniting process? It's not reasonable nor logical to try to punish later generations for perceived historical injustices to the ancestors of Aboriginal people. There's no doubt that injustices occurred on both sides during the opening up of the inland as settlers pushed into the interior and developed Australia. Australia was not won as the spoils of a war.
Is this treaty to be part of the blak sovereignty agenda that Senator Thorpe has been pushing since leaving the Greens or is this part of the Greens's globalist agenda? According to some reports, a treaty is stage 2 of a three-stage process linked to getting the Voice up and then the rewriting of Australian history from the radical socialist point of view. Most Aboriginals have never heard of blak sovereignty, and the concept of a treaty is only the language of the socialist far-left elite and academics pushing for the Voice.
Aboriginal people never formally united in exercising exclusive possession of the entirety of Australia and Aboriginal sovereignty cannot be ceded as it did not exist after 1788. The High Court held in Love v Commonwealth in 2020 that First Nations sovereignty did not persist after the British Crown's assertion of sovereignty in 1788. This confirmed the decision made in Mabo No. 2 in the High Court.
Treaties in other countries were possible because the indigenous party was a united nation. That has never been the case for Aboriginals in Australia. A treaty binding Australia with First Nations people is not viable. It is not based on law. It is divisive. Instead, we need to unite as one country.
At the start I want to acknowledge the words of my colleague Senator Cox and commend her work in this space. Australia is one of only a handful of settler colonial states that does not have a treaty with its first nations peoples. That gap in our history, that flaw in our national DNA, will continue to hurt and divide us until it is mended.
This week this chamber is debating just one part of the Statement from the Heart—voice. Voice is part of moving forward, but it's only a small part and by itself will not deliver the real self-determination, the respect, the land and the place that the First Nations people of this land deserve. For that to happen we must also advance truth and treaty. This is the compact that the Greens are committed to—all three elements of the Statement from the Heart: truth, treaty and voice.
We know that truth telling will be an ongoing process, and we've heard part of that in this chamber today. There will always be stories to be told. We also know that treaty negotiations will take a considerable amount of time and will likely happen under multiple governments. But this isn't an argument to say it's too hard. It's an argument to say, 'Let's get started today.' Imagine where we would be today if Bob Hawkes's two-year experiment with treaty had instead been the first two years in the 30-year long process that we have inherited. Imagine how much stronger our nation would be. We need to ensure that that's the legacy we leave behind 30 years from now.
While we work towards treaty or treaties, we must also work on providing the power, resources and self-determination that First Nations peoples are already telling us are essential for their success. If we listen, we can already hear these demands coming clearly, repeatedly and directly from First Nations communities. These are demands for schools that teach in language, First Nations led community health care, culturally safe and informed programs for substance abuse, caring for country programs, justice reinvestment and getting young people out on country to learn about the lore and culture of their land. The demands are also about economic and cultural empowerment, including native title reform, stronger rights for First Nations people when it comes to mining on their land, and better protections for First Nations cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible—real respect for the longest continuing culture on this planet. For many, it's also about implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into federal law, about implementing all the recommendations of the deaths in custody royal commission and not hiding it under a consultancy report, and about implementing the Bringing them home report, keeping kids safe on country with family, instead of ripping them away from their families— (Time expired)