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Blog Treaty Talks Series – Aden Ridgeway
8 minutes

Treaty Talks Series – Aden Ridgeway

Aden Ridgeway
Last edited: May 6, 2024

Tolerance and respect – Australia’s reconciliation process. A condensed version of the talk given at the ESORA Treaty! Let’s Get It Right! Forum, 2001.

Australia as a Nation, has been struggling with the idea of ‘reconciliation’ and of dealing with ‘unfinished business’. The majority of Australians have indicated their willingness to start afresh in their relationship with Indigenous people, and to re-examine the history of our shared country since colonisation by the British over two centuries ago. There is no question that the concept of reconciliation has been well and truly embraced in Australia after a decade of work by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, which was established by the national Parliament in 1991. Part of that journey was to talk to ordinary Australians, our ancestors and our forefathers – to speak to them to help us in dealing with present day dilemmas.

What has been difficult has been giving some meaning to the ideals of tolerance, respect, understanding and acceptance. And if we are to fully come to terms with these ideals and their relevance to the past it requires a willingness to learn and be prepared to challenge the stereotypes and prejudices that have been handed down over generations. Australia must engage in a new dialogue and begin a new debate concerning a new relationship based upon the idea of cultural diversity, social harmony and the promotion and protection of what is different, not guaranteeing what is the same.

It is at this point that many of the harder issues associated with recognising and giving effect to the broader and fundamental implications of reconciliation emerge. Only a minority of Australians are prepared to countenance real equality which would include:

  • the negotiation of a formal agreement or treaty between the government and Indigenous peoples to resolve a range of outstanding matters; and
  • the recognition and protection of other fundamental Indigenous rights relating to land and culture in our laws and our Constitution.

In other words, non-Indigenous Australians are keen to embrace the rhetoric of reconciliation, so long as it doesn’t require them to take effective action to share the country’s abundant resources and political power. Most are not prepared to make any significant adjustments in how they live their lives, or how they see their future. National public polling reveals that few are prepared to really look within themselves to challenge their beliefs and values, for fear of what they might find and for fear of what they think they might lose. Consequently, the terra nullius of the Australian mind is alive and well, and nothing other than real political leadership and effective community education is likely to change that.

Whilst the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation’s decade of awareness raising and grassroots campaigning is reaping rewards, advancements in terms of political leadership have not kept pace. Some would argue that Australia is turning away from its fundamental values of equality and social justice for all, especially when it comes to its own Indigenous peoples and, more recently, immigrants and refugees. Australia’s record in relation to the following issues is further testament to just how much more we need to do to overcome racism:

  • The Stolen Generations – the imperative of full reparations, starting with a formal apology by the Australian Parliament and the establishment of a reparations tribunal to ensure a humane and just response is delivered to the individuals, families and communities affected.
  • Mandatory sentencing laws – which the Australian Parliament should immediately overturn on the basis that they breach our obligations under several international treaties to which we are a party.
  • Aboriginal deaths in custody – it is simply unacceptable in a first world country like Australia, that one in every five inmates in our gaols is Indigenous – or that nationally, the rates of Indigenous imprisonment are fifteen times higher than for the non-Indigenous population.

Few Australians would dispute Indigenous peoples’ claims to citizenship rights, and yet this is frequently the point at which we try to have dialogue to fix many of the ills within Indigenous communities. However, Indigenous Australians did not have basic citizenship rights until as late as 1967. It is only as a result of a national referendum in that year that we have been counted in our national census and able to be specifically included in national legislation. It is therefore only in current living memory that Indigenous Australians were acknowledged and recognised as legally equal. Even here in New South Wales, up until 1972, it was still possible for school principals to prevent children from attending school on the basis of race.

We may now have a Racial Discrimination Act and a Human Rights Commission, but as CERD(Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination) recently pointed out, ‘there is no entrenched guarantee against racial discrimination in Australian law’.

Still, citizenship must be re-defined and extended to embrace cultural identity and the special rights available to Australia’s Indigenous people within the framework of human rights and co-existence.

In this context we should be having a vigorous and robust debate about:

  1. The principle of self-determination underscoring all government policy at the local, regional, state and national levels. By recognising and implementing the demands for effective decision-making control, Indigenous individuals and communities will be able to move away from dependency and its negative economic, cultural, social and psychological consequences.
  2. Political representation, including dedicated seats in Parliament.
  3. Constitutional recognition.
  4. The enactment of a bill of rights, defining the rights and responsibilities of all citizens. It could be a mechanism to provide: protection against racial discrimination, and a defined power to make laws for the benefit of Indigenous peoples.
  5. Economic empowerment initiatives to replace welfare dependency.
  6. A treaty to resolve the ‘unfinished business’ that stands in the way of reconciliation and social harmony in Australia.

Dealing with unfinished business – the Reconciliation Bill

The process of reaching this reconciliation is very much about dealing with ‘unfinished business’. And what is crucial to defeating racism is promising that the past does not live in the present on access to the full range of rights. Nevertheless, if reconciliation and a new dialogue are going to have true meaning in any country, they must be action-oriented and they must become the vehicle for real change in attitudes and actions – not just something that is at best aspirational.

That is why my first Private Senator’s Bill (5th April, 2001) concerns the reconciliation process, and more particularly proposes a framework for a treaty negotiation process. It is based on the model legislation proposed by the Council for Reconciliation in its Final Report to Parliament in 2000. After conducting its own deliberations, public consultations and seeking expert advice, the Council decided that legislation would be an appropriate means of giving effect to the progress already made towards reconciliation.

The Reconciliation Bill is designed to further advance reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and all other Australians by establishing processes to identify, monitor, negotiate and settle the unresolved issues for reconciliation. It is Australia’s first legislative commitment to the achievement of real and lasting national reconciliation but it needs other political support, particularly from the other parties. The majority of Australians have clearly demonstrated they want to see these issues satisfactorily addressed and resolved, and this is what this bill aims to do.


Finally, the question of racism has perhaps been the ugliest phenomenon to ever visit our societies; it incited the drawing of the colour-line in the ‘White Australia’ policy, drove people from their traditional lands and disenfranchised people from their children, culture and future. Part of the challenge in having rationality in a race debate is to build relations across the dividing line so that full human rights and substantive equality are restored. It also requires that we recognise that modern forms of racism thrive on its denial under the guise of ‘political correctness’.

It is further necessary that we challenge our history and the idea that we should fit into the straight jacket of a mono-cultural society. The 21st century is not a place for a contest about our various depictions of the past or about winners. It is a place that must engage the past in order to work out our future. We must also vehemently challenge those who seek to enlist the politics of blame, revenge and resentment when asserting the rock-solid nature of a colonial inheritance and privilege, which is now long gone. At the same time, though, there must be recognition that where there is a growing under-class, overcoming their disadvantage is crucial to avoiding the compounding effects of racism for Indigenous peoples. Backlash itself is the product of inequity and a new dialogue must have as its prime objective a resolution of unfinished business, not to the type or standard as required by some, but which respects needs and difference.

A treaty should promote social harmony and give us all a chance to applaud its outcome. Otherwise it is a wasted exercise if only a few of us see success in its making and clap alone to what might be. An agreement of unfinished business is about defining the Nation and it should inform the future because the past has never been forgotten.

Aden Ridgeway

Aden Ridgeway was born in Macksville in northern NSW. He is a proud member of the Gumbaynggirr people. After leaving school in Year 11, he worked as a boilermaker. He then became involved in the public service. In this role, he engaged in a number of careers, including being a park ranger and working in several New South Wales government departments.

In 1990, Ridgeway was elected onto the first ATSIC Sydney Regional Council, a position in which he served two terms of office. He joined the Australian Democrats in 1991. In 1995, he became the executive director of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council. He continued in this position until 2000.

Aden is the first Indigenous person to be elected as a Parliamentary Leader in Australia when he held the position of Deputy Leader, Australian Democrats, in 2001-02. He retired as a Senator for NSW having served in the Federal Parliament for six years. He was the inaugural chairman of Indigenous Tourism Australia, and a former chair of the National NAIDOC Committee. In the past, Aden was also Patron of The Centre for Aboriginal Independence and Enterprise and the Saltwater Freshwater Festival, he has Chaired the Bangarra Dance Theatre, the Federal Government’s Remote Enterprise Centre; and was a former Trustee of the Rio Tinto Aboriginal Fund.  Aden holds a Doctorate (Hon Lit) from the University of Technology, Sydney.