Treaty in Australia

ANTaR believes that as Australians, all of us need to understand, as best we can, what Treaties are, why they are important, what they might come to represent and where they might lead us together as reconciled peoples.

To aid the movement for Treaty, and to help generate a better understanding of Treaty in the broader community, ANTaR has produced the following series of resources about Treaty. ANTaR is very pleased to be partnering with the National Native Title Council and the University of Melbourne to also produce the online series of Treaty Talks. Unfortunately we've not yet been able to hold a physical gathering but have been delivering a series of online webinars to build awareness around Treaty, including its history, where we are today, and what the future could be if Treaties with Australia’s First Peoples are realised. Catch up on the Treaty Talks series here.

What is Treaty?

Treaty is an agreement. 

Treaty is a legally binding settlement involving two or more parties, nations, groups, organisations or interests. 

Treaty is reached after a process of negotiation and not merely consultation. Consultation can be understood as a one-way process. Negotiation, on the other hand, involves parties coming to the table as equals working towards a mutually beneficial resolution. 

Read our downloadable, shareable resource 'Treaty in Australia', for the full picture. Including, the history of Treaty in Australia, what has happened elsewhere in the world, and a snapshot of where we are nationally and by state and territory.

Tracing Treaty in the Australian context

If asked when the concept of 'Treaty' entered the political lexicon in the long, long story towards reconciliation in Australia, some would say it emerged during the 1970’s-1980’s. They may also be aware that amongst most western colonising states, Australia has the dubious distinction of being the only nation that has failed to enter into any kind of agreement or Treaty with its First Nations Peoples. And this despite the fact that international and national laws of that era made provision for such agreements with local Indigenous peoples. 

What may surprise most citizens is the date of the following quotation:

The lack of a treaty…{was}… a fatal error…Had [the natives] received some compensation on the territory they surrendered ... His Majesty's Government would have acquired a valuable possession without the injurious consequences which have followed our occupation and which must ever remain a stain upon the colonisation of Van Diemen's Land.

These words are taken from official dispatches between the secretary of state and colonies in London – in this case George Arthur, Governor of Van Dieman’s Land. They refer to perhaps the darkest decade in European – Aboriginal relations of nineteenth century Australia, the time of the Black War(link is external) in Van Dieman’s Land. They also mark one of the earliest public acknowledgements and deep misgivings on the part of colonial authorities about the legality of the way in which European settlement was proceeding, without regard to the peoples already occupying the lands. The date is 1832! It is understood that George Arthur’s searing experience of trying to manage the brutalities of the Black War period later prompted him to attempt to influence the setting up of the new West Australia colony and also the British authorities in negotiating a treaty with settlers and Maori peoples in New Zealand.

Bolstered by the western scientific economic rationalist world view that the colonists brought with them, the exploitation of the Australian continent proceeded apace for the next 150 years – as did the demise of its First Nations Peoples. This time has been described as:

A period of dispossession, physical ill-treatment, social disruption, population decline, economic exploitation, codified discrimination, and cultural devastation. The notional citizenship ascribed to the Aboriginal people at the beginning of this period was all but gone by the end of it.

So great was the decimation of Aboriginal nations around the country that by the late nineteenth century colonial authorities began to speak of ‘soothing the pillow of a dying race’. It was a case of accepting the inevitable outcome of a superior society. And as each new generation of settlers arrived firsthand experience of the cruelties and devastation of conquest faded in settlers’ memories – a phenomenon that became known as The Great Australian Silence. Throughout this time there were white settler humanitarians who fought for justice and citizen rights for First Nations communities. However to this day the Australian Constitution of the newly formed nation in 1901 makes no mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Talk of treaty, compensation or other forms of reparation on the part of authorities disappeared from public discourse.

There was a renewed flourishing of advocacy for Treaty undertaken by non-Indigenous Australians from the late 1970’s onwards. High profile Australians such as economist and public servant Nuggett Coombs and poet Judith Wright were driving forces in the formation of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee (1979-83) whose aim was to promote treaty amongst non-Indigenous Australians. 

However a little known fact is that throughout the entire nineteenth and twentieth centuries and right up to the present time, First Nations People have been actively engaged in their struggle for basic human rights, despite the disadvantage of their socio-economic status. 

These efforts are recorded in a remarkable publication – The Struggle for Aboriginal Rights, Attwood B. and Markus A. Allen & Unwin 1991 – a documentary history of Indigenous initiated actions ‘fighting to be granted or to retain reserve lands, battling to govern themselves, or to be treated fairly by settler authorities'.  Even more surprising is the number of times the word Treaty appears in an index search of these advocacy /petition writings. Sixteen separate entries use the word in negotiations with authorities. The earliest of these was in the 1830’s in Van Dieman’s Land and among the latest, the more well known Barunga Statement (1988), and the early documents Eddie Koiki Mabo submitted for his case. The Mabo case, begun in the early 1980’s, finally upended the myth of Terra Nullis in the Mabo Native title win of 1992.

Where are we up to now?

The Treaty movement is quickly growing as more and more Australians hear about the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart and what First Nations People ask of us in the landmark declaration.

The governments of Victoria, Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland are already off the mark and at various stages of engagement with First Nations People on agreement making processes. We must work together to build on this momentum. Help us build an active movement for Treaty!