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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

Sovereignty was never ceded.

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What is treaty?

Last edited: April 10, 2024

What are Treaties? Why are they important? What can they come to represent and where they might lead us?

Treaty is an agreement.

Treaty can be understood as a legally binding settlement or agreement 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.

A major barrier to ‘talking treaty’ in contemporary Australia is the language of treaty itself. For some, treaty entails ‘nation to nation’ agreements like those between independent sovereign states. This understanding has led some, like former Prime Minister John Howard, to dismiss treaty on the grounds that ‘a nation cannot make a treaty with itself’ – an argument built on false notions of ‘division’ that continues to be advanced in the wake of the Voice referendum. This line of thinking operates on fear and promotes the idea that respecting First Nations sovereignty – whether through voice, treaty, or some other avenue –  will somehow create a ‘nation within a nation’ that permanently fragments contemporary Australia.

Alternatively, treaties can and perhaps should be understood in a more nuanced and contextual way, as negotiated domestic agreements which provide a framework for a new relationship between parties, including the mutual recognition of rights and future dealings between First Nations communities and the Australian Government (nationally, regionally or both). In this view, treaties can contribute to building mature and nuanced relationships between the State and First Nations which respect the sovereignty, self-determination and nationhood of First Nations whilst still retaining and perhaps even enhancing a larger sense of ‘togetherness’. In some cases, alternative language such as ‘agreement making’ or ‘Makarrata’, a Yolngu term meaning to come together after a struggle, are more expansive terms that are better able to articulate the possibilities and opportunities for treaty making.

Read our downloadable, shareable resource What is Treaty?, 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. For more detail on what’s happening in your backyard, see our resources on treaty by state and territory.

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke receiving the Barunga Statement from the the Northern and Central Land Councils (NT) in 1998, Getty Images.

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