A treaty won't solve everything, but it could change this nation's cultural tapestry

Richard Frankland

By Richard Frankland

We need our own voice, our own societal structure with our own doctrines, policies, processes and cultural shapes. In essence, we need a social order within a social order

The story of Indigenous Australian treaties begins long before the white man came to our lands. The story begins long before any current activists began to fight for treaties, before any governments began to talk of treaties or before any proposed representative body structures were spoken of.

This story begins thousands of generations ago. There were treaties here then, between us, our mob, nation to nation agreements, tribe to tribe agreements, clan to clan agreements – treaties. Treaties on boundaries, treaties on food, partners, ceremony, ritual, hunting grounds, engineering, farming, trade ... the list goes on. 


A treaty was an agreement then and now it is the same. A treaty is an agreement between two or more parties.


There are however, many different interpretations of a treaty. Some say a treaty can only be between sovereign nations, some say that a treaty is an agreement between two or more parties, some say that a treaty is about land, and others say it is about civil service delivery.


The interpretations of what a treaty is or can be often provides more confusion than answers. I try to think of “chaos not conspiracy” when I think of those who dare walk the pathway toward a treaty. Essentially, there appears to be many different types of treaties that parties can choose to enter into.


For me, a treaty is ultimately about hope. A treaty is a light that shines in the distance, and that light that may help us as a nation to acknowledge the atrocities of the past, and plant seeds here in the present for future generations to grow trees, a forest, perhaps even change the cultural tapestry of our nation.


For me, what is just as important as that treaty light in the distance is the journey to the light and what we can accomplish along that journey.


I see that on that journey toward a treaty, there is the potential for many great things, for great seeds to be planted. Not just seeds for Aboriginal and Islander Australians, but seeds for all of us who claim this nation in the shape that it is now, as our own.

One of the practical seeds that we can plant while journeying toward a treaty can be what I call “a quarantined election process”. An Indigenous-specific election process so we can hear the Aboriginal and Islander voice on issues such as constitutional reform, who represents us and why, on policies that are directly aimed at us as a people, and of course on pivotal issues such as treaty.


A quarantined election process essentially means that we see the Aboriginal and Islander vote clearly, concisely and on issues such as and similar to the issues mentioned above. Essentially we would see the collective view of Aboriginal and Islander people who chose to vote.


Another practical seed could be a dispute resolution process in our cultural shape, taking into account the many issues we shoulder on a daily basis, our cultural obligations and our family and community commitments. This dispute resolution tool would go a long way toward resolving issues of lateral violence, organisational and cultural conflicts.

Another seed that may be planted may be that the states, territories and commonwealth governments allocate dedicated Indigenous seats in parliament. What a voice we could have if this level of representation was enabled. Arguably, we could vote our own people into those seats with a quarantined Indigenous election process.


Another seed could be a coalition of registered Indigenous state organisations and Indigenous peak agencies to determine their collective and individual role in many areas. Perhaps we could even have a 20 year Indigenous-specific strategic plan on our collective business.


These are tasks that can be taken up easily by governments and our communities while we journey toward a treaty. This could be community capacity building at its best.


Establishing a representative body for a treaty, a framework for a treaty and resources for a treaty can be long and arduous work. To attain a finalised treaty will be an even longer process. If we get a representative body legislated, if we pick our team(s) to represent us to fight for a treaty (or treaties) and if we then begin negotiations, the treaty process will still take years.

Along the way toward a treaty, we will still lose our children to suicide, we will still lose languages, we will still be incarcerated at horrific levels, we will still see violence in our homes, communities and across society at a disproportionately higher rate than our non-Aboriginal friends, colleagues and neighbours. Chronic illness will still visit us and we will still face discrimination in every quarter of society.


To counter these horrors one would think that we need positive policy, legislation and appropriately resourced Aboriginal-controlled agencies and programs. Well, we do.


But that said, I believe we need far more than just those policies and resources. I believe we need some small semblance of what was wrenched from us during the invasion. We need our own voice, our own societal structure with our own doctrines, policies, processes and cultural shapes. In essence, we need a social order within a social order. We need the ability to establish and live by our own cultural protocols that are accepted across the board, by us.


We also need our voice to be heard across this nation and within our parliaments. Our sentiment, to be heard from our lips and from our own Indigenous democratic processes.


I believe that we need to embrace this opportunity for change that the journey toward a treaty is giving us. We have no choice if we want to move forward as a people and as a nation.


We can rise to this challenge of a journey toward a treaty. We can use this journey to change the cultural tapestry of this nation.


The treaty itself will not be the ultimate answer to all the ills we face as a people. However, the journey toward a treaty can be the foundation for the creation, development and implementation of processes that enable the building of culturally safe social orders, structures and events that take into account our cultural shape, ways and needs. The choice is ours.


While we journey toward a treaty, I say let now be the time to make change. Let now be the time to plant seeds side by side. Let now be the time to stand together. A treaty will come. Let us honour our ancestors and build something together for our children and our children’s children. Treaty!


  • “Our stories, our way” – each week, a new guest hosts the @IndigenousX Twitter account to discuss topics of interest to them as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. Produced with assistance of Guardian Australia staff.