Treaty? Nah
Malcolm Turnbull’s dismissive response to the idea of a treaty with Indigenous people was unnecessary and unworthy

The Yirrkala bark petitions presented by Yolgnu people to parliament in 1963, seeking recognition of land rights. Source

The idea of a country negotiating a treaty with its indigenous inhabitants is hardly novel.

Three of our closest friends and allies (New Zealand, Canada and the United States) have all done so successfully, and none of their nations fallen into terminal division and chaos.

Even in Australia, a treaty has been under discussion for nearly a century.  Aboriginal elders have talked about it since at least the sesquicentenary of settlement in 1938, and it was seriously mooted a generation later when the great public servant Dr HC (Nugget) Coombs proposed what he called a makarrata – a settlement.

Since then it has surfaced and resurfaced numerous times; Bob Hawke toyed with the idea in the ’80s and that phase came to something of a climax in Yothu Yindi’s 1991 anthem ‘Treaty’, which caught the attention of a number of progressive politicians.

But today’s hard-line conservatives prefer to ignore the history, both international and local. They have resisted any acknowledgement of Aboriginal recognition, even that of the most innocuous mention in the constitution, although the official position of both major parties (and most of the minor ones) is to pursue at least that symbolic step.

But for most serious participants in the process, constitutional recognition can only be a first step; the long march towards genuine reconciliation must continue. Hence it was utterly unsurprising that, when asked, Bill Shorten should mention the T word during last week’s Q&A broadcast.

The event would have been unremarkable except that Malcolm Turnbull took the opportunity to play politics, accusing Shorten of undermining the bipartisan push for recognition.

The attack was unnecessary and unworthy; Turnbull is sympathetic towards the Indigenous cause (he is, for instance, prepared to accept the British settlement of 1788 as an invasion) and should have simply acknowledged the reality that a treaty has long been part of the discussion, but that the immediate aim was to push for a bipartisan referendum on recognition.

It was he, not Shorten, who has undermined the process: by turning it into a political fight, he made it inevitable that the media would latch on, and acrimonious divisions would emerge.

Probably the silliest intervention was from Barnaby Joyce, who even the rejected the concept of invasion: an invasion, he said, would have involved an army. Quite apart from the fact that the first fleet did in fact include a well-armed and aggressive corps of marines, it is worth noting that Joyce himself was prepared to use force to repel a recent incursion of two small terriers – they were, presumably, threatening the security and welfare of the commonwealth.

But, more importantly, the right-wingers have been given a second wind: many are unwilling even to countenance the idea of recognition, but if that is regarded as inevitable they want it to be the end of the discussion – a last step, not a first. Turnbull’s opportunistic response to Shorten has encouraged them to campaign for this clearly absurd stance.

It is probably too late to undo the damage, but as the nation’s leader, he should do his best to bring the debate back on the rails. The idea of a treaty cannot and will not be wished out of existence; at best it can be put on the backburner. Shorten may, in the context, have been a little indiscreet, but Turnbull is the one who turned on the heat. Shame, prime minster, shame.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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