Time for a Treaty
by Peter Symon
General Secretary, Communist Party of Australia
The occupation and ownership of Australia's territory by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for at least 50,000 years is an indisputable scientific and historical fact. It is estimated that the population of the indigenous people was about 300,000 persons at the time of the first white settlement. By the end of the 19th Century this number had been reduced to perhaps 75,000. The Aboriginal population was not counted at that time.
The indigenous people had a hunter-gatherer society in which there was a division of labour between men and women. They were semi-nomadic within clearly defined territories.
With a relatively low level of productive forces, an extensive knowledge of land and nature and a sophisticated structure of reciprocal relationships, the Aboriginal traditional economy was an efficient means of supplying the society's material needs.
The absence of animals that could be domesticated, such as cattle and horses, meant that the basis for more settled communities did not exist as was the case in other parts of the world. There was also an absence of plants that could be cultivated. This meant that agriculture remained rudimentary or did not exist at all.
The culture and system of ideas of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was developed in close association with the land, its plants and animals.
Their society was savagely up-rooted by the invasion of 1788. Although Governor Phillip was given instructions to "take possession of the continent with the consent of the Natives", consent was never asked nor was it ever given.
The new settlers imposed everywhere their economic system, their authority and power, their culture and beliefs, often using the Christian church as the means to impose their ideas. The languages and culture of the nomadic people were steadily but never completely destroyed. The land occupied by the indigenous people was seized without any compensation or recognition. The theory of "terra nullius" (empty land) was established to justify this open theft by the conquerors.
Some have used words like "savages, "barbarians" and "uncivilised" to describe the original inhabitants of the Australian continent.
A more objective view would draw the conclusion that the newcomers were "superior" in only one respect — that the weapons used for killing others were more potent and effective than the boomerangs and spears of the indigenous people.
The ferocity of the invaders was unrestrained. The massacre of the inhabitants of the Myall River region 150 years ago when white stockmen rounded up the local indigenous people and shot them in cold blood is but one example.
This thread of genocide continued through policies condoned by successive governments. Not only did the settler's guns do their deadly work, but poisoning water and flour was also used. Diseases imported by the white invaders, and sometimes spread deliberately, were also a potent killer of the indigenous people whose resistance was low because of their isolation from other regions of the world over many millennia.
In the 18th and first half of the 19th Centuries, it was believed that the indigenous people would simply die out. The white settlers were little concerned to understand the co-operative and nomadic nature of the indigenous people, their communal economy or the beliefs that had successfully held their societies together for thousands of years. Their culture and beliefs were ridiculed or completely ignored, to be replaced by the preachings of the "Christian" missionaries who also played their part to "smooth the pillow" of the supposedly dying indigenous people.
This process was to be helped by herding them onto reserves and through the policies of integration and assimilation. The reserves became pools of cheap or unpaid labour for farmers, graziers and pastoralists while the destruction of Aboriginal families by way of abducting their children (the stolen generations) was introduced. The identity of these children was denied. They were to be educated into white society in the name of assimilation.
Paul Hasluck, a one-time Governor-General of Australia, said of assimilation: [It] "means that, after many generations, the Aboriginal people will disappear as a separate racial group."
In the early 1960s, Mr Pearson, Minister of Works in a conservative SA Government, was even more to the point. He said:
"It is for us to remember that it is they who are called upon to make the changes, to learn our language, ways, food, laws, customs and sophistications. The problem of assimilation is one that we have inflicted on them."
However, changes were taking place in white capitalist society that also impacted on the remaining indigenous people. Graziers needed stockmen and the Aboriginal people proved to be capable stockmen who could be employed on very low wages or without the payment of any wages. Women were required as domestic servants in white homesteads.
Where they were needed as workers, the people survived the genocide and in many areas in Australia's north remained on their traditional lands. This allowed the survival of their culture and beliefs and their profound relationship with the land.
Joined armed forces
During World War II some Aborigines joined the armed forces and it was during this period that many white soldiers became acquainted with the Aboriginal people for the first time and saw for themselves the shocking treatment that was meted out to them in outback areas.
Some Aborigines moved off the reserves and obtained the lowest paid and most menial jobs in cities and towns. In this way some became workers in the wider Australian community.
Even those living on reserves came in contact with the cash economy and capitalist forms of trade.
White society also became increasingly conscious and many could no longer tolerate the brutal discrimination and oppression of the indigenous people without protest.
These changes meant that by 1988, the 200th anniversary of white settlement, the Aboriginal people, who held their own gatherings to mark the invasion as an occasion for mourning, declared: "We have survived".
This was not a funeral dirge but a declaration, a call to resistance and struggle. Tens of thousands of white supporters of Aboriginal rights joined the marches across Australia.
Slowly but steadily the vision of the Aboriginal people grew from a tribal outlook to an Australia-wide consciousness.
In 1958, the first Australia-wide Aboriginal organisation was formed — the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI).
It was a multi-racial organisation and included such outstanding Aborigines as Joe McGinness, (a Cairns waterside worker and communist), Faith Bandler, Kath Walker, Pastor Doug Nichols, Gladys Elphick, Ray Peckham (also a communist), and others.
The indigenous people from Cairns to Albany, from Derby to Ballarat, from the Coorong to Darwin, began to realise that they were a people with a common history and ancestry and that all were being savagely oppressed, deprived, exploited and wronged.
In 1954 the Communist Review, in an unsigned article, recognised for the first time that a process of national consolidation was underway although not yet drawing the conclusion that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were national minorities.
The article wrote: "Under these new and appalling conditions of life, a new process of national consolidation is taking place. Conditions vary immensely but it is clear that at certain points where fairly large concentrations of population exist, the Aborigines are beginning to look on themselves as people who belong to a particular settlement and the old tribal identity is being replaced by new ties arising from common residence, common awareness of themselves as racially and culturally distinct and, above all, from consciousness of subjection to a common oppression."
The article went on: "There has been a tendency to regard the Aboriginal question as merely a class question, to consider the Aborigine as merely a severely exploited worker. This attitude completely ignores the national characteristics of the Aboriginal people..." (Communist Review, September 1954 p 283).
But it was not for another nine years that the conclusion flowing from the process of "national consolidation" was drawn.
In 1963 a policy statement of the Communist Party said: "The Aborigines of Australia are an oppressed national minority, scattered throughout the con- tinent..."
In the February 1963 issue of the Communist Review, an article by A.L. entitled "The Aboriginal National Minority", dealt at length with this conclusion.
The Aboriginal people were already rejecting assimilation. The article quotes two statements by Aborigines. The first is from Davis Daniels: "When we accept citizenship, we will take a step to isolate ourselves from our own people and we advance only individually."
The second is from Beetaloo Bill: "I would accept citizenship as long as I could live as an Aboriginal. If they want to take my corroborees from me and prevent me living with my people, I am not interested."
The recognition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as national minorities was a giant step forward but even then, the idea of a treaty was not put forward. However, ideas of autonomy were advanced.
A.L. wrote: "Elsewhere [in other countries], national minorities are usually restricted to well defined regions of a country. In these circumstances, self- government or even autonomy from a majority population is a simple concept. In Australia the national minority, although linked by family and other ties, is scattered in groups throughout the length and breadth of Australia. This does not alter their circumstances as a national minority, but it does introduce the practical necessity of some modification in the usual demands and requirements of a national minority. The Aboriginal people must decide this question themselves... wherever possible greater self-government in local government affairs would be quite practicable and in some regions, regional political control by the inhabitants of the regions is quite possible."
Once the seed of national consciousness was planted it grew and blossomed. A renaissance of Aboriginal culture and a new pride arose in the 1960s, using new forms and with a new content. It has continued to flourish and become stronger. An increasing number of the white community gave support to these developments.
Some Aborigines broke through to high school and universities, even though the majority were still relegated to the fringes of country towns and in other faraway places and lived in appalling conditions of poverty, deprivation and unemployment.
On January 4, 1965, The Australian carried a headline "A Black Ghetto in a Red Desert. Aboriginals condemned to squalor." One might well ask, "What has changed in these last 35 years?"
A significant part of Aboriginal advancement was the steadily growing struggle for land rights and for decent wages and conditions for the stockmen working for pastoralists in the north.
The first of these was a strike struggle that began on 1 May, 1946 in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. One of the outcomes of this strike struggle was the formation of an Aboriginal mining co-operative at Pindan, the first of its kind in Australia.
In organising themselves into a mining co-operative, the Pindan group used traditional forms of social organisation but modified them to suit their circumstances.
The Pilbara strike was followed in 1966/7 by the strike of stockmen at Newcastle Waters, Wave Hill and other properties of the British-owned Vestey pastoral company in the Northern Territory.
The Arbitration Commission had ruled that Aboriginal stockmen should receive equal pay and conditions but implementation was delayed. The Gurindji people went on strike for immediate equal pay and conditions, a strike that went on for many months. The strike grew into a successful struggle for land rights when the Gurindji people occupied their traditional land at Dagu Ragu (Wattie Creek).
In this period the demands of the Aboriginal people and their supporters in the white community revolved around Aboriginal ownership of the reserve lands, the ending of discriminatory laws and the extension of full civic rights to Aborigines, the rapid raising of living standards, education, housing and health care, the demand for freedom of movement, the right to child endow- ment and many similar issues. At that time the demand for a treaty does not appear to have been raised.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not counted in an Australian census and this became a burning issue. Up to this time, legislation on questions relating to the indigenous people resided in State parliaments.
This outrageous situation resulted in a referendum in 1967 which called for Aborigines to be counted in a census and that power be given to the Federal Government to legislate on matters relating to the Aboriginal people. The referendum was adopted by a 90 per cent vote that was also a vote for a changed attitude on the part of governments to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
A high-water mark was reached in the land rights struggle when in 1992 the High Court gave a decision in the famous Mabo case. For the first time a Court recognised the fact that the Aboriginal people had occupied land (Murray Island) for millennia, thereby overturning the lie of "terra nullius" — that the Australian continent was empty of people at the time of Governor Phillip's invasion in 1788.
But white conservatives fought and are still fighting a stubborn rearguard action to deny the reality of the 1788 invasion, to deny the policies of genocide, to refuse to recognise the monstrous crime inflicted on the stolen generations and, above all, to limit, delay and, if possible, scuttle the land claims of many indigenous people.
For the ruling class of capitalist Australia it is private property that is sacred, not any concepts of justice or what is right and truthful.
But realities cannot be denied forever.
Labor Prime Minister Hawke responded to calls for a treaty in 1987. He dropped national land rights and undertook to commence negotiations on what was then called a "Makarrata".
Hawke then called for a "compact of understanding" but this was rejected by Aboriginal leaders because it was more limited than a treaty.
Aboriginal leader Dr Charles Perkins said: "We want a treaty written into the Constitution for all time. A compact is not good enough." A treaty, he said, should cover issues of the prior ownership of land, Aboriginal sovereignty, compensation for land lost and recognition of the customs, laws, languages and sacred sites.
Keating replaced Hawke as the next Labor Prime Minister and instead of proceeding with negotiations for a treaty, he appointed a Reconciliation Council in 1990. The appointment of the Council was, in fact, a diversion which sidetracked the treaty concept.
The Reconciliation Council finalised its work this year and issued a "Statement of Reconciliation" which, among other things, said:
"We recognise this land and its waters were settled as colonies without treaty or consent [and we] respect that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have the right to self-determination within the life of the nation."
Is it legitimate for a treaty to be concluded between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander national minorities and the Australian state?
That the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders do not constitute "nations" in the sense that they do not occupy a cohesive economic area is fairly obvious.
But it is equally obvious that the policies of protection, integration and assimilation have completely failed while the assertion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as distinct peoples with their own history, ancestry, culture and traditions is irrefutable.
That they are the original inhabitants of this continent is also irrefutable.
Furthermore, the tendency to national consolidation is becoming stronger. What the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders lack is economic cohesion, an essential characteristic if any group of people is to be regarded as an independent nation. But this does not dispose of the matter.
At its 3rd Congress in 1978 the Socialist Party (now Communist Party) declared:
"The Aboriginal people are an oppressed national minority with-in the Australian state and it is a particular responsibility of the working class to join in struggle for the emancipation of the Aboriginal people and to win full national minority rights and in particular the right to the inalienable, communal ownership of remaining tribal lands now set aside as government or mission settlements and reserves, or better land where they are unsuitable, and to mineral rights where these exist on these lands."
"Another fundamental demand is for the creation of autonomous administrations on lands made over to inalienable, communal ownership."
This was expanded in the Party's 1992 Program which called for:
- Legislation for communal, inalienable land rights for Aborigines on the basis of traditional ownership, religious association, long occupancy and/or need; title to include full rights to minerals and other natural resources.
- Establishment of autonomous areas for communities on the basis of their communally owned land where they can develop their own economic, social and cultural life.
- Where natural resources can be used by a local community, they should be communal property, and profits from co-operatives set up to exploit them should be controlled and used by the local community.
- Where the development of natural resources on Aboriginal communal land requires more finance and/or skills than the local community has, they should become Aboriginal national property; in such cases, voluntary leasing agreements should be reached with the government.
- Representative Land Councils to be set up in all States with the necessary legislation to allow them to research and determine land claims and, where desired by local communities, to administer Aboriginal land.
In connection with the Torres Strait Islanders, the Program suggested the establishment of an autonomous region covering the 15 islands to be administered by an elected council.
It is time to dispense with the concepts of "protection", "integration" and "assimilation". Even the concept of "reconciliation" is not enough. The word required is recognition — recognition of the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders as distinct peoples, as the original occupiers and owners, as national minorities within the Australian State.
The many years of struggle by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the achievements and progress made is the basis upon which to implement the recognition for which they call in the form of a treaty between the Australian state and the two national minorities which reside within it.
A treaty will require long negotiations. It would need to be ratified and incorporated in law with amendments to the Australian Constitution. In the process the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander national minorities must be treated as equals.
The summary rejection of a treaty by Prime Minister Howard is yet more proof that his conservatism does not allow him to proceed beyond the confines of the policies of all previous Australian governments, which stubbornly refused to extend national minority status to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Howard hypocritically claims that the demand for a treaty is "divisive" as though divisions do not already exist. His charge is yet another ploy to frighten people, to justify the continuance of present policies, and to protect the interests of the mining companies and pastoralists.
However, governments and the Australian people will, in the future, have to face up to the question of a treaty and accept that it is a valid demand.
In 1840, the Maori people of New Zealand entered into the Treaty of Waitangi which, in exchange for Maori recognition of British sovereignty, recognised the Maori right to possession of their tribal lands and equal rights with Europeans.
Only recently, the government of Canada concluded a treaty between itself and the indigenous Inuit people.
As long ago as 1594 (just 100 years after Columbus discovered the Americas) the Spanish "Laws of the Indies" said:
"We command that the farms and lands which may be granted to Spaniards be so granted without prejudice to the Indians; and that such as may have been granted to their prejudice and injury be restored to whoever they of right shall belong."
This "law" was ignored by the Spanish settlers in the Americas just as the command to Governor Phillip when he sailed into Botany Bay has been ignored and violated.
Two hundred and twenty years later is time enough to put the wrong to right. A treaty is the way this has to be done.
A treaty is not an alternative to the continuing struggle for land rights. Land rights claims and the campaign for a treaty are two elements of the same struggle.
More successes in the land rights struggle will help the process of national consolidation and provide a firm economic, social and political basis for the recognition of the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders as national minorities. The occupation of land provides the basis for the establishment of autonomous areas.
In The Age (June 30, 1962), John Hetherington quoted artist James Wigley:
"Living among the people (in NW Australia) you could never despair of mankind. They have an integrity you don't find in any white society. If only their unspoilt qualities can be preserved and built upon, I believe we have there the nucleus of a great new civilisation."
A step towards this "new civilisation" is the conclusion of a treaty between the Aboriginal national minorities and the Australian state and the restoration of land rights.