(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)
The Prime Minister's key adviser on Indigenous affairs wants the federal government to negotiate a series of treaties with Indigenous groups.
Chair of Prime Minister Tony Abbott's Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine, says it would be an important step in achieving reconciliation.
Murray Silby reports.
(Click on audio tab above to listen to this item)
Tony Abbott by-passed the already-in-place National Congress of Australia's First Peoples to create the Indigenous Advisory Council to provide advice on Indigenous issues, and handpicked Warren Mundine to chair it.
Mr Mundine is now urging Mr Abbott to do what decades of Prime Ministers before him have either been unable or unwilling to: negotiate treaties with Australia's Indigenous people.
He says there should be separate treaties with each of what he calls the Indigenous nations or language groups that were present on the continent before European settlement began in 1788, and which still exist.
Mr Mundine has told the ABC treaties between governments and Indigenous peoples have served New Zealand, Canada and the United States well and something similar should be done in Australia.
"And if you're looking at reconciliation, it always seems to focus on the sorry and the apology, but from my Catholic background reconciliation means a clear thing which is yes, you do have the apology and sorry, but also you have to have foregiveness as well to truly reconcile and I see this as the way for us to move forward. The sides come together and a treaty is a great symbol of that, but has very practical stuff in regard to that."
It's not the first time a treaty has been suggested to reconcile differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Supporters of the idea say Indigenous Australians never willingly gave up their rightful lands to what they describe as the invading forces of the separate British colonies established on the Australian mainland and Tasmania.
Since federation in 1901, successive national governments have either avoided the issue or rejected it outright.
Perhaps the most notable disappointment for treaty campaigners was former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke's failure to deliver on a promise of a treaty in 1988 - the bicentenary of European settlement.
But now, rather than make a single treaty between the federal government and Australia's Indigenous peoples in general, Warren Mundine says individual treaties should be agreed with each nation or language group.
At the time of European settlement it's estimated that amounted to hundreds of groups, although that has now diminished significantly.
Mr Mundine says no single group can speak for Australia's Indigenous peoples to negotiate a treaty.
"Most people talk about a treaty between Aboriginal people and Australia. Well, who is going to speak on behalf of Aboriginal people? And I think we need to recognise that that's going to be a very contentious outcome. But every function I go to these days, every major function anyway, has a welcome to country, so we already know whose country we are on. A lot of these countries still have their governments. You only have to go to northern Australia (to see that). It's really about recognising that and then building a base for the proper governance of those areas. And what I'm talking about is not independent states or anything like that. It's just about the ownership of their land, the protection of their culture and heritage and to look after their language and culture."
The Aboriginal Provisional Government is a lobby group of Indigenous Australians that campaigns for political change.
Its Tasmanian-based secretary, and long-term Aboriginal rights campaigner, Michael Mansell, says he broadly supports Warren Mundine's treaty idea.
But he says it should be a single treaty to avoid Indigenous people in some regions receiving inferior conditions or rights to counterparts in other regions.
"This is a national issue. It does not require constitutional change. It simply requires a piece of federal legislation because there's, no-one in Australia would question the power of the federal government to make a treaty that was formed through federal legislation, which gave Aboriginal people land back, recognised customary law and set up an Aboriginal assembly as they did with ATSIC*."
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, though, says the main driver of reconciliation should be recognition within the constitution for Indigenous Australians' historical role on the continent before European settlement.
"This is a very important national cruisade. It's very important to me, it's very important to the Indigenous people of our country and it should be very important to all of us who want to see our country whole and for me Indigenous recognition won't be changing our constitution so much as completing it. If we had known in 1901 what we know now. If our hearts had been as big then as now we would have acknowlegded Indigenous people in the constitution back then."
However, Secretary of the Aboriginal Provisional Government Michael Mansell says the campaign for constitutional recognition is just a distraction and a treaty is more important.
"A treaty would impose on governments around Australia obligations that they would have to comply with the new treaty laws and it also creates rights for Aboriginal people that have been denied to us in the past and those rights would include recognition of customary law, the right to land, the right to make decisions over Aboriginal people and the right to raise our own economy."