• Dr Sarra was recently appointed the head of Queensland's Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships. (Justine Walpole)Source: Justine Walpole
COMMENT | Negotiating a treaty with Australia's First Peoples is not only an important step towards acknowledging our humanity. It's also an opportunity for White Australia to stop 'living a lie' and start again, says Stronger Smarter Institute's Dr. Chris Sarra in this speech delivered during a recent Redfern forum on treaty negotiations.
Dr Chris Sarra

17 Mar 2016 - 5:14 PM  UPDATED 17 Mar 2016 - 5:45 PM

From the outset, let me confess I’m no expert in law or constitutional reform.  I’m an educator. In our field the Stronger Smarter Institute which I founded and now chair, has made an unquestionable difference in Indigenous education.  We've brought about positive change by focusing on the quality of our relationships. We make such differences by engaging community people in honourable high expectations relationships and these are one of the foundational pillars of the Stronger Smarter Approach.

A key part of a high expectations relationship means acknowledging, honouring and embracing the humanity of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islander Australians. We come to the relationship with white Australia with our humanity.  We are human. 

When you look at the way we’ve been treated historically, and the dramatically unfair circumstances we've endured as a people, and continue to have to endure, it is painfully clear that we’re still not at a place where our humanity is acknowledged in an honourable way.

The most fundamental step is acknowledging our humanity.  In the relationship we have between first Australians and new Australia let’s say, our humanity is not being acknowledged and this is so tragically reflected in the sad and statistics many of us know too well. It is this lack of acknowledgement of our humanity that sees us continue to endure those familiar failed outcomes.

Yet in a converse way, our ability to endure such things is a tribute to our resilience as the nation's first people, and that we have survived to still be here today after 60,000 years or more than 2,000 generations.

Sadly for other Australians, it reflects a lack of humanity.

It is this lack of humanity by new Australians that enables a circumstance where a policeman can cause the death of an Aboriginal man in a place like Palm Island and not ever be subjected to any serious consequence for his actions.

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Over one-hundred people attend a landmark meeting to discuss a way forward for treaty in the next few years.

It’s the same lack of humanity that lets a dog catcher from Melbourne who wouldn’t get a job anywhere else, go to a remote community and all of a sudden be a business manager with all the bureaucratic power in those places.

It’s this same lack of humanity that lets a young woman die in prison due to non-payment of fines in WA. 

The same thing lets governments send poor quality school leaders and teachers and other service providers to remote communities and somehow that’s supposed to be ok.

Clearly, we are not at a point yet where our humanity is being acknowledged and embraced positively by new Australians. 

Secondly, on the notion of Recognition vs the notion of a Treaty, I don’t really want to get into a conversation where it’s one or the other.  I think we can have both, but here’s how I look at it.

Recognition in the constitution is a structural (or legislative) reform that to me reflects a government intention to “manage Indigenous issues (and our people)” whereas a Treaty is about 'Leadership' on Indigenous affairs.

Leadership requires courage, so there’s quite a difference. 

We’ve also talked about the notion of an emerging Republic and somehow for many Australians this conversation has become live again.  On this matter my view is this.

It is naïve of us to think we can become a republic without the profoundly important step of establishing a Treaty with Australia’s First Peoples.  In fact, I believe it’s impossible. The question of a new and emerging republic gives us all a chance to right the wrongs of the past, and negotiate the manner in which our sovereign interests can co-exist; something we should have done more than two centuries ago.

If we are serious about the pursuit of a Treaty in order for us to step beyond the challenges and complexities of today, into a new circumstance that all of us can feel proud of, we have to have recognition of Indigenous Australians and the humanity that we bring to this relationship.

Before white Australia gets freaked out by the idea of a Treaty, I'd want them to understand that a Treaty is a negotiated document.  It’s one in which we both sit down and have the hard conversations that we’ve never had the courage to have before.

Once we agree on what is to be the context of that document, then we both sign off.  Against that background my advice or counsel to white Australia is, yes, the notion of a Treaty and acknowledging and embracing our humanity is good for us as Blackfellas. 

But its even better for you as white Australians because you can move beyond living this lie that you’ve lived for the last 200 or so years.  

Then all of us can step into a new relationship that is honourable and honest.