Various models for a referendum were discussed at this weeks’ Referendum Council meeting held in Melbourne, with attention largely focused on a treaty.
But the overall question was neither, ‘yay’ or ‘nay’, but how.
Discussions during the two-day event spoke about how to incorporate a treaty, treaties or other formal agreement, and whether people felt that a treaty needed to come before or after a referendum question. Importance was placed on ensuring that there were tangible outcomes from either process and that opportunities for future progress could stem from them.
However it is not the council that decides this very complex decision wholly. Rather than refereeing a fight between those for and against constitutional recognition, the leadership council is preparing to ask Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples and wider Australia where Indigenous rights should go from here.
This was the third, and largest, meeting which discussed holding a national referendum; the first, held in June in Broome with Traditional Owners across Australia and the second in July, on Thursday Island with Indigenous peak bodies. Aitken Hill conference center in Melbourne housed approximately 80 Indigenous community members made up of lawyers, university students, lecturers, committed activists and people who have written on the subject. Delegates decided what information from this expert panel and parliamentary committee should be presented in the upcoming public regional forums, and the best way to have this complicated conversation with the public.
First of all, and number one of our terms and reference is that we are charged with going out and talking to Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people to ask them what they think – ‘what do we want'
Pat Anderson AO, Referendum Council member and Chief Executive Officer of the Lowitja Foundation told NITV that everything is still on the table, "The task of the council is to go out and talk to the population. First of all, and number one of our terms and reference is that we are charged with going out and talking to Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people to ask them what they think – ‘what do we want'.
"... the bottom line is that blackfellas don’t have the numbers, so we’ve gotta strategise how we can approach this really complicated national conversation, that we have to have."
"These first three meeting are information sharing with our mob through our leadership. Now, we’re going out across Australia to what we call ‘regional dialogues’ and at the same time, we’ll be talking to the wider population, because the bottom line is that blackfellas don’t have the numbers, so we’ve gotta strategise how we can approach this really complicated national conversation, that we have to have."
Treaty, constitutional recognition or both?
It's been reported that the council discussed whether the project outcome could see a constitutional recognition, a treaty or multiple treaties, or all.
The participants’ views ranged at the Melbourne meeting; some were optimistic and even enthusiastic about constitutional recognition through a referendum, while others had open assertions that any referendum model would fail and a treaty was the only way forward - demonstrating just how complex the topic is; what process is and what the objective is
The Guardian reported that Palawa lawyer Michael Mansell said the $140m cost of holding a referendum on constitutional recognition would be better put towards a campaign for a treaty, which he said would deliver real, tangible benefits compared with the largely symbolic benefits of recognition.
However Anderson says that constitutional recognition and a treaty aren't mutually exclusive.
"Constitutional recognition doesn't rule out a treaty or treaties," she told NITV. "There has to be a vehicle. Although you don't need constitutional change to have a treaty, there are a lot of other things that need to happen at the same time.
"There is, and will be, a whole host of different points of view and our job is to go out there and seek those views."
There were discussions regarding whether multiple treaties could operate independently, or whether the country should work under a national treaty framework. The council placed importance that regional forums should have equal time to assess such models, to ensure consideration is taken about how they might co-exist.
Indigenous people and the government
NITV heard that some meeting delegates felt worried that the long term effects of a failed referendum could see politicians seizing the opportunity to further remove Indigenous rights, rather than galvanising support for increased advocacy and activism amongst Indigenous people - particularly topical, given the current political landscape and the resurgence of Hanson.
There may be an increased difficulty finding a middle ground which satisfies both, Indigenous people and mainstream Australians, but according to Anderson, time is of the essence.
"What needs to happen here is a total reset between them and us, because we can’t go on like this," she told NITV. "Aboriginal affairs - we’re on our knees here. You’re not going to see us in 20 years, we’re not going to be discernible or definable and this is a really really serious crossroads here. We’re not even in the constitution! Every law in Australia has to come under some section or some part of the constitution and we’re not in there for gods’ sake.
"Aboriginal affairs - we’re on our knees here. You’re not going to see us in 20 years, we’re not going to be discernible or definable and this is a really really serious crossroads here ... Aboriginal Australia has to convince white Australia that it’s in their best interest in terms of what kind of society they want to have and their values and principles."
"Aboriginal Australia has to convince white Australia that it’s in their best interest in terms of what kind of society they want to have and their values and principles. "
Reports said that the council addressed how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples must reset their relationship with the government, given that the past decade has seen funding cuts and attacks on Indigenous advocacy groups, and an increase in the widened ‘gap’; with problematic incarcerations rates, suicide statistics and issues in education.
It's clear that there is a push for self-determination and government accountability on the issue.
Several proposals for national bodies were put forward, including having a representative body to advise within Parliament, as well as a United Assembly of Indigenous nations. However, concerns were subsequently raised regarding the government’s refusal to fund or to work with the existing national representative body, the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples.
What’s next for the Referendum Council?
Regional forums will begin in the next few months lead by a steering committee who will report back to the full council. Visits will be determined by popular areas, such as state capitals, and areas with easy access to Indigenous communities. It was asserted in Melbourne that they would need plain language as well as complex information and so presentations can be universally understood.
"...we’ll be sending audio tapes out about the message and what all of this is about, and have it translated in different languages."
"We’ll be having a meeting in August and between now and then and we’ll be planning for those forums so we can get out there and start talking to people on all sorts of levels, we’ll be sending audio tapes out about the message and what all of this is about, and have it translated in different languages. A digital platform will also be launched hopefully around the same time as these regional dialogues and during that time we’ll be doing a lot of press as well.
"... we're considering having a big bush camp as a referendum convention for Aboriginal and Torres Strait people at Uluru."
"Now that we're ready and informed of what's happening, we can do the consultations and at the end of the regional dialogues, we're considering having a big bush camp as a referendum convention for Aboriginal and Torres Strait people at Uluru."
While the regional forums aim to create a solid proposal to take to governments and to the Australian people, they won't come with risks such as potentially failing to reach consensus or realising existing opportunities. However, if effective, this could provide a unique opportunity to determine Aboriginal and Torres Strait interests and priorities, and build increased focus and solidarity amongst First Nations people.
Would you like to see a referendum take place? Do you think a Treaty is the better way forward? Do you think they can co-exist? Or that they need to be pursued independently?