A gathering in the Torres Strait last week discusses regional autonomy.
Aaron Smith

20 May 2019 - 5:23 AM  UPDATED 20 May 2019 - 5:23 AM

A FORUM in the Torres Strait last week discussing regional autonomy and independence is a bellwether of First Nation sentiment on this issue around the country.

The forum, held by Gur A Baradharaw Kod Land and Sea Council that oversees the 21 Torres Strait PBC Chairs of the region, invited Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar, Australia's first QC Tony McAvoy, Professor Daryle Rigney from Ngarrindjeri country, South Australia and Professor John Burrows, a Anishinaabe/Ojibway man and a member of the Chippewa of the Nawash First Nation in Ontario from Canada who has lectured in law and and treaty around the world.

GBK Chair Ned David said the forum follows on from discussions held at a Native Title Forum on Mer in 2017 on the 25th anniversary of Mabo Day.

“This is an unprecedented gathering around the collective aspiration of the region which is basically greater autonomy,” Mr David said.

“We're keen to have a conversation about new agreements and a way forward which ensures that the rights and interests of First Nations people are paramount and recognised in any development in terms of governance for the region.

“You can't develop governance or develop any form of management that's going to address or be responsive or be effective to the needs of the region if it doesn't respect or recognise the rights of Traditional Owner groups or First Nation groups.”

The aspirations of regional autonomy in the Torres Strait stem back to 1937 at the inaugural Island Council meeting at Masig, where council acknowledged that the plight for greater autonomy has been the aspiration of Torres Strait, followed by the maritime strike in 1938.

Then there was the 'Border no Change' movement in 1970's and the subsequent Torres Strait Treaty where Islanders fought for the right to remain in Australian territory after PNG independence while still maintaining cultural connections with PNG.

After the Mabo case victory in 1992, further aspirations were outlined in the report to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Torres Strait Islanders: A new deal - A Report on Greater Autonomy for Torres Strait Islanders (August 1997) and from the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) initiated Greater Autonomy Task Force which created the Bamaga Accord (October 2001).

The 2013 Torres Strait Sea claim High Court victory further galvanised the aspiration of regional autonomy which was further progressed at the Joint Leaders Forum hosted by the Coalition Executive on Thursday Island on May 6, 2014, when the leaders of Torres Shire Council, Torres Strait Island Regional Council (TSIRC), Northern Peninsula Area Regional Council (NPARC) and TSRA unanimously passed a joint resolution to progress the remodelling of the Torres Strait governance model into a plan they called the 'One Boat.'

Tony McAvoy SC said: “Its very inspiring and uplifting for someone such as myself who's been engaged in the Western legal system for much of my life and watched the development of our traditional legal system to a point where they are being properly recognised.”

“Torres Strait Islanders are knocking at the door, asking the government to let them in and have their own political expression and their own say about their future.

“While today it is the Torres Strait Islanders knocking at the door, the rest of the Aboriginal community on mainland Australia is also waiting – we're all right there behind them.

“As I Native Title lawyer I have travelled right around Australia and I have noticed Aboriginal people talking of the same thing.”

June Oscar said: “What regional autonomy will look like is whatever makes sense on their values, their customs, their culture, their processes that empowers them to take care of their families, the land and sea and everything they hold important to the people of this area.

“Autonomy can look like whatever it is the people determine.”

Prof Daryle Rigney said: “I think the message around regional autonomy is that you need to actually create your own nation, rebuild your nation or continue to build your nation – that's essentially to enact decision-making authority and back those decision up with institutions that can deliver those decisions you make for yourselves and that they match your cultural values and beliefs and with public spirited leadership that leads the community forward.”

Prof John Burrows said: “Law is found in our lore, in our stories, our songs, our ways of understanding, our language.”

“With these is principles, standards, criteria, tradition, authority – it helps us make judgements, regulate our behaviour and resolve our disputes.

“It might sound like an old entertaining story, or look like a quaint dance, or people may not understand why a song is being sung, but in the song, the story and the dance are patterns of reasoning and resources for reasoning which can guide people when regulating themselves or resolving their disputes.

I teach about law in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the Unite States, and what I've learned in many jurisdictions is that treaties are a grant of rights from Indigenous peoples to to Indigenous peoples.

For us as Ojibway people living in Canada, our treaty relationships are not just with settlers that came to live amongst us, they're also with the animals, with the birds, or with the fish.

The idea is that we have responsibility for country and treaties are a way of helping and inviting other people to live in accordance with those kinds of arrangements, those understandings.

They are agreements of reciprocity and mutuality.”