It’s only day one of three, but already there are a range of differing views being put forward by the 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives attending.
Many delegates think substantiative constitutional recognition is needed, while others want a treaty.
The day started with the surrounding areas of the convention centre covered with a handful of protest signs - all of which were quickly and respectfully removed by Anangu Traditional Owners.
“Our sovereignty was never ceded, and we would prefer a treaty as a form of recognition,” Dubbo delegate and Murrawarri man Fred Hooper said.
“We believe that a treaty needs to be established between the First Peoples of this country and the First Nations of this country, and then we can look at further recognition within the constitution or within any other legislation, within the parliamentary system.
“There’s a lot of unfinished business around sovereignty and around whether this land was obtained legally under international law. We all know that this land wasn’t peacefully settled, we all know there were massacres and wars that took place, and I think that they are the real issues that need to be discussed and looked at, and the only way we can do that with government … is through a treaty negotiation process.”
Fred noted a lot of the day’s discussions revolved around this topic.
“Sovereignty and treaty were some of the main issues that were discussed at all of the dialogues,” he said.
“It’s not about just being recognised in the Constitution…it’s about real substantiative benefits for First Nations people and that includes compensation and reparation.
“We need a treaty, and that needs to be of substance, it needs to be a treaty that can be scrutinised in the international arena, it needs to be a treaty that is upheld and registered with the United Nations as well.”
Tasmanian delegate and Palawa man Michael Mansell said there are a lot of ways forward for First Nations peoples.
“When you’re talking about a mechanism to achieve a broad package, obviously that’s a treaty, if you’re talking about some immediate changes that are within reach of the normal day to day political activity of parliaments, then you can amend the Native Title Act to give land, you can establish a national body with a simple piece of legislation like the ATSIC legislation. A simple amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral act would allow designated seats for Aboriginal people in every state and territory of the country including the Torres Strait,” he said.
“Whether we’re in favour of substantive constitutional recognition or whether we are moving sideways and looking at substantiative practical reform, we need to send a clear message to the broader Aboriginal population, and also inform the government of what it is Aboriginal people want in the long term.”
He added there are different viewpoints.
“Some people argue that substantive constitutional recognition will involve anti-discrimination legislation being entrenched in the Constitution, plus entrenching an Aboriginal advisory body or some body in the Constitution.”
“The alternative argument is that Aboriginal people should be empowered through designated seats in the parliament and the reestablishment of an ATSIC type body that is improved with delegated legislative powers, and three-per-cent of the GDP should be handed over to that body so it can decide priorities for Aboriginal programs around the country, and also exercise the powers that ATSIC didn’t have. That’s pretty much where the debate is at the moment.”
The historic meeting has been a politician free-zone, with both party leaders declining invitations to attend the closing ceremony on Friday, saying their presence may hamper the outcome.
This is something that has been welcomed by those on the ground.
“We need to have a shift in the way that Aboriginal affairs is dealt with, so that instead of white politicians, who are elected by the white public and not Aboriginal people, deciding what is in our best interests, that Aboriginal people ourselves have got to do that,” Michael Mansell said.
The national convention is the culmination of twelve community dialogue meetings, which have taken place around the country since December last year. The forum is taking place just days before the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, which saw the Commonwealth make laws for Aboriginal people and count them in the census for the first time.
“This is the first time we’ve had the opportunity for so many delegates to come from such a broad range of the Aboriginal community since Eva Valley in 1992, when we had to respond to the native title decision of Mabo, and before then it was Barunga in 1988 and the Aboriginal protests against the Bicentenary in Sydney in 1988, so it’s been well over 25 years since Aboriginal people have had this sort of opportunity,” Michael Mansell said.
“And we want to make sure we properly represent the hopes and aspirations of all Aboriginal people around country by getting the job done, because if we don’t get the job done, we will have failed our own people.”
The outcomes of the discussions will be delivered to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in a report next month, in the lead up to National Reconciliation Week from 27 May.
Mr Mansell says politicians won’t be able to turn their backs on the report.
“I don’t think they have much choice because the government has backed this process since 2007.
"Governments can’t commit to a process by saying to Aboriginal people, ‘we will fund this whole process of engaging with Aboriginal people, but we’re only going to listen if you come up with the answers we want to hear’,” he said.
“Now [that] they’ve set the process in place, it's incumbent on the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition to say, ‘well, look it’s not for us white politicians to tell Aborigines they’re wrong, if that’s what they want, we as politicians have a obligation to try to bring it about’”.