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The ACT government says it is open to discussing a treaty process with Traditional Owners, but community members are cautious.
25 Jun 2018 - 1:38 PM  UPDATED 28 Sep 2018 - 2:09 PM

ACT Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affair Rachel Stephen-Smith has declared the territory government is open to discussing a treaty process with Traditional Owners in the Canberra region. 

"I have had a number of conversations with community leaders, including individual Traditional Owners and members of the ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body (ATSIEB) about whether we should be pursuing a treaty for the ACT," she told NITV News.

"I acknowledge treaty could be a challenging process but the Government is up for that discussion."

But Ngunnawal Elder Aunty Roslyn Brown - who is the chairperson of the United Ngunnawal Elders Council, a body made up of Ngunnawal family group representatives providing advice to government - cautiously welcomes the news.

"It's certainly something we've been talking about for a long time," she told NITV News.

"But we really need to know the do's and don'ts. If the government has said they're open to discussing it then we will make contact.

"It has been on our table for a while and it needs to have real outcomes for our people," she said. 

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Ms Brown said a proper treaty in the ACT would see a range of benefits for Traditional Owners. 

"It would mean proper recognition for a start. We would be more independent and have autonomy, and it could help sustain our culture and heritage." 

Katrina Fanning heads up ATSIEB, the Indigenous representative body that also provides direct advice to government. 

Ms Fanning says the body supports a process for treaty development with the government and has already had preliminary discussions with the Minister. 

"We are very mindful that this must be Traditional Owner-led, centred and focused though and would work with them to facilitate the process," she told NITV News. 

"It's been a topic of interest and planning on a way forward for our community.

"We would see the Traditional Owners of the ACT as the key consultation group and the inclusion of other clan groups would be at their direction," she said. 

Negotiating treaty in a contested region

There are a number of groups who claim connection to the ACT region, including the Ngambri, Ngambri Guumaal, and Ngunnawal. The Ngunnawal people are the recognised Traditional Owners. 

There are also surrounding clans including the Ngarigo, Wollabolloa and Yuin.

In 2002, then Chief Minister Jon Stanhope made a contested decision to recognise the Ngunnawal people as the Traditional Owners of the Canberra area after consultations with family representatives. 

Ngambri man Paul House says the clan groups will likely want different things from a treaty and the process will need to find a way to involve everyone.

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"My approach is not to fight, we need a united front to empower our communities. All of the groups working together, that's what I'd like to see. Everyone has a seat at the table," he told NITV News. 

"[A treaty] is not a magic bullet, it could be tokenistic but it depends [on] what is in the document, how it is developed, who is it between and we need to spell out recognition that our Ancestors and Elders were the first occupants and our enduring legacies; our Songlines, art, there is a whole range of cultural recognition that needs to be considered."

Ngunnawal woman Serena Willliams agrees all clan groups need to be part of the process. 

"It won't be easy because of the inter-generational trauma, but all groups need to be consulted," she told NITV News. 

Ms Williams also believes Aboriginal sovereignty needs to be discussed in any treaty negotiations.  

"We are sovereign people. We have never ceded our sovereignty and that needs to be honoured. This needs to be taken seriously, we don't want to see it 'tokenised,' and it needs to be self-determining - us designing what we need for our people, not a policy," she said.    

Despite the complexities, ATSIEB's Ms Fanning is "very confident" an ACT treaty process will take place. 

"The consultations with government and Ngunnawal people on the arrangement have re-commenced and this opens the door for further discussion on issues such as a local treaty," she said. 

Ms Fanning says re-opening the joint management agreement of the Namadji National Park, in the south-west of the Territory, which stopped almost 12 years ago, would be a good first step.

Julie Tongs is from neighbouring Wiradjuri country but has lived in the ACT for decades.

As the CEO of the Winnunga Nimmityjah Health and Community Service, she sees first-hand the critical need for the Indigenous community to have a treaty. 

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"We work with the physical, social, cultural and spiritual well-being of our people and that brings us into other parts of the system that are not funded - particularly child protection," she told NITV News. 

Ms Tongs says despite the ACT government's attempts to address issues affecting the Indigenous population, the  high rates of Indigenous kids in care and incarceration rates show more needs to be done.

"It's timely for the ACT government to stop with the tokenistic gestures and to be serious about a treaty because I believe that a treaty comes before we get genuine reconciliation," she said. 

Treaty talks around the country 

The ACT treaty push follows the commitment from the Victoria and Northern Territory governments to negotiate treaties within their jurisdictions. 

Just last week, the Victorian government passed the Advancing the Treaty Process with Aboriginal Victorians Bill 2018, following a debate that lasted several hours. 

Meanwhile, New South Wales Opposition Leader Luke Foley has promised to commit to establishing a Treaty process if Labor forms government in 2019. 

"A Labor government will bring to a treaty process goodwill – to rectify past injustices and to advance the future interests of the state’s Aboriginal people," he said earlier this year. 

The South Australian Government was in the process of negotiating treaties with the state's Aboriginal nations, but a decision earlier this month was made to scrap it. 

“While the new government is not continuing with the Treaty process, we are committed to continuing our discussions with Aboriginal communities about the implementation of our Aboriginal Affairs policy," SA Premier Steven Marshall said in a statement.

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