The Guardian August 2, 2000

Time for a Treaty

by Peter Symon

This is an abridged version of a longer article to be published in the 
next issue of the Australian Marxist Review which will be out 

The occupation and ownership of Australia's territory by Aboriginal and 
Torres Strait Islanders for at least 50,000 years is an indisputable 
scientific and historical fact.

The indigenous people were hunter-gathers with a communal economy and a 
society based on sharing and co-operation. The culture and system of ideas 
of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were developed in 
close association with the land, its plants and animals.

Their society was savagely uprooted by the invasion of 1788 and although 
Governor Phillip was given instructions to "take possession of the 
continent with the consent of the Natives", consent was never asked nor was 
it ever given.

The land occupied by the indigenous people was seized without any 
compensation or recognition. The theory of "terra nullius" (empty land) was 
established to justify this open theft by the conquerors.

The new settlers imposed their economic system, their authority and power, 
their culture and beliefs, often using the Christian church for this. The 
languages and culture of the nomadic people were steadily but never 
completely destroyed.


The Aboriginal population is estimated at about 300,000 at the time of the 
first white settlement. By the end of the 19th Century this number had been 
reduced to perhaps 75,000.

This thread of genocide continued through policies condoned by successive 
governments. Not only did the settlers' guns do their deadly work, but the 
poisoning of water and flour was also used. Diseases imported by the white 
invaders, and sometimes deliberately spread, were also a potent killer of 
the indigenous people.

Die out

In the 18th and first half of the 19th Centuries, it was believed that the 
indigenous people would die out.

"Christian" missionaries played their part to "smooth the pillow" of the 
supposedly dying people. This process was to be helped by herding them onto 
reserves and through the policies of assimilation.

The reserves became pools of cheap or unpaid labour for farmers and 
pastoralists while the destruction of Aboriginal families by way of 
abducting their children (the stolen generations) began. The identity of 
these children was denied in the name of assimilation.

Paul Hasluck, a one-time Governor-General of Australia, said assimilation 
"means that, after many generations, the Aboriginal people will disappear 
as a separate racial group".

However, changes taking place in white capitalist society also impacted on 
the remaining indigenous people.

Pastoralists needed workers and Aborigines proved to be capable stockmen 
who could be employed on very low or no wages. Women were required as 
domestic servants in white homesteads.

Changes in attitudes

During World War II many white soldiers became acquainted with the 
Aboriginal people for the first time and saw for themselves the shocking 
treatment that was meted out to them in outback areas.

White society became increasingly conscious and many could no longer 
tolerate the discrimination and exploitation without protest.

Meanwhile, some Aborigines moved off the reserves and obtained the lowest 
paid and most menial jobs in cities and towns. In this way some became 
workers in the wider Australian community. Even those living on reserves 
came in contact with the cash economy and capitalist forms of trade.

Slowly but steadily the vision of the Aboriginal people grew from a tribal 
outlook to an Australia-wide consciousness.

In 1958, the first Australia-wide Aboriginal organisation was formed  the 
Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait 
Islanders (FCAATSI).

It was a multi-racial organisation and included such outstanding Aborigines 
as Joe McGinness (a Cairns waterside worker and communist), Faith Bandler, 
Kath Walker, Pastor Doug Nichols, Gladys Elphick, Ray Peckham (also a 
communist), and others. 

One people

The indigenous people began to realise that they were a people with a 
common history and ancestry and that all were being savagely oppressed, 
deprived, exploited and wronged.

From this realisation came a higher level of struggle. By 1988, the 200th 
anniversary of white invasion, Aboriginal people declared: "We have 
survived". This was a call to resistance.

Some broke through to high school and universities, even though the 
majority were still relegated to the fringes of country towns and in other 
far-away places and lived in appalling conditions of poverty, deprivation 
and unemployment.

Land rights struggle

A significant factor was the steadily growing struggle for land rights and 
for decent wages and conditions for Aboriginal workers.

On 1 May 1946, a major strike struggle took place across the Pilbara region 
of Western Australia. One of its outcomes was the formation of an 
Aboriginal mining co-operative, the first of its kind in Australia. The 
Pindan group used traditional forms of social organisation but modified 
them to suit their circumstances.

This was followed in 1966/7 by the strike of stockmen from properties of 
the British-owned Vestey pastoral company in the Northern Territory.

The Arbitration Commission had awarded Aboriginal stockmen equal pay and 
conditions but implementation was delayed. The Gurindji people began a long 
strike which grew into a successful struggle for land rights when they 
occupied their traditional land at Dagu Ragu (Wattie Creek).


The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not counted in the 
Australian census and legislation on questions relating to the indigenous 
people resided in State parliaments.

A referendum in 1967 which called for this situation to be reversed was 
adopted by a 90 per cent vote that was also a vote for a changed attitude 
on the part of governments to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 

Terra Nullius overturned

A high-water mark was reached in the land rights struggle when in 1992 the 
High Court gave a decision in the Mabo case.

For the first time a Court recognised the fact that the Aboriginal people 
had occupied land for millennia, thereby overturning the lie of "terra 
nullius"  that the Australian continent was empty of people at the time 
of Governor Phillip's invasion in 1788.

But white conservatives fought and are still fighting a stubborn rearguard 
action to deny the reality of the 1788 invasion, to deny the policies of 
genocide, to refuse to recognise the stolen generations and, above all, to 
limit, delay and, if possible, scuttle the land claims of many indigenous 

For the ruling class of capitalist Australia it is private property that is 
sacred, not any concepts of justice or what is right.


Labor Prime Minister Hawke responded to calls for a treaty in 1987 and 
undertook to commence negotiations on what was then called a "Makarrata". 
Hawke called for a "compact of understanding" but this was rejected by 
Aboriginal leaders.

Charles Perkins said: "We want a treaty written into the Constitution for 
all time. A compact is not good enough."

A treaty, he said, should cover issues of the prior ownership of land, 
sovereignty, compensation for land lost, and recognition of the customs, 
laws, languages and sacred sites.

Keating replaced Hawke as Prime Minister and, instead of proceeding with 
treaty negotiations, appointed a Reconciliation Council in 1990. This was a 
diversion which sidetracked the treaty concept.

The Council finalised its work this year and issued a Statement of 
Reconciliation which says:

"We recognise this land and its waters were settled as colonies without 
treaty or consent [and we] respect that Aboriginal and Torres Strait 
Islander peoples have the right to self-determination...."

Is a treaty the way to go? Can a treaty be concluded between the Aboriginal 
and Torres Strait Islander national minorities and the Australian State? 

The policies of protection, integration and assimilation have completely 
failed while the assertion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 
people as distinct peoples with their own history, ancestry, culture and 
traditions is irrefutable. That they are the original inhabitants of this 
continent is also irrefutable.

At its 3rd Congress in 1978 the Socialist Party (now Communist Party) 

"The Aboriginal people are an oppressed national minority within the 
Australian state and it is a particular responsibility of the working class 
to join in struggle for the emancipation of the Aboriginal people and to 
win full national minority rights and in particular the right to the 
inalienable, communal ownership of remaining tribal lands ....

"Another fundamental demand is for the creation of autonomous 
administrations on lands made over to inalienable, communal ownership."


It is time to dispense with the ideas of "protection", "integration" and 
"assimilation". Even "reconciliation" is not enough.

RECOGNITION is required  recognition of the Aborigines and Torres Strait 
Islanders as distinct peoples, as the original occupiers and owners, as 
national minorities within the Australian state.

A treaty will require long negotiations. It would need to be incorporated 
in law with amendments to the Australian Constitution. In the process the 
Aboriginal and Islander national minorities must be treated as equals.

Howard claims the demand for a treaty is "divisive" as though divisions do 
not already exist. His charge is yet another ploy to frighten people, to 
justify present policies and to meet the interests of the mining companies 
and pastoralists.

However, governments and the Australian people will have to face up to the 
question of a treaty and accept that it is a valid demand.

A treaty is not an alternative to the continuing struggle for land rights. 
Land rights claims and the campaign for a treaty are two elements of the 
same struggle. 

Two hundred and twelve years is time enough to put the wrong to right. A 
treaty is now the way in which this has to be done.

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