The Guardian May 16, 2001


ATSIC: "Build a new society based on justice"

The following is an abridged version of the launch during the Centenary 
of Federation in Melbourne of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 
Commission's Treaty Documents, in Queen's Hall, Parliament House, 
Melbourne, May 8, 2001, by Geoff Clark, Chairman of ATSIC.

As is our custom I'd like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners 
of this country we are standing on. I also thank you for taking time out to 
come along here today.

This is an important occasion. I think it is fair to say Melbourne, like 
much of the country, is getting swept up in Centenary of Federation 
celebrations. It is also fair to say the first Australians have precious 
little to celebrate.

One of the highlights of the Federation activities will take place tomorrow 
when 7,000 invited guests will celebrate 100 years of the Federal 
Parliament in the Royal Exhibition Building.

This is the same building in which the Duke of York, the future George V, 
opened the Australian Parliament on May 9, 1901. All members of the Federal 
Parliament, State and Territory leaders, the full diplomatic corps, 
business, church and community leaders as well as ordinary citizens will 
attend. The following day there will be a special sitting of the Federal 
Parliament in this building.

I have no wish to rain on their parade. The organisers of the Centenary of 
Federation celebrations say they ought not to be about fireworks and 
fanfare ... they should be about communities embracing their histories to 
move forward. I agree.

I have therefore chosen this occasion to launch a new phase in our campaign 
to raise public awareness and understanding of the need for a treaty 
between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-
indigenous Australians.

I do so for obvious reasons. The Commonwealth Constitution of 1901 stands 
today as evidence of Australia's deeply discriminatory past.

One hundred years ago the new Federal Parliament was given the power to 
legislate for the people of any race "other than the Aboriginal race". We 
were also excluded from the national census.

Officially, we did not exist. And let's not fool ourselves. In full 
constitutional terms we still don't. The racist assumptions that were 
persuasive at the time the constitution was drafted remain within the 
document today.

Have a look at section 25.

This provision allows States to deprive citizens of the right to vote and 
take part in the government of their State on the basis of their race.

Like many indigenous peoples, I am of the view that we should have a treaty 
with the Australian Government.

This is the most obvious way of addressing the illegitimate acquisition of 
Australia by the British in 1788, and the complete failure since then to 
recognise the legitimate aspirations of indigenous peoples, nations and 
sovereignty.

The fundamental relationship between our people and non-Indigenous 
Australians remains, in my view, as one-sided today as it has ever been.

Initially you were the invaders, we the invaded.

You were subsequently the hunters, and we the hunted.

In the 19th century what was heralded as sacrifice and pioneering by your 
people was for us dispossession and oppression. When you formed your nation 
in 1901 it was designed to be white.

You built your nation and your institutions in the 20th century. We have 
been, and still are, forced to blend into them.

You have discriminated against us, taken away our children and reduced us 
to beggars in our own country. Only one of your Prime Ministers [Paul 
Keating], in the now famous Redfern Park speech, has sought expiation on 
behalf of the Australian people.

We are still being required to integrate into your society.

It is testimony to the courage of those who have gone before us that we 
have not.

All non-Indigenous Australians enjoy the fruits of our dispossession. Don't 
you now have a duty to share the fruits of our dispossession with those who 
continue to suffer because of them? The legal system you ask us to embrace 
is foreign to us.

It has provided the foundation for the injustices perpetrated against my 
people.

Aboriginal laws and customs are seen as inferior by the white legal system.

We disagree.

The strength of any legal system is its ability to serve the people. Your 
legal system fails us. That's why we seek recognition of our customary 
laws. The political system which your forbears designed-and which many of 
you have travelled to Melbourne this week to celebrate continues to deny us 
any form of empowerment or self-determination.

Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are no closer to making decisions 
for, and about, ourselves now than we were immediately after you first came 
here.

Where are the reforms to allow for real self-determination for Indigenous 
peoples at the national level, for Indigenous seats in the parliaments, and 
constitutionally increased rights.

The need for contemporary Australia to change those things necessary to 
accommodate the needs of Indigenous peoples goes to the heart of the type 
of society for which we can all feel proud.

Let's be clear. It is not a matter of guilt.

This is about people taking collective responsibility for building a new 
society based on justice and fairness.

A contemporary community able to make the necessary changes without unduly 
causing hardship, but which chooses not to, is an unjust society.

It is hardly one into which an oppressed minority would be rushing. To do 
nothing about these outstanding matters is to endorse both the process by 
which indigenous peoples became so powerless and the results.

I earnestly believe there is an obligation on contemporary Australians, 
especially their political leaders, to distance themselves from the unjust 
policies and practices of the past.

Not by words, but by deeds. This is why ATSIC is promoting discussion 
between governments, the Australian people and the Indigenous peoples for a 
treaty. I have great pleasure in officially launching these two 
publications today. I particularly commend them to those who will attend 
tomorrow's celebration and to the Federal Parliamentarians who will be 
sitting in the Victorian Parliament on Thursday.

As they recall their history they may wish to consider the history I have 
outlined today and the threshold issues it raises for them as legislators 
in the 21st century. I invite them to take this opportunity to commit 
themselves to reconciliation, social justice and respect for Indigenous 
human rights.

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