Morrison has been adamant there should be no reference to a Voice in what is inserted in the Constitution to recognise Australia’s First Peoples.
Without bipartisan support, a referendum would not have a chance of success and, indeed, would not be put.
Indigenous leaders in the Uluru Statement from the Heart called for “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution”.
I want a Voice and Truth then Treaty to be part of our nation’s journey, part of our national life. It’s not just about respect and redress. It’s about progress and change. It’s about moving out of the darkness
Although there is a gulf between Albanese and Morrison over what should go into the constitution, Albanese says he still hopes for bipartisanship.
“We have not yet had true reconciliation, and a country that is not truly reconciled is not truly whole. And until we are whole, we will never reach our truest potential as a nation – and we have so very much potential,” he says.
But how can we have reconciliation when one side has no voice?
The Voice is the bedrock upon which we must build.
I will take the fight to the government on so many things; never have any doubt about that. But on this we must work together. We must be together. My hope we can have bipartisanship on this remains alive.
Albanese says he is encouraged by “the tentative moves towards constitutional change” by the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt. “I hope he gets the support he needs and deserves from his colleagues.”
He says he is also encouraged by “the epiphany experienced by Barnaby Joyce.
“After being part of the chorus pushing the myth that a Voice would amount to a third chamber in parliament, Mr Joyce did something unusual. He stopped. He listened. He asked questions from people with knowledge. […]
“Mr Joyce then went on television to own up to his mistake, and to explain why he’d been wrong. And he encouraged others who’d made the same mistake to follow his example.”
At Tuesday’s caucus meeting Pat Dodson, the opposition spokesman on Indigenous recognition, said constitutional recognition had now been decoupled from everything that was in the Uluru statement. Uluru had now shifted to “co-design with select individuals”, he said.
Dodson said there was no structure for formal consultations with First Nations. “Apparently the minister has a plan for consultation with the Coalition backbench and apparently with Pauline Hanson”, he said.
The challenge now was to “assist the minister without walking away with all the fleas and ticks that would undermine a principled position”, Dodson said.
This is a significant development. While the Commonwealth government embarks on another round of important yet time-consuming consultations over a potential First Nations Voice to Parliament, the states and territories are taking the lead on treaties.
Queensland’s ‘track to treaty’
Queensland’s announcement reflects a shift in debate on Indigenous constitutional recognition at the state and territory level. Only a few year ago, the states and territories debated whether to include a reference to Indigenous Australians in their constitutions. Now, they are contemplating negotiating treaties.
Treaties have been accepted globally as the means of reaching a settlement between Indigenous peoples and those who have colonised their lands. They are formal agreements, reached via respectful negotiation in which both sides accept a series of responsibilities.
Treaties acknowledge Indigenous peoples were prior owners and occupiers of the land and, as such, retain a right to self-government. At a minimum, they recognise or establish structures of culturally appropriate governance and means of decision-making and control.
The Queensland treaty process is still in its early stages and negotiations will not begin for several years. This is sensible, because it is important that both the state and First Nations are ready to start negotiations.
For First Nations, this means having a clear sense of what a treaty might mean for their communities, as well as a broad consensus on their negotiating position. Preparing for treaty negotiations can also enable First Nations to engage in nation-(re)building, consistent with their values and aspirations, which is valuable regardless of the content, or even the completion, of a treaty.
For the state, it is equally important that non-Indigenous Queenslanders understand what a treaty is and what it might result in.
Their responsibility is to provide leadership and engage with key stakeholders across the state. A treaty working group will also be established soon to lead consultations with First Nations, allowing them to discuss and reach agreement on what a treaty might contain.
In Victoria, the Andrews government committed to entering treaty negotiations in 2016. An Aboriginal Treaty Working Group was established to lead two rounds of community consultations, which resulted in the creation of a First Peoples’ Assembly. The assembly will not negotiate treaties itself, but will work with the state to develop a treaty framework through which the state and First Nations can negotiate.
The process in the Northern Territory is following this pattern. In June 2018, the government signed a memorandum of understanding with representatives of the four Indigenous land councils, committing to exploring a treaty.
Earlier this year, Mick Dodson, the former director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University, was appointed NT treaty commissioner. He is currently leading consultations with Aboriginal Territorians.
Why a lack of federal involvement is a problem
These are promising developments, but there are several challenges ahead.
First, treaties are political agreements. As such, they are vulnerable to political fluctuations.
In Queensland, the Liberal National Party opposition wants to look at the government’s announcement in more detail, but has already suggested it would adopt different priorities. If the LNP wins the 2020 state election, it could abandon the process before negotiations even commence.
We have already seen this play out in South Australia. In 2017, the state Labor government formally started treaty negotiations. But within a year, a newly-elected Coalition government stepped away from this commitment.
Second, the federal government’s position is problematic. Ken Wyatt, the new minister for Indigenous Australians, has said the federal government will leave treaty processes to the states and territories.
Federal government involvement is not legally necessary. Queensland has the legal authority to sign and implement a treaty with Indigenous peoples.
However, the Commonwealth parliament has the power to overrule any state or territory treaty. For this reason, it is preferable that the Commonwealth play a role in these processes. The Uluru Statement from the Heart offers an avenue to do so.
A constitutionally enshrined national representative body to advise the federal parliament (known as a “Voice” to parliament); and
A Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about Australia’s history.
As constitutional lawyer Megan Davis has explained, these reforms are “deliberately sequenced.” The value of starting with a First Nations Voice and Makarrata Commission is that they can oversee developments across the country. Without these bodies, state and territory treaty processes may diverge and result in wildly different settlement terms.
Finally, the support of Indigenous peoples is not assured.
Increasingly, First Nations are resisting agreement-making with governments that act inconsistently with their values and aspirations.
For instance, the Djab Wurrung Embassy, a group of traditional owners protesting VicRoads’ plan to cut down sacred trees, has launched a “No Trees, No Treaty” campaign to highlight the state government’s refusal to listen to their views.
as a trip wire and only a pathway to assimilation.
Consensus cannot be assumed, and will become more complex as First Nations articulate their objectives and objections to possible treaties.
Notwithstanding these challenges, Queensland’s announcement is historic.
It confirms that progress on Indigenous constitutional recognition is being led by the states and territories. It also directs more attention to the federal government’s approach to this issue.
It is hoped that the Commonwealth reflects on Queensland’s announcement and commits to establishing a Makarrata Commission. And that commission should be designed by Indigenous representatives serving on a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice.
The Queensland government’s in-principle agreement to pay A$190 million in compensation for the wages withheld from more than 10,000 Indigenous workers is a watershed moment for the stolen wages movement.
Indigenous people across Australia have been fighting for their denied and withheld wages for decades, both on the streets and in the courts. There have been some victories along the way and many setbacks.
The significance of the Queensland settlement (to settle a class action) is that it marks the first recognition these claims have legal as well as moral and political merit. Its ramifications are potentially limited, however, given the full injustice of how Indigenous wages were stolen.
A significant contribution
Historically Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women found work in farming, mining, roadbuilding, irrigation, fencing, gardening, pearling, sealing, fishing and domestic duties. But they were most concentrated in the cattle industry of northern Australia, from Western Australia to Queensland.
Tens of thousands worked on cattle stations from the 1880s to 1970s. The beef industry could not have survived without them. In 1913, the federal government’s Chief Protector of Aborigines, Baldwin Spencer, noted that “under present conditions, the majority of cattle stations are largely dependent on the work done by black “boys”. In the 1930s, when the rest of the economy floundered in the Great Depression, Indigenous labour helped keep the industry profitable.
Indigenous workers were entitled to be paid two-thirds of other workers, but even then employers often paid them less. Sometimes the low value of their wages was disguised by being paid in food and clothing rations. Sometimes workers were provided “store credit”, which could only be used to buy exorbitantly priced items.
Station managers may have justified under-payment on the basis they were “caring” for workers through providing scant food, clothing and accommodation.
Governments, meanwhile, “withheld” income – often putting money into trust funds that Indigenous people were unable to access. The Queensland government’s $190 million offer is to settle a class action claim for it misappropriating such trust funds.
The fact Indigenous people were vulnerable to such exploitation for decades was made possible by an intricate legislative regime that gave the state expansive powers over their lives. In all states and territories, Aboriginal Protection Acts gave the government officials the power to control the money earned by Indigenous workers.
In Queensland, historian Rosalind Kidd has estimated that 4,500 to 5,500 Indigenous pastoral workers may have lost wage entitlements worth more than $500 million between 1920 and 1968.
There have been redress schemes in Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales.
The Queensland government set up the first redress scheme in 2002. It set aside $55.6 million to compensate any individuals who could supply documentary evidence their wages or savings were taken by the Queensland government. If they could do so – and there was a deadline of 2006 on claims – the scheme provided an ex gratia payment of $2,000 to $4,000.
These conditions set a high bar, and $21 million went unclaimed.
Western Australia established its scheme in 2012. It also involved a small ex gratia payment ($2,000) with a limited window to make claims. Claimants called the scheme insulting and mean-spirited. The ABC reported a source that said state treasury officials agreed individuals were owed as much as $78,000, and the government kept the work of its stolen wages taskforce quiet for years, waiting for potential claimants to die.
In distinction to these two schemes, the NSW Trust Funds Repayment Scheme (2006 and 2010) matched the wages withheld in trust funds between 1900 and 1969. It paid $3,521 for every $100 owed, or an $11,000 lump sum where the amount could not be established. This was the closest model to a reparations scheme, though also inhibited by bureaucratic requirements and time limitations.
Due to the limitations of all these state redress schemes, in 2006 a Senate Inquiry into Stolen Wages recommended a national scheme. But no federal government since has acted on this recommendation.
Stolen wages claimants have taken their cases to court in Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland – but it is only in Queensland that they have had some success.
One of those is the case of James Stanley Baird, who sued the Queensland government for withheld wages on the basis that paying under-award wages to Indigenous workers was in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. The state government compensated Baird and other plaintiffs the difference owed to them in damages and provided an apology.
The current settlement is based on a legal claim that the Queensland government breached its duty as a trustee and fiduciary in not paying out wages that were held in trust. The outcome is the most significant repayment for stolen wages plaintiffs in Australian history. Yet the benefits may be confined.
First, in Queensland there is a rich archive of documents (substantially unearthed and analysed by historian Rosalind Kidd) to prove the government misappropriated funds. Such a record may not exist elsewhere.
Second, the settlement only applies to wages placed in “trust accounts”. It has no implications for wages denied to Indigenous workers in other ways, such as by private employers who booked down wages or otherwise refused to pay.
For justice for all wronged Indigenous workers, there needs to be broad-based reparations for stolen wages. This requires truth commissions and a commitment by governments and anyone else that profited from that theft to restore what is owed.
Eleven years after Australia adopted the Closing the Gap strategy, many pressing First Nations health issues remain unresolved.
The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy, currently 10.8 years for men and 10.6 years for women, is actually widening.
Similarly, the target to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous child mortality has not been met. The Indigenous rate of 164 deaths per 100,000 children aged 0-4 years is still 2.4 times the non-Indigenous rate of 68 deaths per 100,000 in this age group.
The causes of Indigenous health inequality are complex. They stem from social determinants such as employment, education, social inclusion, and access to traditional land, rather than strictly biomedical causes.
Government policies have a critical role to play here. But funding cuts, policy incoherence, and governments retaining control over resources and decision-making explain why the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous health outcomes are not closing.
Regardless of who wins the federal election on May 18, these enduring health issues affecting Indigenous Australians will require sustained and concerted policy attention.
A look at the major parties’ policy promises reveals some signs of hope, but also plenty of room for improvement.
The budget did include A$35 million for First Nations solutions to family violence, and A$10 million for the Lowitja Institute for health research.
Indigenous youth suicide remains an urgent policy concern, with Indigenous children five times more likely to die in this way than non-Indigenous children. A coronial inquest recently identified complex causes including intergenerational trauma, poverty, and problems stemming from the home environment.
The Coalition’s budget committed A$5 million over four years to address Indigenous youth suicide. This figure has since been increased to A$42 million following criticism from First Nations organisations and advocates.
Meanwhile, the budget directed A$129 million towards the expansion of a cashless welfare card system that operates in a number of Aboriginal communities. The card quarantines 80% of welfare recipients’ income for use in government-approved stores, and on government-approved items, to prevent spending on alcohol, cigarettes and gambling. This decision was taken despite a lack of evidence these cards reduce social harm or public expenditure.
The government also made some pre-budget commitments around Indigenous health. These included:
The Morrison government deserves some credit for its part in reaching an agreement between the Council of Australian Governments and a coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations in December 2018.
This agreement commits governments and Indigenous peak bodies to shared decision-making and joint accountability in devising and working towards new Closing the Gap targets.
Labor has also promised A$20 million for sexual health promotion in northern Australia, A$13 million to combat vision loss, and A$16.5 million for the “Deadly Choices” initiative, which aims to prevent chronic disease through education.
Further, the opposition has announced a compensation scheme and healing fund for surviving members of the Stolen Generations and their families. This could help manage the effects of intergenerational trauma.
Both parties’ funding commitments must be assessed in the context of the 2014 budget cut of more than A$500 million dollars to Indigenous affairs by the then Coalition government, which only the Greens have committed to restoring.
Impacts have been severe for specific programs, especially those run at the community level. These include youth services in Maningrida (NT) and employment and training programs in Inala (Queensland).
Funding for crucial Indigenous health infrastructure and capital works is also lacking, with the current shortfall estimated at A$500 million. Many Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services are run from old buildings in desperate need of upgrades to accommodate increasing patient numbers and rising demand for services. The Coalition recently announced an incremental increase to infrastructure funding, but much more is needed.
Neither the Coalition nor Labor has made any substantial commitment to a national Indigenous housing strategy. Inadequate, insecure and poor quality housing worsens physical and mental health through overcrowding, inadequate heating and cooling, injury hazards, and stress.
Similarly, both parties have been silent on reducing poverty in Indigenous communities. Poverty is another social determinant that contributes to Indigenous physical and mental ill-health, as well as high incarceration levels.
As the Close the Gap steering committee’s shadow report emphasised, “when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are involved in the design of the services they need, we are far more likely to achieve success”.
The Coalition has been silent on the issue of community control, and funding reforms under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy and the Indigenous Australians’ Health Programme have destabilised the position of Aboriginal organisations.
Community control is threatened by the government’s focus on competitive tendering, where First Nations organisations compete with “mainstream” service providers trying to secure contracts to deliver Indigenous health services.
Neither the Coalition nor Labor has outlined a response to these structural issues.
A final verdict
It’s difficult to identify major differences between the two parties’ Indigenous health promises. The likely impact of these polices is also hard to gauge given the significant role played by state and territory governments in service delivery.
Labor has promised to support Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations but specific details have not been announced. Labor’s significant funding pledge for rheumatic heart disease, though, makes their Indigenous health offering perhaps slightly more likely to achieve health gains than the Coalition’s.
Peter Garrett, Australia’s Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, today released a report on the biodiversity, ecosystems and social and economic uses of the oceans of northern Australia. The report entitled ‘The North Marine Bioregional Profile,’ brings together and explores the available knowledge of the Arafura and eastern Timor Seas, from the Northern Territory/Western Australia border to Torres Strait, including the Gulf of Carpentaria.
The report is expected to assist the government to better understand and protect our marine environment, conserve biodiversity and determine the priorities in our marine conservation efforts. It will also assist industry to better plan and manage their activities in the region.
A Marine Bioregional Plan for the region covered in the report is expected to be handed down in 2010. In total there will be five plans covering Australia’s marine regions.