Referendum is dead: long live the treaty

By Michael Mansell*

Now that Malcolm Turnbull has killed any hope of a referendum for any Aboriginal ‘voice’ to Parliament, it is time for the Indigenous disciples of Constitutional recognition to turn their eyes to legislation. But first, those who so blindly believed a referendum was likely to be announced at Garma, need to take a hard look at themselves and the way they operate.

Speaking about Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, former ALP Minister and now media commentator Graeme Richardson wrote: “Put to a referendum, this idea [of a Constitutionally entrenched advisory body] would be slaughtered. Why would our political leaders not be aware of this? What were they thinking, or better, drinking?”

The same questions could be put to the Aboriginal leadership that pushed for a referendum. Surely they too could see the result on the referendum proposal coming? Perhaps not. One of the weaknesses in Aboriginal politics is the lack of critical examination of ideas put forward by powerful individuals.

Take the Sydney meeting called by Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar, held prior to Garma. Attendance was strictly limited to invited supporters of a Constitutionally entrenched advisory voice. No-one who might have pointed out flaws in the model or that the hopes of a referendum were unrealistic was invited.

We must learn from the failures of the referendum campaign. Those flaws must be addressed, not papered over, before we embark on negotiating for a legislated national representative body, a treaty, and a truth and justice commission. If we just go on as before, that campaign will also fail.

Graeme Richardson rightly says there is no point in proceeding with an idea doomed to failure. Yet even after Turnbull showed a distinct lack of interest in a referendum, some Aboriginal leaders are still flogging a dead horse. One now has faith in a people’s movement for the referendum proposal. C’mon, this is rubbish. The referendum proposal always lacked merit – it subordinates Aboriginal people, reduces us to advisers instead of decision-makers and would be just another advisory body to be ignored. It was never going to have legs.

By the time he spoke at Garma, Bill Shorten was well aware that the referendum did not have government support, which freed Shorten to give his support to a referendum without any negative consequences. Without government support, the legislation needed to authorise a referendum cannot be passed. Shorten took the high moral ground. Shorten even made a strategic offer of a joint parliamentary committee, its purpose being to keep the referendum proposal alive. But Aboriginal leaders failed to see the benefits of the offer and rejected it.

Out of the ashes of the burnt referendum comes a new opportunity: for Aboriginal people to more seriously negotiate for parliamentary support for a treaty and a truth-telling review. A treaty will not be developed overnight, nor should we expect benefits from treaty talks to be delivered at any single moment. The benefits – land, empowerment, a financial base, cultural protection and improved services – will be incremental. The quicker we move to open up talks, the better. Any hope of success on those two fronts depends on having a credible national body that effectively takes up what is left of the Uluru agenda. For my part, I totally support the group that led the referendum push being an integral part of developing new legislation, provided some sobering lessons are learned.


* Michael Mansell is an Aboriginal man from Tasmania. In his book, Treaty and Statehood: Aboriginal Self-determination, Mansell examines the options for empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, including a treaty. He is committed to seeing the outcomes of the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ become official policy.


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