Australia is the only Commonwealth country without a Treaty with its First Nations peoples. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t developed treaties and agreements before. In fact, a Treaty between Australia and Papua New Guinea to protect the traditional activities of Torres Strait Islanders and coastal peoples of PNG has been in effect for more than 30 years. And treaty-like agreements operating under the Native Title Act 1993 have set out agreed terms for activities as diverse as fishing and hunting rights, land access, cultural protection and economic development opportunities.
Many critics will try to position Treaty as a radical idea, but this is simply not true. When we frame the discussion around Treaty we need to remember that agreement-making with First Nations peoples is not a new phenomenon, not even in Australia.
The Torres Strait Treaty was signed in 1978. Along with defining the borders between Australia and Papua New Guinea, it also aims to protect the traditional ways of life for local people from nearby islands and allows for free movement (without passports or visas) between the two countries within a special Protected Zone. The Treaty recognises that the predominantly European concept of a ‘national border’ (at least in its modern form) is not always congruent with Indigenous ways of life, which might include a hunter-gatherer lifestyle or free movement across vast areas.
The South West Native Title Settlement, signed by the Noongar peoples of Western Australian and the WA Government in 2015 was another watershed moment for agreement-making in Australia. The $1.3 billion Noongar native title settlement is the largest in Australian history and some have even called it a Treaty in its own right. The benefits include yearly instalments into a perpetual trust, joint management of national parks, access to certain crown land for traditional cultural activities, funding to develop a cultural centre, and large land areas to be used for development and cultural purposes. In addition, the settlement means the Noongar peoples are recognised through an Act of Parliament (the Noongar Recognition Act 2016).
The Noongar settlement allows WA’s First Peoples to take control of their own futures and join in partnership with the state government to remain custodians of the land. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples practice the oldest surviving cultures. Our cultures are strong, but it many ways they are also at risk. Agreements like the Noongar Settlement will hopefully revitalise and protect our culture for generations to come.
We need more First Nations agreements. We need a Treaty.