Opinion: The time has come for Voice, Treaty and Truth
We are a nation leading the way on the global stage with art, sport, industry and technology. We have prestigious universities, state of the art medical centres, we have a democratic political system that protects free speech and maintains free and fair elections.
But here’s the truth: if you peel back the layers of wealth, advancement and modern progress, there are untended and overlooked wounds that represent the legacy of Australia’s traumatic past.
The arrival of European settlers has resulted in the rise of modern-day Australia – but that rise has been at the expense of Indigenous Australians whose history dates back over 60,000 years. To this day, Australia is the only Commonwealth country without a treaty with its Indigenous people and is a stumbling block in our desire to progress as a unified nation.
Having a treaty is important because it acknowledges a truth that prior to the arrival of Europeans, this land was occupied and inhabited by Indigenous people who were dispossessed of this land. This dispossession resulted in the displacement of thousands of Aboriginal people having to flee white settlers and resettle in unfamiliar territory under the imposition of new laws, customs and a government that considered them inferior to Europeans. Over the last two centuries, the Australian Commonwealth government has systematically disenfranchised Indigenous Australians through our land policies, voting policies, racist and segregated educational and housing policies and perhaps most damaging now, our legal and justice system that has a disproportionate amount of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders locked in jails, detention centres and prisons.
It is time that all Australians lift our collective voice to support a treaty that acknowledges the truth of our painful and traumatic past. White Australians have benefitted from a system that was built to protect them and have therefore inherited a distinct privilege – a white privilege – that many, if not most, are oblivious to. It’s time that white Australians confront and acknowledge the fact that their life outcomes are much better than their Indigenous counterparts.
How is it that In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait children die at more than twice the rate of non-Aboriginal children? Aboriginal Australians between 35-44 die at almost 5 times the rate of their non-Aboriginal counterparts. In education, only 65% of Indigenous students graduate year 12 compared with 89% of non-Indigenous students. 45% of Aboriginal Australians over the age of 15 experience a disability compared with 18 % of their counterparts. Indigenous children are almost 10 times more likely to be placed in out of home care than non-Indigenous children.
These numbers represent real people, real lives. And in a country as prosperous and advanced as Australia, we should all be ashamed.
This is why voice is so important. Throughout our recent history as a country, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been deliberately excluded from decision-making. They have fought to seek a treaty for their land and have been denied; they have fought to make decisions on behalf of their own people and instead the government has consistently imposed decision-making from above.
Where the government has finally admitted to the troubling gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, they have failed to bring Indigenous organisations and voices to the table to sit as equal partners in discussing and formulating solutions to these pressing issues. Only this year have we seen the historic partnership take place between the Coalition of Aboriginal Peak Bodies and the Council of Australian Governments to work together in revising the Closing the Gap framework. This is the first time that Aboriginal people have an equal voice at the table as they discuss the way forward.
Voice is important because it represents power and strength, it represents self-determination and the ability to make decisions on one’s behalf. For too long this country has embraced a paternalistic top down approach in imposing our belief that we know what is best for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. It’s time now for our political leaders, our business leaders and our community leaders to fully support the voice of Indigenous people. The Uluru Statement from the Heart needs to be supported and embraced by all Australians opening the door for a permanent Indigenous voice enshrined in the constitution.
We say we are one nation, but now it’s time to prove it. While it’s commonly recognised that white privilege exists for individuals, the issues existing in mainstream organisations are not as readily recognised, discussed or explored. Relying on Indigenous people to take on this role shows a lack of regard to their experience of racism and is the embodiment of entitlement.
It’s time for organisations and indeed our government to take responsibility for examining ourselves and our privilege and be willing to reflect on our values, beliefs and the role we all play in maintaining unintended racism and white privilege.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have the longest surviving culture in the world – we should be honoured to share this land and a brief moment in history with them. Our legacies are now connected, our past and present intertwined. Let’s work towards a common future – recognising their culture is our culture, ours is theirs – and that together we are stronger. The time has come to support voice, treaty and truth for the good of all of us.
About the Contributor:
Andrew Cairns is the Chief Executive Officer of Community Sector Banking