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Why we need to focus on Treaty before progressing the Voice to Parliament

Zak Kirkup -

We should be talking more about a Treaty, not about a Voice to Parliament. It's perhaps a controversial opinion, and one that I share with the Greens (cue the eyerolls) but hear me out.

Earlier this month the Piddington Society presented another installment of their Native Title series.

Chaired by Giselle Kilner-Parmenter and coinciding with NAIDOC Week, the event was one of the few meaningful contributions I found during the week that went far beyond the usual symbolism that pervades social media during the first to second Sunday in July.

Presenting was the former Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt AM, and former Federal Court Judge Michael Barker QC.

As Mr Wyatt presented, he was his usual calm and considered self as he unveiled a history of native title reflecting his lived experience as an activist, public servant and politician.

As you listen to Mr Wyatt, he puts you at ease with his inherent belief that everything in the world will be right, we just need more time to get there.

As with everything when it comes to equal rights for Indigenous Australians, you get a sense that progress has moved quickly for older generations but not quick enough for younger generations.

It was only 30 years ago that the High Court (not the Parliament) overruled the legal fiction of terra nullius in the Mabo decision, and the subsequent concept of native title was born.

Contrast that to New Zealand where 182 years ago, Māori chiefs and the British Crown signed the Treaty of Waitangi.

An instrument that, among other points, recognised the continued Māori ownership over their lands and inherently recognised that the Māori people existed with the same rights and protections as British subjects.

Meanwhile across the ditch we are witness to polarising arguments about whether or not the Aboriginal flag should be flown on the Sydney Harbour Bridge... It might be 2022 but you can't help but feel like we are still a long way off.

Worse still, if we spend the next two years having a debate and referendum on the Voice, I fear we may exhaust the national attention for a Treaty for generations to come.

The debate itself may also turn toxic with division and extreme language as our country decides whether or not Indigenous people deserve a role in our national policy agenda or not.

"Australia has native title and a Voice to Parliament what more do we need?" may become the catch cry in opposition to any advocacy for a Treaty. Yet a Treaty, which has been demanded formally for decades now, is what we so desperately need.

There should be formal recognition that this land was stolen from the First Nations people in the name of the British Crown, and that for centuries after there was countless acts of violence, dispossession and oppression committed in the name of Indigenous assimilation.

The Voice will not have this effect, and as I have written about previously will be at risk of being entirely ignored.

Our country is a long way off where we should be, and whilst I appreciate the effort of the Voice and celebrate native title, I fear that in decades to come we will be still having a conversation about the need for a Treaty, which should be the ultimate goal.

It is something that New Zealand settled on nearly two centuries ago and yet has been consistently delayed in a country still at odds with itself over things like flying the flag on a bridge.

It's time for a Treaty. We can't afford to wait any longer.

Zak Kirkup is of Yamatji heritage and is the former leader of the Liberal Party in Western Australia

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