MELBOURNE this week hosts the largest sporting event held in Australia since
the 2000 Olympics. The country will be on show again and Aboriginal people again
will be visible: some are competing, others are involved in associated arts and
business events, many are taking to the street in protest.
This should be no surprise. The Commonwealth is an association of 53 nations
with something in common: their experience of British colonisation. The old
British Empire took this continent, without regard for the laws or property of
Aboriginal peoples. By contrast, the modern Commonwealth built its identity on
self-determination and decolonisation.
These Games — a moment of international fellowship, and exposure — are an
opportunity for reflection on these matters. How do we Australians look in our
dealings with indigenous peoples by comparison with nations we closely resemble
in so many ways?
Canada is also a federation and constitutional monarchy, based on common law
and parliament. Its constitution guarantees freedom from racial discrimination
and requires that government respect the inherent rights of Canada's aboriginal
peoples. Canada's federal government has long recognised self-government as an
inherent aboriginal right.
New Zealand acknowledged Maori land rights from the outset, even if they were
frequently abused. Maori have reserved seats in the national parliament. The
Treaty of Waitangi, concluded in 1840 with more than 500 Maori chiefs, is seen
as a founding document for the nation. Since the 1980s, the Waitangi Tribunal
has created a forum to address New Zealand's unfinished business. A process for
airing past grievances and then sitting down to discuss a new beginning, based
on a legislated settlement, provides a safety valve for the pressures created by
colonisation and racial inequality.
What can we Australians say to fellow members of the Commonwealth about the
place of our indigenous peoples?
The shocking statistics on indigenous disadvantage are well known. Many
people are striving every day to turn this around. Aboriginal people, often in
partnership with non-Aboriginal Australians, are building enterprises,
delivering vital services and holding their communities together in the face of
What is most concerning about the past few years is the way in which
Aboriginal people have almost vanished from the institutions of national
government and political life. We lost Aden Ridgeway, the only identified
Aboriginal voice in Federal Parliament. The number of Aboriginal people in the
Commonwealth public service has declined over 10 years, with a sharp fall in
recent times. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, afflicted by
personality issues at the top, a scapegoat for long-term state and Federal
Government failure, was abolished in 2005.
The representative voice of Aboriginal people within our system of government
was silenced in the midst of a review the Government itself had initiated.
The Commonwealth had no institutional solution in place, except a hand-picked
council with a limited advisory role.
When visitors came to Australia for the 2000 Olympics and saw a nation unite
with pride behind the performance of Cathy Freeman, there was some genuine space
for the political aspirations of indigenous people to be debated and Aboriginal
people had access to the corridors of power. The reconciliation process was also
coming to its climax. The idea of a treaty or another form of fundamental
agreement to tackle the issues of unfinished business was a national issue.
Today a visitor to the Melbourne Commonwealth Games will find little evidence of
official engagement with these aspirations.
Significant changes are going on in the public service and attempts are being
made to close the gaps that exist in government administration across the
federal-state divide. But turning things around in indigenous affairs involves
more than improved service delivery. There is a political dimension.
The example of the Commonwealth shows Australia can do much better in finding
fresh avenues for genuine political engagement, whether it be through a treaty,
a settlement process or the construction of new national and regional
As shared responsibility agreements run into predicted problems, the Federal
Government seems to be letting go some of its ideology and resistance to
political representation. Regional partnership agreements are coming to the fore
and the Government recently agreed to funding for a regional assembly in western
But recent Senate hearings reveal these developments lag shamefully behind
the abolition of ATSIC regional councils.
Many indigenous peoples may have to wait for years before they have an
institutional voice again for talking with the government.
Hardly a gold-medal performance.
Sean Brennan is a project director at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of
Public Law at the UNSW law school and co-author of Treaty (Federation Press,