Treaty from the heart

Picture of Bruce Duncan CSsR

Bruce Duncan CSsR

Bruce is a Redemptorist priest and chaplain at the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, Melbourne.

A striking feature of the recent Catholic Plenary Council in Sydney was the prominence and power of symbols, art, prayer and rituals of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples, with welcome to and acknowledgment of country, smoking ceremonies and didgeridoo music.

Given the palpable sense of solidarity with First Peoples among the Council’s 277 members, they overwhelmingly endorsed the Uluru Statement from the Heart, encouraging processes to implement the statement, ‘including local, regional and national truth-telling efforts’.

The Plenary Council said, “Sorry to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in and beyond the Church for the part played by the Church in the harms they have suffered” and committed to walk with them “in continuing to work towards recognition, reconciliation and justice”. The Council accepted the recommendations in the NATSICC position paper, Embracing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Life of the Catholic Church.

The Plenary Council asked every Catholic organisation

  • to prominently acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which its buildings stand;
  • to include the online Cultural Competency in a Catholic Context course developed by NATSICC and approved by the Bishops Commission for Relations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in their orientation and formation of staff and volunteers;
  • to ensure retreats and other formation activities are culturally appropriate; and
  • to work ‘actively to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on its committees, boards and decision-making bodies.’

The Council also asked that options be developed “for the liturgically and culturally appropriate use of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island symbols and rituals in Catholic liturgical contexts”.

The Uluru Statement in May 2017 emerged from discussions involving hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Straight delegates calling for a permanent Indigenous advisory body to be enshrined in the Australian Constitution. Why put it in the Constitution? It means it can only be changed by a referendum of all Australians.

The Uluru Statement affirms that ‘the ownership of the soil, or better of sovereignty … has never been ceded or extinguished and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.’

‘Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet … Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates … And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers … This is the torment of our powerlessness. We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country.

‘When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution. Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle.

‘We seek a Makarrata commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history. In 1967 we were counted; in 2017 we seek to be heard … We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.’

Church and faith leaders have given strong support to the Uluru Statement. Melbourne Archbishop Peter A Comensoli  wrote: “We urge bipartisan support for the Statement and are grateful for the courageous parliamentarians of all political parties’ seeking ‘a real policy response’ to the Statement.”

The Manager of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria, Sherry Balcombe, joined the various faith leaders at Barangaroo, in June  “because this is a moment in history.” She said the invitation in the Uluru Statement was “for everyone, not just First Nations people.” 

While there has never been a Treaty between the British or Australian governments and our First Nations people, treaties have been made with Indigenous leaders and tribes in Canada, New Zealand and the American colonies, later to become the United States.

White settlers here simply spread slowly across the continent, displacing the original populations of perhaps 750,000 people, pushing them off the best land and leaving them to survive as best they could with minimal resources. Tens of thousands of children were later traumatically removed from their parents to be ‘assimilated’.

Some 34 years ago, Prime Minister Bob Hawk promised a Treaty but because federal governments had done little to progress negotiations for a national treaty, the Victorian government in 2018 enacted legislation requiring the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria and the state government to work together to establish a Treaty Authority. Similar processes are underway in some other states.

The Victorian Parliament Lower House voted on June 7, 2022, to establish this new Treaty Authority, the first of its kind in Australia. The Bill will need to be passed by the Upper House, where Labor will need crossbench support.

The Treaty Authority will be independent of parliament and government and will have guaranteed government funding and First Nations’ control. Negotiations will be guided by Aboriginal ‘lore, law and cultural authority’, though issues will take time to resolve. Members of the Authority will be all First Peoples, will be selected after a public call for nominations.

The federal government is also determined to advance towards a Treaty and truth-telling about the trauma carried by many Indigenous people. Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has expressed strong support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s call for Voice, Treaty and Truth and pledged to hold a referendum to enshrine a voice for First Nations people in the Constitution. 

He reiterated his support for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to the Commonwealth parliament at the Garma Festival in the Northern Territory on July 30. It would give advice to parliament and the executive government but would not be a ‘third chamber’ as some critics claimed and its advice could be rejected.

The government intends to hold a referendum on the Voice to Parliament next year but is aware that it must first win general community support. Since 1901, only eight out of 44 Commonwealth referendum questions have been passed.

After being briefed about the Uluru Statement and meeting Australia’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Chiara Porro, Pope Francis was presented with a copy of the Uluru Statement by Theresa Ardler, a Gweagal woman. Ms Ardler was in Rome to speak at an Australian Catholic University conference on the 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’.

The pope’s special concern for Indigenous peoples at the Amazon Synod was known to Ms Ardler, so she gave him a Franciscan Cross she had painted in Aboriginal style.

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