'Australia must sign a treaty with its First People'

Aboriginal activist Lidia Thorpe says a treaty is the only way to bring closure to Australia, which is after all, a settler-colonial project

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Saturday 25 January 2020

Aboriginal activist Lidia ThorpeIt was on January 26, 1788, that the ‘First Fleet’, a flotilla of British ships travelling from England reached the waters of Port Jackson, the harbour of Sydney, with express orders to find a British penal colony in what is now Australia. Since that time, the date is commemorated as ‘Australia Day’ by white Australians. For aboriginal Australians though, the date is a ‘Day of Mourning’, as it started the process of their gradual dispossession from their native lands.

Down To Earth spoke to Melbourne-based aboriginal activist Lidia Thorpe on her thoughts about aboriginal Australia on the 232nd anniversary of the First Fleet landing, especially in the aftermath of the recent Australian bushfires. Excerpts.

As an aboriginal person yourself, what are your thoughts this Australia Day / The Day of Mourning in the aftermath of all the upheaval caused by the bushfires?

Aboriginal people in Australia have been subjected to atrocities since we have been colonised. Almost 250 years of colonisation have seen the mass genocide of our people.

That is also ecocide which means that the way the colonisers maintained our land and water was not the same as it was managed by thousands of our generations prior to colonisation. We have traditional ways of caring and protecting our country. These have been ignored by the colonisers. We have ways of burning the countryside which is not similar to the bushfires that we have seen.

However, it is not just bushfires but all sorts of injustice going on over our land that also contributes to climate change such as logging of our forests and the taking of our water. All that has contributed to these disasters which we have witnessed.     

A number of aboriginal activists like Neil Morris have said that the ‘fires have also deepened the trauma aboriginal people feel over the British colonisation of the country in 1788’. Your thoughts.

I agree with Neil because it is a reminder of colonisation, of mismanagement of our land, of the greed that comes with colonisers and the capitalism that is destroying our land and water. It is very hurtful.

We, as aboriginal people in this country, were experiencing a lot of injustice and this (bushfires) has just contributed to the pain we already feel from the stealing of our children and the murder of our people in the prisons. The aboriginal people have one of the highest incarceration rates in Australia.

All of these mass injustices to our people and our land, is one and the same. We refer to our land as our mother and we believe that one has to care for the land the same way as one would care for one’s mother. You have to nourish, love and respect your mother and that has not been happening for 250 years, which is very hurtful. When our mother feels pain, we feel it too.

What could be the magnitude of the loss to aboriginal culture since animals, birds, plants and land play such a central role in the Aboriginal consciousness?

Our land, water and culture define us as aboriginal people. Many of the plants, animals and fish of Australia are totems for a number of aboriginal clans. When you lose your totems, there is a part of you that is lost as well. Losing a totem is like losing a member of your family. It is our responsibility to protect and care for our clan totems.

We have had landmark Australian court rulings such as ‘Mabo’ (1992) and ‘Wik’ (1996) which have recognised native title in Australia and decided that farming leases did not extinguish it. This effectively overturned the legal doctrine that Australia was ‘terra nullius’ (No one’s Land), when it was ‘discovered’ by the British. But aboriginal activist Claire Coleman claimed as recently as 2017 that many white Australians act as though this never happened. What is your opinion on the same?

That is right. Granting native title was the colonisers’ attempt to control aboriginal people.

Native title is not akin to land rights. It made it even more difficult for aboriginal people as it divided them. We had to prove to white Australians who we were and how we were connected to the land. That caused and continues to cause a lot of grief to aboriginal people today.

They can still mine in our country even though aboriginal people have native title over that land. For instance, aboriginal people have native title over the land where the Adani Carmichael mine is located. However, the Queensland government extinguished it to allow the mine to go ahead.

Native title has not been good for us even though it proved that terra nullius was a lie and the very foundation of Australia was a lie.

2019 also saw movement (though unsuccessful) on the ‘Indigenous Voice to Parliament’ issue. What is your take on the critique from the governments of Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison that this would be a ‘third chamber in the bi-cameral Australian Parliament’?

I don’t support the voice to Parliament because it is driven by an agenda that is not the First People’s.

From global eyes, it may look like aboriginal Australia is rooting for the concept of the ‘Voice to Parliament’ and the ‘Uluru Statement from the heart’. But that is not the case. That is because aboriginal people across Australia never had the opportunity to understand what they mean.

The people whom I am connected with, do not support the ‘Voice to Parliament’ because this country needs us, the indigenous people. We do not need them. They want us to legitimise their occupation and colonial project by going to their Parliament and accepting their constitution. And that is not what we want. We want a treaty first. Then we can negotiate constitutional recognition and a ‘Voice to Parliament’.

This concept is sidetracking the main issue, which is that this country has never been settled. We are the only Commonwealth realm that does not have a treaty with its First People. We have to have a treaty first.

Former treasurer in the John Howard government, Peter Costello talked recently to the Sydney Morning Herald about how adding a preamble to the Australian Constitution that recognised aboriginals as ‘First Australians’ was defeated by an even greater margin than the move to make Australia a republic in 1999. Why is white Australia so fearful of recognising Indigenous Australians?

That is because the true history of this country has never been told. It has been hidden. The story of colonisation, dispossession and massacres has never been told. It is only coming out now. And many Australians are fearful. They ask aboriginal people to ‘get over it as it happened so long ago’.

Yet, white Australians are happy to commemorate ‘ANZAC Day’ (For Australian soldiers who served in World War I) every year even though that happened so long ago. So they pick and choose what they want to celebrate and remember.

That is where we need to educate white Australia about what really happened and to deal with it. The only way to deal with this is through a treaty. Australia should not think of becoming a republic till it can sign a treaty with us.

What do you think of the recent controversy involving author Bruce Pascoe’s aboriginal origins as well as his book ‘Dark Emu’, which has eye-witness accounts of white explorers coming across sophisticated aboriginal cultures?

I think Bruce Pascoe’s book is exceptional. It has educated white Australia about what happened and how aboriginal people cared for the land. It is not up to me to determine whether or not Pascoe is aboriginal. I think this is a method to discredit the work that he has done with the book.

‘The Dark Emu’ has gone down so well with white Australia that the right wing is trying to dismantle that book of truth which can help heal this nation and help white Australia have a better understanding on how to go forward and help us to care for this land together.

I believe this is just an attack on Pascoe’s truth telling regardless of whether he is black or white.

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