Treaties with Indigenous people were a common part of the European colonisation process. The British concluded treaties in New Zealand and with many First Nation groups in Canada and the United States. Treaties recognised sovereignty, prior rights, and sought to clarify fundamental issues in relationships between the colonised and colonisers. During the whole process of colonisation, neither Britain nor colonial authorities ever concluded a formal treaty or agreement with the traditional owners of Australia. Indeed, Australia is the only Commonwealth country that never signed an official treaty with Indigenous people. When Britain assumed sovereignty under the presumption of terra nullius (land of no one) all Indigenous rights were denied. This legal fiction only ended in 1992 with the Mabo decision (see Question 4, above), and few Indigenous people benefit from the amended Native Title Act.
In 1979 the Aboriginal Treaty Committee (ATC), under the chairmanship of Dr H.C. Nugget Coombs, came together with the aim of educating the public about the true history of Australia and to pressure the government to negotiate a treaty with Aboriginal people. The Aboriginal Support Group – Manly Warringah Pittwater (ASG) began as a group of people focussed on learning more about the concept of a treaty.
The agenda has been very full since that time, focusing on a range of Aboriginal social and economic justice issues, including land rights, disproportionate incarceration rates and deaths in custody, health and education, reconciliation. But specific calls for a treaty have surfaced again in recent years with the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation’s call for a formal agreement or treaty as part of the unfinished business of reconciliation.
Many Aboriginal people are not convinced that their groups would benefit from a treaty process, making consultation and dialogue as always essential. The discussion was in its early days, but many people believe that a treaty or series of treaties would benefit the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia.