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Excerpts from the Fourth Annual Vincent Lingiari
Memorial Lecture
Northern Territory University, Darwin, 27 August 1999

Recognition starts from the premise that terra nullius and its consequences were imposed upon the Aboriginal peoples, and certainly there was never any choice given to the Aboriginal peoples concerning the Constitution or the rule of law. To have any substantial reconciliation we must encompass all these aspects, no matter how challenging that may seem. These foundations of reconciliation cannot be made of concrete that lacks the binding mortar of truth.

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation is in the final stages of its current existence. It will soon make recommendations to the Parliament about the future of reconciliation, specifically whether a document or documents of reconciliation will advance the reconciliation process. How we could contemplate signing off on any Document of Reconciliation while our Government stands accused of racial discrimination by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is absurd to me.

My considered view is that a comprehensive framework agreement is needed, and that it should be legislated into existence. It is needed for two additional reasons: what I will refer to as the Unfinished Business. Firstly to deal with the conditions of our existence as Aboriginal Australians within the Australian Society, and secondly in order for us to survive as Aboriginal peoples in keeping with our own laws and customs within our own traditions and values. This is our Aboriginal Unfinished Business. These are questions concerning the survival of our being as a consequence of having been subjugated and disadvantaged through the necessities of defending our interests and meeting our needs since the arrival of Governor Phillip -- `to be Gurundji', in the words of Vincent Lingiari.

Such an agreement should define, and set out a path, to resolve all the matters of unfinished business between the Parliament and the Aboriginal peoples. It will also need to extend the period of time beyond the current Olympian and millennium sunset clauses and establish an independent body to facilitate and mediate the issues towards resolution.

What is it that we Aboriginal peoples want at the end of this century that will provide the substantial reconciliation that will heal our Country? To make clear what some of these matters might be on the reconciliation road let us consider the type of petition we would construct today in keeping with the spirit of Vincent Lingiari's petition to Lord Casey. It may read some thing like this:

1. Equality

Aboriginal peoples have the right to all the common human rights and fundamental freedoms recognised in national and international law, as well as to our distinct rights as Indigenous peoples.

2. Distinct characteristics and identities

Aboriginal peoples have the right to maintain and develop our distinct characteristics and identities, whilst taking part in the life of the country as a whole. This includes the right to identify as Indigenous. We shall not be subject to:

* Actions which threaten our distinct cultures and identities;

* The removal of our children from our families and communities;

* Taking of our lands and resources; or

* Any other measures of assimilation.

3. Self-determination

Aboriginal peoples have the right to self-determination. A right to negotiate our political status and to pursue economic, social and cultural development.

4. Law

Aboriginal peoples have the right to our own law, customs and traditions, and equality before the National Law.

5. Culture

Aboriginal peoples have the right to our unique cultural traditions and customs. This includes aspects of our cultures such as designs, ceremonies, performances and technologies. We have the right to own and control our cultural and intellectual property, including our sciences, technologies, medicines, knowledge of flora and fauna, arts and performances. Our cultural property taken without consent shall be returned to us.

6. Spiritual and religious traditions

Aboriginal peoples have the right to our spiritual and religious traditions. This includes the right to preserve and protect our sacred sites, ceremonial objects and the remains of our ancestors.

7. Language

Aboriginal peoples have the right to our languages, histories, stories, oral traditions and names for people and places. This includes the right to be heard and to receive information in our own languages. In courts, other proceedings and in the criminal justice system, we shall have the right to understand and be understood, through interpreters and other appropriate ways.

8. Participation and partnerships

Aboriginal peoples have the right to participate in law and policy-making and in decisions that affect us. This includes the right to choose our own representatives. Governments shall obtain our consent before adopting these laws and policies.

Governments shall negotiate partnerships with Aboriginal peoples' representative bodies at local, regional, state and national levels.

9. Economic and social development

Aboriginal peoples have the right to determine priorities and strategies for economic and social development. This includes the right to determine health, housing, and infrastructure, and other economic and social programs and, to the extent possible, to deliver these through our own organisations. There shall be recognition of the importance of empowerment for decision-making and development at regional and community levels. There shall be Indigenous participation in all regional planning processes.

Aboriginal peoples shall have full access to, and equitable outcomes from participation in relevant mainstream programs.

10. Special measures

Aboriginal peoples have the right to special measures to improve our economic and social conditions. This includes the areas of employment, education and training, housing and infrastructure, and health.

11. Education and training

Aboriginal peoples have the right to all forms and levels of public education and training. We also have the right to our own schools and to provide education in our own languages. Aboriginal children living outside communities shall be able to learn their own cultures and languages.

12. Land and resources

Aboriginal peoples have the right to own and control the use of our land, waters and other resources. This includes the right to return of land and resources taken without our consent. Where this is not possible, we shall receive just compensation. Governments shall obtain our consent before giving approval to activities affecting our land and resources, including the development of mineral resources. We shall receive just compensation for any such activities.

13. Self-government

As a form of self-determination Aboriginal peoples have the right to self-government and autonomy in relation to our own affairs. This includes the right to determine the structure and membership of our self-governing institutions. Governments shall facilitate the negotiation of self-government and regional agreements.

15. Constitutional recognition

The Federal Parliament shall initiate processes leading to concrete constitutional change to recognise and protect the special place and rights of the Aboriginal peoples in the Australian polity.

16. Treaties and agreements

The Federal Parliament shall enact legislation establishing a framework for the negotiation of agreements with the Aboriginal peoples. Governments shall respect treaties and agreements entered into with Aboriginal peoples.

17. Ongoing processes

The Federal Parliament shall establish a discussion, research, information and negotiation forum to promote public awareness and to draft national legislation enacting principles of recognition, guidelines for public policy, and the framework for negotiation of agreements referred to above.

All of these matters have to do with the various levels of the way the reconciliation process is capable of operating and the complexity of the challenge of its totality.

This has to do with the two broad dimensions that I out lined earlier, the Aboriginal Australian dimension and the Aboriginal Dimension.

It recognises that Governments are elected for periods of three years, which, more often than not ends up being less. It recognises the vagaries of human nature that causes politicians to focus on how they can get elected next time around.

It recognises that politicians focus on the short, rather than the longer term. It recognises that the short term is not necessarily compatible with the long-term.

It recognises that ministers are often rotated among portfolios every few years, and, it recognises that it is not possible for those people to become fully acquainted with the challenge of Aboriginal Affairs within such a short time frame, however desirable their motives or loyalty to our cause.

We need now to develop long-term solutions for our future!

To paraphrase the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, from his inaugural Vincent Lingiari lecture, I am convinced that true reconciliation that is not based upon truth will leave us as a diminished Nation. And I, like the Governor-General, am convinced that such reconciliation is possible.

Despite the words of his whitefella mate:

Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you, and your children forever.

Vincent and the Gurindji had to struggle for a further ten years against being put back into the chains of welfare, the threats of the pastoralist and the government's opportunism before his people were given freehold title under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976. Maybe the security of this form of title itself is now at risk. Who will then stand with the Gurindji and Vincent Lingiari?

It is soon the in-gar-liwa (blue bone fish) time in Yawuru Country with the calming of the east winds that come from the deserts, the dry cool winds of winter. With the new moon will come the offshore ocean winds that will bring the rains to the desert later in the year. A sharing of the gifts of the land and sea. This has been the way for millennia. The passing of the year 2000 and the Olympic Games in Sydney will not change the cycle of the seasons. Neither will there be a diminishment of our responsibilities to defend and secure our rights in the land and sea, our responsibilities to defend our law and culture.

Vincent Lingiari would never have compromised his responsibilities in the land, even to accommodate the political needs of his mate. He would never have relinquished his responsibilities in the law or his responsibilities in the leadership of his people for the sake of free meat from Lord Vestey.

Then neither should we be prepared to relinquish our responsibilities to defend and secure the legitimate rights of future generations of young Indigenous Australians, by moving from one compromise to another, because of the intransigence of a Government that declines to recognise us as the first Australians with our own unique rights and responsibilities.

Finally, I would just like to quote to you from the last paragraph of Frank Hardy's 1972 book The Unlucky Australians. I offer it to you as a challenge: should we be content to allow the house of recognition and reconciliation for which the Gurindji and others have laid the foundations, be left half-finished by builders not committed to the job?

In the words of the Unlucky Australians:

Will I, having written it, be free to turn to other books and obsessions, will you, having read it, be free to turn to the pursuit of happiness, will the lucky country remain free while the unlucky Australians are in chains?


Patrick Dodson is the founding head of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and elder statesman of Reconciliation in Australia.
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Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2000

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