Truth telling and treaty something for all Australians to embrace

Linda Burney on ABC Darwin Mornings with Adam Steer and Conor Byrne

ADAM STEER: Linda Burney welcome.


STEER: This government was only elected in May. It hasn’t even been six months yet. And already you think this promise of a referendum may be losing steam? Why?

BURNEY: Well, let’s think about the timetable. We are in the last part of 2019. The next federal election will be in 2021 – the second half. So when you think about what needs to happen to have a referendum, establish a voice to the federal parliament – which is what Aboriginal people want, it’s not what the Prime Minister wants, but it’s what Aboriginal people want – which requires legislation, it requires a campaign, it requires a referendum, and it also requires a process of co-designing  that voice. There isn’t a lot of time left.

STEER: The Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said in July, that he would not propose or support a referendum if he thought it would fail. Is there currently enough support to call the referendum and realistically hope for it to succeed?

BURNEY: What I attempted to do last night was with the Nugget Coombs oration is actually put some meat on the bones – some real meat on the bones – of what a voice might look like. I propose that it should have a regional structure. And I gave some very clear views about what a regional structure might look like. It could be based on the old ATSIC regions, which people are very familiar with. You’d have to take note of some of the developments since ATSIC was disbanded, and what’s its role might be at the regional level. And I also advocated that the regional structure, that regional authority, that regional council, that regional body – whatever you want to call it – would be responsible for electing the people to sit at the national level, so that the people at the national level would have accountability back to the regional. I also gave some very clear views about what a national voice would be and what it could provide to the parliament to enhance the decision the parliament makes around Aboriginal affairs. Things like a point of accountability. Things like an annual statement. Things like scrutinising legislation. So I gave some very firm views about what it might look like and what it might do.

STEER: Why do you need to talk about regional councils or regional committees – however you want to call them if we’re just talking about constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians? Why do you need to break it up into those smaller regions?

BURNEY: Well, we need to be clear - and that’s what I’m concerned about – on what we’re actually talking about. The Uluru Statement which we’re responding to asks for three things: it asks for a constitutionally enshrined voice in the parliament; it asks for a national process for truth telling; and it also asks for a national process on agreement or treaty making through a Makaratta commission. Only one of those things requires a referendum, and that’s a voice to the parliament. Ken Wyatt, in NAIDOC Week in July, made a speech to the Press Club, and within 24 hours the Prime Minister had ruled out through backgrounding the media a voice to the parliament that would be enshrined by way of referendum.

STEER: So has Ken Wyatt effectively been shut down by his own government?

BURNEY: I have enormous regard for Ken Wyatt and the onus now is on the Prime Minister. This is an amazing opportunity for the Prime Minister of this country to really leave a lasting fantastically important legacy, by way of agreeing to a referendum that would enshrine an Indigenous voice to the parliament, which would be advisory and I am absolutely saying that the offer on the table from Labor is bipartisanship collaboration, but we need to get on with the job.

CONOR BYRNE: Will that happen in this parliament?

BURNEY: Well, that’s what I would like to see. The Prime Minister is saying I think he would recognise first people in the constitution, but not enshrine a voice.

BYRNE: Wouldn’t that be rushing it?

BURNEY: I don’t think it is rushing it. I mean, you think about the history of Aboriginal affairs in this country – this is not a new discussion. In 1938, in Sydney, the First Day of Mourning – this discussion started then. It’s continued to now. We are, as I said last night, at five minutes to midnight and this Prime Minister with the support of Labor has this incredible opportunity of creating history.

BYRNE: You mentioned truth telling. Where is the truth telling process at?

BURNEY: The truth telling process has started in Australia I think. I think the three of us sitting in this studio probably are better informed about the truth of this nation than generations in the past. But there is still an enormous job to do with truth telling. Universities, schools, local government, local institutions like historical societies, they all have this incredible role in telling the truth. And knowing the truth and the real story of the Australian – of the Australian story – which is the oldest story in the world is something that I think we as a nation need to understand.

BYRNE: So how would that look?

BURNEY: It could look – and it should look in various ways. My argument is that local government is the best instrumentality. It’s there, it’s right across the country, it needs resourcing. That could actually take forward the process of truth telling. And we also see all sorts of wonderful examples across Australia where communities have said we’re going to unpack what happened here, places like for example, the Myall Creek massacre site. Places like Ellison Council on the Eyre Peninsula – that have actually gone down this path. So there are examples of how we might go about truth telling.

STEER: You’re on ABC Radio Darwin. Adam Steer, Conor Byrne with you. You’re also hearing from the opposition spokesperson for Indigenous peoples, Linda Burney. The Territory is currently moving towards a treaty between the Northern Territory Government and the Indigenous people of this land but what’s happening at a national level?

BURNEY: Well, I just want to say I – Ursula Stephens, one of the treaty commissioners here, was at the lecture last night and she’s a wonderful woman. And Mick Dodson, I know very well. And I think the message from Northern Territory is a very important one for us nationally. Treaty or treaties are a very big deal. And they take time. And we need to be ready or treaty ready, which is a very important process before we head – rush into drawing up a treaty. When we look to what’s going on across the country, we see that Victoria is three years into a treaty making process. The Northern Territory has appointed both Mick and Ursula going through the process of what treaty might be. South Australia’s done some very good work, halted by the election of a conservative government. But still there. Queensland’s announced that they want to pursue a treaty process. NSW Labor is certainly in that frame as well. So a treaty – people shouldn’t be afraid of it. It is an agreement between two parties. And we as a nation need to understand that there needs to be multilayered treaties, both regional; state. But there is a great need I would argue for a national treaty to provide a framework.

STEER: You spoke last night about the legacy of Nugget Coombs: public servant; former Governor of the Reserve Bank. What’s that legacy now for Indigenous Australians?

BURNEY: Well Nugget is held with high regard and great fondness by First Nations people. And we know his story, one of the leading economists of the last century in Australia.  And it was in his retirement that he really took on the wonderful work that he did in standing up and pursuing Indigenous people’s rights, particularly land rights. But one of the things that really struck me about Nugget’s work, and Nugget’s philosophy, is something that is so pertinent today: is that economic development can sit with cultural retention and cultural – the cultural morays and the cultural way of Aboriginal people. And one is not superior to the other. And they both need to sit together.

BYRNE: You’re also the Minister – the Shadow Minister for preventing family violence. Now White Ribbon closed its doors yesterday after it went in to liquidation. How does that make you feel?

BURNEY: Well, I’m now the Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services, and within that portfolio is family violence. I was sorry to hear that White Ribbon had closed its doors. Clearly there are internal issues which I don’t understand. But let’s understand that White Ribbon did a very specific and important job in Australia. It brought the issue of family violence, domestic violence into the boardrooms and into places that it was not necessarily discussed. And it also provided a place where men could stand up say this is not acceptable. And the White Ribbon ambassadors were mostly high profile men. So it really was a very clear sign that family violence is everyone’s responsibility, including men.

BYRNE: Has the war against family violence taken a step backwards?

BURNEY: I think that the role of White Ribbon was very unique. And hopefully, there can be some way of making sure that that space is not left vacant.

BYRNE: Linda Burney, thank you so much for talking to us today.

BURNEY: Thank you.