NT treaties must achieve ‘highest levels of self-determination’ for First Nations, commissioner says

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Diego Fedele/AAP</span>
Photograph: Diego Fedele/AAP

The Northern Territory should establish a forum for First Nations people and develop a territory-wide agreement as the first steps to negotiating treaties and supporting the self-determination of different Indigenous groups, the NT treaty commissioner has said.

The recommendations were made in the final report from the NT treaty commission, released on Wednesday, which followed four years of consultation with Aboriginal people in the territory, which kicked off with the signing of the Barunga agreement in 2018.

If adopted, it will make the NT the second jurisdiction after Victoria to begin the administrative process of negotiating treaties.

Related: ‘Decolonisation in action’: Victorian treaty negotiations to be overseen by independent authority

The acting treaty commissioner, Tony McAvoy SC, said a treaty with the NT “will go some way to responding to and recognising historical and continuing injustices, and will offer a path forward for First Nations, governments and the wider community to come together in a way that is defined by equality, respect, reparation and a mutual acknowledgment of the First Nations’ inalienable right to self-determination on their land”.

McAvoy, a Wirdi man from central Queensland, said the commission determined that “the fundamental objective of treaties in the NT is to achieve the highest levels of self-determination that each First Nation may conceivably attain”.

“Ultimately, treaties between First Nations and the NT must be firmly focused on enabling First Nation self-government,” he said.

The report recommends the government establish a First Nations forum for Aboriginal Territorians to endorse a treaty model, and decide how they should be represented in negotiations – similar to the First People’s Assembly of Victoria.

McAvoy recommended the development of a treaty process that allows for the negotiations of many individual treaties between the state government and individual First Nations or a coalition. The report said it should include a territory-wide agreement negotiated first, setting out the minimum standards for all subsequent treaties.

It recommended the development of a process for Indigenous groups to gain official recognition and transition to a First Nation government.

It follows a call earlier this month from the Yolngu and Anindilyakwa people of East Arnhem Land for the two Balanda (non-Indigenous) levels of government to recognise First Nations governance and provide for self-determination through treaty.

The report recommended the three-year treaty commission be extended and expanded to become a treaty and truth commission under new legislation – similar to Victoria’s Yoorrook Justice Commission – along with the creation of a treaty tribunal and Aboriginal ombudsman.

The NT government said it would consider the report, with an interim response to be released when the report is tabled in parliament in July and a formal response by the end of 2022.

The minister for treaty and local decision making, Selena Uibo, said the consultations with Aboriginal people across the territory showed support for treaties and the government was proud to advance the process.

Related: Victoria’s First Nations treaty authority could be replicated across Australia, experts say

“We will consider the recommendations over the coming months and provide a formal whole-of-government response that will set the foundation for future agreements between the NT government and Aboriginal Territorians,” she said.

Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT welcomed the release of the report.

“First Nations across the Northern Territory can boast a long and proud history of calling for recognition, truth, justice and self-determination for our people,” the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT chief executive, John Paterson, said.

“This is an opportunity for healing for our people, and for all Territorians to build a future that shares and celebrate our strengths, together,” he said.

The Victorian government earlier this month tabled legislation in parliament to establish an independent authority to help oversee the country’s first treaty negotiations between a government and Aboriginal people, as the next stage in that state’s treaty process.

The new federal government has committed to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart, with the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, saying it will hold a referendum on a voice to parliament in his first term.

McAvoy’s tenure as acting treaty commissioner has ended, but the NT government said he would continue working with government on treaty matters.

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