Landmark Treaty Report Recommends First Nations System of Government for Indigenous Territories

The Northern Territory Government has released a landmark treaty report, outlining a path to self-determination for Indigenous peoples through legally binding treaties.

If its recommendations are followed, the report could lay the groundwork for significant new decision-making powers for Indigenous peoples, who make up one-third of the territory’s population.

The 180-page document, released after years of consultation, says the fundamental goal of any treaty agreement should be to give Indigenous peoples as much self-determination as possible.

The report recommends a process of transition from Indigenous peoples to First Nations governments.

Acting Treaty Commissioner and respected Indigenous lawyer Tony McAvoy, who took office last December, said this would in turn reduce high rates of disadvantage.

“When Indigenous communities [and] Indigenous organizations design and deliver the services to Indigenous people, those services are most effective at that time,” the man from Wirdi said.

The treaty document was signed in the remote community of Barunga in 2018.(ABC News: Felicity James)

“These recommendations enable Indigenous governments to provide services to their communities.

“I expect to see a significant change in levels of disadvantage if we are able to ensure that these governments are supported and resourced to do the job.”

The report says First Nations governments would initially operate in the same way as local governments, before taking on broader responsibilities.

To achieve this, the report recommends facilitating multiple treaties with First Nations groups, a comprehensive territory-wide agreement guiding treaty negotiations, and a First Nations forum of Indigenous organizations to approve a model treaty.

He says possible treaty outcomes could also include self-government, economic independence and reparations.

Major work, including the territory-wide agreement, ahead of in-depth treaty negotiations, is expected to be completed in three years.

“The Northern Territory Government, in the briefings I have conducted, appreciates that the time has come for this type of reform.”

Years of Remote NT Consulting

Treaties between governments and Indigenous groups seek to resolve historical disputes with various legally binding settlements.

The treaty process began from a government perspective in June 2018, when the Northern Territory Government pledged to work towards a treaty with Indigenous peoples.

Then Chief Minister Michael Gunner signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the four Northern Territory land councils.

The document was signed in the remote community of Barunga, 30 years after indigenous leaders delivered a statement calling for better rights to then Prime Minister Bob Hawke at the same location.

Headshot of a man looking at the camera
Tony McAvoy says the government should act on the report “quickly”.(ABC News: Tristan Hooft)

“A very important first step”

The Treaty Commission, created the following year, then traveled tens of thousands of miles visiting 135 remote communities in an extensive consultation process.

Other recommendations from the final report include:

  • Expand the Treaty Commission into a Treaty and Truth Commission to advance the work of telling the truth throughout the Northern Territory
  • Create an Indigenous ombudsman position to respond to complaints about government involvement in the treaty process
  • Establish a First Nations Treaty Court to resolve First Nations disputes
  • A panoply of legislative reforms to pave the way for treaties

The document calls on the government to support the report as a first step and to start working on its recommendations.

The government will provide an interim response in the coming months and an official response by the end of the year.

Mr McAvoy said he was not concerned that the significant nature of some proposals would make it more difficult to secure government support.

“The government expressed its willingness to engage with indigenous peoples in the Northern Territory in the Barunga Agreement in 2018,” he said.

“This book, which comes out today, is another step in delivering on the promises made in 2018.

“The overwhelming support for a treaty process for the Indigenous peoples of the Northern Territory is something the government should take to heart and should act quickly.”

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