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Nielsen poll doesn't quite support a Treaty for Indigenous Australians

By Graham Young - posted Wednesday, 15 November 2000


According to a recent AC Nielsen Issues Report, a majority of Australians support a treaty with the Aboriginal People. This has been uncritically accepted by supporters of a treaty. Aden Ridgeway was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald on November 8 as saying "the latest poll showed Australians had grasped the need to reconcile and for 'some formal agreement or compact which brings us together, recognising that there are unique circumstances for indigenous people that must be catered for in national life'".

He also credited the Olympics and Cathy Freeman's win as creating a "groundswell of good feeling".

Perhaps Freeman's win did do something enduring for Reconciliation. Talkback radio has been full of the claim that because the country was united in willing her to win it proved that most of us have reconciled. However, the real test is not how the country reacts to her wins, but to her losses. When the tennis player Yvonne Goolagong had a bad day back in the '70s it was nothing to hear people mutter that she had "gone walkabout", which fingered supposed racial or cultural characteristics for her lack of success. What will they say when Cathy fades?

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There is a parallel here with a treaty. At the moment, Aboriginal issues are enjoying a late public honeymoon which seems to have started with the bridge walks and was certainly heightened by the Olympics. But how popular will these issues be when the honeymoon is over and the practicalities have to be teased out and put in place? The Issues Report finds three things:

  1. 53% (up 7%) support the notion of a treaty. 34% (down 6%) oppose it.
  2. 78% of voters (up 4%) support the process of reconciliation.
  3. 3. 43% (steady) agree with an apology; 52% (down 1%) disagree.

That seems pretty plain, but it isn't. One of the things to look for in polls is internal contradictions and inconsistencies - they are pointers to areas where people are saying things that they don't really mean. A significant example of such an inconsistency occurs between points 2 and 3. Seventy-eight per cent say they support Reconciliation, but only 43 per cent support an apology (and 52 per cent oppose). Yet, one of the fundamental requirements for Reconciliation is an apology. So true support for Reconciliation cannot be higher than the 43 per cent who support an apology - just over half of what it appears to be at first blush. Put an adjustment of that order of magnitude onto the percentage that supports a treaty and actual support could really be as low as 29 per cent.

Of course, it is not valid to adjust the figure that way, but I would bet that it gives a more realistic figure of support for a treaty than the headline one. The only way to know the real level of support is to test each of the propositions that makes up the whole of the treaty. The level of support for the overall concept will then most likely be the level of support for the least popular part of it.

That is how the Republican debate worked. The vast majority of Australians class themselves as Republicans, but the Republic seems as far off as ever, because we cannot agree on the form of republic that we want. The ideal of a republic is highly popular, but the reality wasn't sufficiently compelling for us to support it. And the closer we drew to the referendum, the lower support for the option on offer fell.

In 1979 the National Aboriginal Conference set out procedures for establishing a treaty which would have involved a convention of indigenous representatives. According to Geoff Clark in a speech on September 7, 2000 at Latrobe University they "wanted the treaty to provide:

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  1. The protection of languages;
  2. Restoration of land in accordance with the Woodward Commission recommendations;
  3. Regulation of mining and exploration on Aboriginal land;
  4. Compensation for loss of lands and way of life; and
  5. Control of Aboriginal affairs".

Yet, neither Liberal nor Labor Governments have implemented a treaty, despite giving it some support at various times. In fact, the whole Reconciliation process is a typical Hawke solution to an insoluble problem - finding a treaty too hard to implement, he postponed the problem beyond his period in government by opting for a 10 year process of consultation instead. Hawke was a good weathervane of public opinion. If he thought the issues too hard to sell, they probably were.

So what issues are involved in a treaty? The first issue is that of sovereignty. The Prime Minister argues that treaties are agreements between sovereign nations, and that to make a Treaty with Aboriginal Australians would be to admit Aboriginal Sovereignty, making us two nations on one continent. While this suggestion has been ridiculed by some, ATSIC Chairman Geoff Clark gives life to it in his speech of September 7. He suggests that there might be a subsisting form of Aboriginal sovereignty, much as Native Title was a subsisting form of land title.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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