After 2023 Voice Disappointment, Is There Hope for Treaty in Australia?

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After 2023 Voice Disappointment, Is There Hope for Treaty in Australia?

Moving beyond the “no” campaign, conservative political parties across Australia are working to further erode Indigenous reconciliation movements, such as the various Treaty processes.

After 2023 Voice Disappointment, Is There Hope for Treaty in Australia?
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The Voice referendum in Australia proposed a modest reform, one that would have given Indigenous Australians — the oldest continuous living people in the world – an independent voice to Parliament, as well as constitutional recognition. 

When it failed on October 14, in the words of Dr. Hannah McGlade, it confirmed that Australia remained a “racist country.” Furthermore, on a national level, the federal opposition did their utmost to kill reconciliation efforts, and “cynically sow fear” with a series of preposterous political point scoring stunts and hypotheticals – labeled Trumpist in their misinformation by the New York Times – that rendered even the most mundane of reforms impossible. 

Indigenous Australians, while not a monolith in any sense of the word, overwhelmingly voted yes on the Voice referendum. The resulting months have seen a period of silence, followed by consternation regarding next steps toward national reconciliation, while conservative political parties in the country have moved to further erode Indigenous reconciliation movements. 


The most prominent and advanced of these movements is the notion of Treaty, with jurisdictions across Australia at different stages in the process. The First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria – a democratically elected body of Indigenous representatives – says Treaty is about empowering First Nations people in the state, achieving financial independence, and granting better representation. 

Victoria has already held a series of truth-telling hearings, which have allowed a significant number of Indigenous voices to be heard and tell stories of their experiences with colonization. These hearings saw the commissioner of police apologize for systemic racism and over-policing and various ministers and civil servants give evidence and make statements.  

In real terms, the process is focused on allowing Indigenous people to have a say, and make decisions, on issues that impact them directly. Treaties with Indigenous people are present in a number of settler-colonial states, including Canada, the United States, and New Zealand. 

Despite the proposed erosion and undermining of some of these long-standing Indigenous rights in New Zealand, the entirely uncontroversial system of allowing Indigenous people to govern themselves has not brought about the destruction of any nation – despite some conservative commentators’ most dire predictions. 

Some prominent Indigenous people who campaigned against the Voice referendum in Australia – including Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe and leading “no” campaigner Nyunggai Warren Mundine – have even championed treaties as a better way to foster Indigenous advancement in Australia, noting it is less “political” and more practical. 

However, despite seemingly being poised to succeed before the onset of the referendum, various stages of Treaty implementation have hit a wall after the October 14 result. Conservative political parties – all but one of which are in opposition throughout the country – have seen a chance to utilize the referendum to further their various agendas, and taken it with both hands. 

While Victoria is at the most advanced stage, with the First Peoples’ Assembly followed up by a legislative Treaty framework and bipartisan political support, other states have regressed. In Queensland, where Labor looks likely to be defeated in a 2024 election, Liberal National Party leader David Crisafulli withdrew support for truth-telling and Treaty, arguing it would create “further division.” The state has a significant conservative population, and only 31 percent voted for the Voice referendum.

Queensland has also seen the head of the police union argue – entirely without evidence – that a Treaty would make the justice system favorable for Indigenous people. His comments, which were labeled “blatantly racist,” were not condemned by Crisafulli.

Other states have followed suit; the New South Wales opposition has balked at the idea of a Treaty (with Labor seemingly wavering in an election commitment made nine months ago), and the Northern Territory – home of the largest percentage of Indigenous people of any Australian jurisdiction – has seen the opposition Country Liberal Party formally oppose any Treaty process, despite the majority of Indigenous land councils in the territory supporting it. 

Many in conservative politics say the reversal is only a response to the will of the electorate, a disingenuous comment when the referendum was about the addition of 92 words in the constitution and not Indigenous reforms writ large. Nonetheless, Treaty approval is on the downswing. 

With Indigenous-led reforms vital to reducing systemic issues – including deaths in custody, child removal, over-incarceration, and Indigenous suicide – any movement to derail treaties in Australia can only be detrimental to a reconciliation process already wounded by the referendum. 


In the aftermath of the referendum, the federal opposition – led by Peter Dutton but weaponized by leading “no” campaigner and shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price – led a concerted campaign to hold a royal commission into child abuse in Indigenous communities. Notwithstanding persistent issues around child protection that are prevalent in all communities – Indigenous and otherwise – Aboriginal health groups argued a royal commission was unnecessary and not what “First Nations people want.”

Aboriginal groups said all the solutions were already available, and had been for some time, making a royal commission costly and irrelevant; those who disagreed with the proposal were derided as supporting child abuse. The entirety of the referendum had seen conservatives ridicule “inner-city elites” and argue that while opposing the Voice they cared more about Indigenous people in rural communities. Yet when the first opportunity to listen to those very communities was presented, it was disregarded.

In further acts of disingenuity, the comments by the Queensland police union president highlighted the lack of genuine commitment to reduce Indigenous incarceration. He was responding to a series of uncontroversial suggestions, including raising the age of incarceration and criminal responsibility to 14, in line with both international standards. His comments also came in the wake of an independent review into the Queensland Police Service last year that exposed evidence of racism, sexism, and misogyny throughout the entire organization. 

The symbolism of the head of the police union being against Indigenous reconciliation is emphatic. Aboriginal people have been victimized, killed, and over-policed at the hands of Australian law enforcement since the time of colonization. Incarceration rates remain horrifically disproportionate. 

These two seemingly disconnected acts – an example of political whataboutery and opportunism; and a fallacious and mean-spirited article designed to rouse conspiracy theorists – only serve to render McGlade’s proposition true: “Aboriginal communities have been given a clear message by the majority of Australians that they are not respected, and that Australia remains a racist country.” 

It remains to be seen how the various Treaty processes will eventuate. In Victoria, which is traditionally politically progressive, there seems a likely path forward, with the opposition aware that opposing Indigenous sovereignty could render them electorally irrelevant. In the more conservative states, the future is less clear. 

But if the Voice to Parliament – a proposition conservative lawyer Greg Craven said was “so pathetically understated that I’m amazed most Indigenous people are settling for it” – cannot pass, there is a real fear any Indigenous progress that attempts to eradicate the horrific disenfranchisement shown in most metrics is likely to face stiff opposition.