No Treaty Signed, No Sovereignty Ceded

How attitudes towards climbing Uluru reflect disrespect to traditional ownership of lands


Words || James Booth

Uluru is one of Australia’s most well-known landmarks, instantly recognisable to international tourists and even the inspiration behind the design of the ill-fated rock roadhouse (which burnt down last year, and took with it a shop dedicated to selling the controversial golliwog doll). 

A key tourist attraction has seen people coming to the nation’s red centre to climb Uluru, formally referred to by its colonial name ‘Ayer’s Rock’. However, in November 2017, the board of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park unanimously decided to ban the climbing of Uluru, effective on 26th October 2019. As this deadline has approached, tourists have disrespected the wishes of the traditional owners and flocked to climb the Anangu sacred site before it closes for good.

Uluru has been central to political discourse for some time, with One Nation’s Pauline Hanson travelling to the Red Centre to try and convince traditional owners to change their mind on the ban. Comparing the closing down of Uluru to closing Bondi beach, and maintaining this position until she herself got stuck on the climb. 

While the knowledge of a frightened Pauline Hanson stuck on Uluru has brought me a lot of joy, it is frustrating for the traditional owners that it took her claiming the rock was “dangerous” to climb to support their wishes. This is the core of the issue here, traditional owner’s wishes for our communities to not climb a sacred religious site are not being respected. The fear of missing out on ever climbing Uluru, has outweighed any sort of cultural competency or respect for the Anangu people’s wishes.

No Treaty Signed 

While it would be ideal for us to consider this a singular moment of ignorance to the wishes of traditional owners, what this event speaks to is the broader historical lack of respect to Australia’s First Nations peoples. A particularly glaring notion lies in the Australian Government’s lack of consideration for the Uluru Statement from the Heart. 

The Uluru Statement saw the meeting of over 250 first nations elders and leaders, its core saw a call to action for the creation of an advisory body within the Australian parliament called ‘the voice’. Successive Prime Ministers have failed to engage with the statement since it was presented in 2017. The proposal for constitutional reforms has largely been ignored by the Australian Parliament, and showcases a continuing trend of our Parliament failing to support movements towards self-determination for our first nations peoples.

When hearing an acknowledgment of country or welcome to country, given by First Nations peoples on their own land, the speaker will often acknowledge that “no treaty has been signed”. This is an important thing to note when discussing any governance of Australia’s First Nations peoples. In declaring this nation as ‘terra nullius’ and belonging to no one, the settlers of this nation refused to acknowledge any sovereignty of First Nations peoples to land they had looked after for hundreds of thousands of years. What is even worse, is that it would take a referendum in 1967 for the First Nations peoples of the newly formed Australia to even be considered people and not livestock in our census data.

In 1988, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke was presented with the Barunga Statement, a historic predecessor to the Uluru Statement, which called for there to be a treaty formed between the Australian Government and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Hawke government held an official policy of pursuing a treaty with First Nations Australians, but would lose a leadership challenge to former PM Paul Keating. The treaty was not pursued further by the Keating Government, highlighting a historic trend in which Australia’s Parliament has failed to effectively work towards self-determination for Indigenous peoples.

Sovereignty Never Ceded

When we compare this to New Zealand and the Maori peoples, it is important to understand that the key difference between our nations and their treatment of first nations peoples lies in the lack of treaty signed in Australia. In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the Maori peoples and the western settlers of New Zealand. This Treaty has ensured that a guaranteed 7 seats of the New Zealand parliament must go to Maori peoples, which is significant in allowing these peoples a comparatively better ability to govern their peoples. Or at the very least have a seat at the table. 

The continued failure to pursue any form of constitutional reforms or treaty action with our first nations peoples has limited to ability of Australia’s first nations peoples to actually govern themselves. Not to mention as a nation we’ve consistently introduced paternalistic policy that has set out to Assimilate first nations people. 

In 2007, our Government suspended part II of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) in response to the Little Children are Sacred report. The report made suggestion that the government work with the first nations communities, instead the Howard Government participated in what has come to be known as the Northern Territory Intervention. Even going as far as granting land tenure to the government, a further challenge to self-determination and removal of sovereignty from our Indigenous communities. This policy was reminiscent of the Stolen Generation policy, and it becomes apparent that our parliament has a history of removing sovereignty from first nations peoples.

While I want to pretend to be shocked that politicians in our nation have actively challenged the requests of the Anangu people, an understanding of the colonial history of Australia makes this hardly surprising. Often the considerations of our first nations people are put against interests in mining, road development, or even tourism. Only seeing sacred lands as opportunities to promote capital growth is part of the problem, but lends itself to a historical lack of consideration for the sovereignty of first nations peoples and their sacred land.

Uluru may now be closed for climbing, but the white trail from tourists will remain there for some time as another reminder of our historical lack of care for the spiritual traditions of our first nations peoples. I am hopeful for this to be the first step in protecting the sovereignty of our traditional land owners. However if history is anything to go by, it seems unlikely.