NT government to revive plans for treaty, six years after it was first promised by Territory Labor

NT government to revive plans for treaty, six years after it was first promised by Territory Labor
  • PublishedJanuary 19, 2024

The government denied that it had all but shelved its commitment for a treaty, following the disbandment of the Treaty Commission office and Treaty Commissioner position in 2022.

Former deputy NT treaty commissioner Ursula Raymond told the ABC she had been left disappointed by the process and believed there had been “no movement” from the government towards a treaty since the commission’s final report was delivered that year.

“As far as I’m aware, they have not done anything with it at all,” Ms Raymond said.

“There’s been no movement that I’m aware of, of them implementing any of the recommendations we made or furthering the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Northern Territory regarding a treaty.

“I don’t think there [has been] the political will for it at all.”

NT Deputy Treaty Commissioner Ursula Raymond sitting in a panel discussion.
Ursula Raymond says the lack of movement towards a treaty has been disappointing. 

The closure of the Treaty Commission and subsequent media release to flag it was done quietly over the Christmas holidays in 2022, a move that angered some Indigenous leaders.

In 2018, former chief minister Michael Gunner announced the NT government would pursue a treaty, or treaties, with Aboriginal Territorians, and put $4.2 million into the plans.

Government says Voice slowed treaty process

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Chansey Paech said the treaty process had slowed due to the Voice referendum but that it was now being rebooted.

“We did make the decision to slow down during the national referendum around the Voice to Parliament,” Mr Paech said.

“As an outcome of that, we are now proceeding with the revival of the Treaty Working Group with the land councils and the community, around navigating and putting the pathway forward for treaty here in the Northern Territory.”

Mr Paech said he “rejected those claims” that the government had shelved the treaty commission’s final report, but did not deny that none of its recommendations had been met.

Chansey Paech sits at a wooden table with documents in front of him and a serious expression on his face
Chansey Paech says the government is committed to working through the treaty report recommendations. (ABC News: Xavier Martin)

“When we’re talking about the treaty report, we made a conscious decision not to over-fatigue remote Territorians while the referendum was taking place, because we thought that was an important discussion to be had across the territory,” Mr Paech said.

“The Northern Territory government made a commitment to work through all of those recommendations in the report, that’s work that continues to be undertaken.”

The government will also hold treaty symposiums in both Darwin and Alice Springs in April to plot a pathway forward towards establishing a treaty, and said it would progress movement towards “truth-telling” through the rollout of a new grants program by the end of February.

Treaty revival flagged as NT election issue

The revival of the territory’s treaty process comes seven months out from an NT election, and it’s highly doubtful any such treaty framework could be legislated in that short timeframe.

“This cannot be rushed – this needs to be taken in a clear, concise manner that does not rush this, because it’s important that we get it right the first time,” Mr Paech said.

He added that he hoped that symposiums in April would deliver a “pathway forward and an estimated timeline of when we can realistically deliver a treaty for First Nations people that’s going to deliver positive outcomes in health, in education, in local decision-making”. 

Labor’s treaty pitch is in contrast to the NT’s Country Liberal Party opposition, which has made an election pledge to reform remote local governments ahead of creating a treaty.

Mr Paech was asked if the NT government had left its run for a treaty too late, considering the CLP could win the upcoming election and sideline the proposal.

“Well, this will be a decision for Territorians to make at the August election,” he said.

Documents over Treaty Commission closure kept secret

Exactly why the NT government shuttered the independent Treaty Commission in 2022 remains hidden from the public for now, other than public statements made at the time.

The ABC lodged a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in June 2023 seeking more information regarding the circumstances of the office’s closure.

After more than six months, the ABC received 124 pages of documents regarding the commission’s closure – 100 of those pages were fully blacked out.

The unredacted pages repeat the same basic background information multiple times.

Mr Paech said “the Northern Territory government has nothing to hide” over the matter but would not commit to those pages being unredacted.

“We need to obviously be mindful that there is cabinet-in-confidence,” he said.

“Information is often redacted where there are particular areas that need to be protected for the interests of good governance and good government.”

It comes amid a review into the NT’s FOI processes, which have been described as “very concerning” by the territory’s Information Commissioner.

A printed statement collage with Aboriginal artworks.
Bob Hawke was presented with the Barunga Statement in 1988, and promised to enact a treaty. (Supplied: Australian Parliament House)

Mr Paech said the reopening of an NT Treaty Commission would be something considered at April’s symposiums.

“It’s pointless to invest in offices that the outcomes might not be what the people on the ground want,” he said.

“If the treaty symposiums highlight the need to look at having a Treaty Commission office up-and-running, then that’s a consideration that the NT government will take seriously.”

The commitment for a treaty by the Australian Labor Party is far from new.

Former prime minister Bob Hawke made a pledge at the NT’s Barunga Festival in 1988 that the Commonwealth would make a treaty, however, this promise was never fulfilled.


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