Te Raina Watego is a member of Scarred Tree Indigenous Ministries at St John’s Anglican Glebe and organiser of the 2019 Christianity and Treaty Conference TEAR had the opportunity to support. She shares some personal reflections on Treaty and provides a challenge for us to use our voices.
I was thirteen when I won a speech competition on sovereignty. My Maori mother helped me craft it so in many ways, it was her voice that others heard. She raised me to believe my tino rangatiratanga or sovereignty came from being Maori, her Tuwharetoa people and our lands. My identity was profoundly shaped by this belief; my sovereignty is essential to my being. So when I came to Australia, it resonated when my Aboriginal brothers and sisters talked about their ongoing connection to land.
In 2013, I started a law degree. I couldn’t wait to do constitutional law because there was a national conversation happening about recognition, and I was optimistic about the debate. We were given an essay question on how to recognise our First Peoples in the Australian Constitution. I responded with vigour, drawing on my experiences as a First Nations person to suggest a pathway for change. I was shocked when I got my mark back. More heart-breaking were the lecturer’s comments.
For the first time in my life, I learned that the common law of Australia, the same form of law operating in New Zealand, did not recognise my Indigenous sovereignty. That it was incapable of recognising me. I cried for days. I didn’t understand how my worldview, persistent and alive as it is, was incapable of being recognised by the common law. How my identity was worth less than another’s because it was founded on something that existed before the English arrived though not part of the law brought with them. I also learned about the concept of popular sovereignty. It’s the idea that sovereign power rests with the people, and that a nation’s authority is only created and sustained by its people. I learned that popular sovereignty trumps Indigenous sovereignty for expressing identity.
Since then I’ve thought about what needs to happen to effect deep and lasting change. People often point to New Zealand’s Treaty of Waitangi as the model for effective race relations. Lesser known is the fact that it was an Act of Parliament, the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 that gave recognition to the Treaty in New Zealand’s law. New Zealand has been able to create a wonderful climate of equality, where difference co-exists in respectful relationship. Equality has flourished in an environment of legal certainty and recognition under an Act of Parliament.
It’s why I understand the continuing call for changes to the Australian Constitution. The Statement from the Heart asks for a voice in Parliament, so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can have a say in how laws created for them, impact them. But it needs the protection of an Act of Parliament – in this case, the Constitution – to ensure the First Nations voice will always be heard.
The truth is, the people of this land to whom I cleave my heart, need more than their own voices. They need yours also.
More than that, it needs your voice. The truth is, the people of this land to whom I cleave my heart, need more than their own voices. They need yours also. Our law says our collective voice is stronger than our First Peoples’ alone. It’s why the writers of the Statement from the Heart invite us to walk in a movement of the Australian people for a better future. We are being asked to support constitutional change. We are being asked to acknowledge the truth of our First Peoples’ abiding connection to land, their inherent sovereignty. For only by voicing our support can we move closer to a better, more equal Australia.