One year on from his appointment as the Northern Territory Treaty Commissioner, Mick Dodson is pleased with the positive response to Treaty from Aboriginal Territorians.

A Katherine-born Yawuru man, Dodson has made significant progress in community discussions about Treaty before the Interim Report and Discussion Paper are due in March.

The Commissioner said if Treaty or Treaties are made in the Territory, communities could see a range of benefits.

“Firstly, we have to find out whether Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory support a Treaty or Treaties,” Dodson said.

“We have to point to any benefits that might flow from Treaty making, and we’ve got to advise the Government on [any] legal and constitutional issues.”

In the past year, Dodson has visited communities across the Territory and has spoken primarily to peak and Aboriginal organisations – he estimates between 50 and 60 organisations.

“They support the idea of a Treaty or Treaties. More so I think for Treaties … regional and localised Treaties. There’s been a positive response to that.”

One thing Dodson noticed however is the lack of accessible information around what Treaties can actually achieve.

“People are not well-informed about … what Treaties might achieve in the longer term, and how they might work.”

He hopes to remedy this through the Interim Report.


International inspiration

Travelling the Territory to talk Treaty, Dodson said he has been pleased with the encounters he’s had with community members and organisations.

“People have been very open and forthcoming, offering advice and information,” Dodson said.

The Terms of Reference that bind Dodson mean he and the Treaty Commission must put forward a range of possible models for Treaty making.

While the Commissioner has looked broadly within Australia, he has also looked outwards to neighbouring nations and countries across the world who have Treaties with their First Nations Peoples.

Dodson said the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) has a model of modern Treaty making that is particularly attractive.

One aspect the Commissioner likes about the BC process is that it initially involves a declaration of Treaty readiness that all parties must agree to.

“We might be able to put forward a model that adapts [the BC model] for … Northern Territory circumstances.”

Other models Dodson has looked into include those used in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the United States, and other Canadian provinces.

“We won’t settle on a model until the final report,” Dodson said.

“I think what’s happening in New Zealand and British Columbia are the standard bearers at the moment … particularly British Columbia, [their] process is essentially the settlement of Native Title through Treaties.

“From a legal and constitutional point of view, it’s probably the closest to Australian circumstances.”


Multiple Treaties backed by Territorians

During this first year of consultations, Dodson has been writing quarterly updates for Territorians interested in the Commissioner’s progress.

“[The updates] have been translated into 18 different Aboriginal languages [including two Kriol languages and] not including English,” Dodson said.

With the Interim Report and Discussion Paper scheduled in the coming months, Dodson said he doesn’t anticipate these documents will be translated in their entirety.

“It’s going to be [hard] to get [an executive summary of the paper] concise and brief … that can be translated.”

The Commissioner said so far, support for multiple Treaties is high.

“[From] discussions with Aboriginal corporations in the Territory, there’s a strong desire for local or regional-type Treaties,” Dodson said.

He said some groups would prefer a Treaty with their language alone, whereas others are indicating their desire to group with others due to cultural ties.

“The key to this process is the right to self-determination.”

On a personal level, Dodson seems to be handling the weight of the task well.

“It’s an enormous task … Treaties take a lot of time.

“There will be, no doubt, hard bargaining about the content of Treaties.”

He said as Treaties progress, there can also be subsequent Treaties that will achieve better outcomes for communities.

“What’s achievable in Treaties is only confined by the limits of our imaginations.”

The Interim Report and Discussion Paper are due to be submitted in March, with the Interim Report being made publicly available three weeks after submission.

The Final Report for the Chief Minister on Treaty in the NT is due in 2022.

By Hannah Cross