Sound On: Talking treaty with Bethany Allen

Did you know that Australia is one of the few liberal democracies in the world without a treaty or formal arrangement with its Indigenous people?

To celebrate and commemorate the 2019 NAIDOC Week theme of Voice, Treaty, Truth, Bond University has produced a three-part podcast series. Hosted by Bond student and Torres Strait Islander woman Jondayah Martin, the podcasts dive into the truths of the past to explore ways we can move forward, together, towards a better future. 

In the second part of the podcast series, Jondayah speaks with Bond University law graduate Bethany Allen to unpack what it means when we talk about treaty and why Australia doesn't have one. 

Listen to part one of Sound On: The power of voice with Jeremy Donovan.

Listen to part three of Sound On: Learning from truth with Aunty Joyce Summers.

Bethany also spoke with the Bond Newsroom about the concept of treaty, and what it means to her. 

Bethany Allen

Bethany Allen lays out her case more like a prosecutor than the corporate lawyer she is training to become.

“A treaty at its heart is an agreement between two sovereigns, usually two countries, promising things to each other,” the Awabakal woman says.

“I don’t think that’s what we talk about when we talk about a treaty for Australia.

“First off, you’re talking about hundreds of (Indigenous) nations, and if we’re talking about one treaty, that’s going to be a pretty comprehensive thing.”

Ms Allen was born in Newcastle but her ‘Indigenous awakening’ occurred after moving to the Gold Coast as a 12-year-old and meeting local elder, Aunty Pat Leavy.

“She ran the Black and Deadly girls’ program which was a big part of me learning to own my blackness, and she is a big part of who I am today,” Ms Allen says.

“She’s loud and proud and that’s something I was always afraid to be.

“Coming up here and having Aunty Pat say, ‘Nuh, you’re one of us, own it and own it in every way’ -- that was a big part of me defining myself as a Awabakal woman first and foremost and then everything else came after that.” 

It was Aunty Pat who urged Ms Allen to study law at Bond University where she has grown more comfortable speaking up for her people while moving into a role with international law firm MinterEllison.

“I think like every Indigenous kid in law you are the Native Title kid. I naturally fell into it and I still love that area of law. I did my honours project in it but it’s not where I ended up,” she says.

“I’m working in corporate law and I love it.”

But back to the vexed issue of a treaty between the Commonwealth and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: if not a treaty, then what?

“We use the word makarrata for a reason and it doesn’t translate exactly as treaty. (Makarrata is a Yolngu word which roughly translates as resolution of dispute).

“It is about coming together after a conflict and I think that’s more than a document.

“I think truth-telling is the biggest thing. If you look at other post-conflict societies -- and I like to define Australia as a post-conflict society – settler colonial states usually aren’t considered post-conflict societies in the same way Rwanda or Afghanistan are, but we are.

“It’s been a while for some and not as long for others but if you look at any other model for coming together after conflict, the biggest thing is accountability. It’s about making sure that the country as a whole acknowledges its history, and every bit of it.”

Bethany Allen

Ms Allen says educating all Australians about the wrongs of the past could potentially be more powerful in healing wounds than any signed document.

“That has to be the first step because you can’t sign on to a treaty acknowledging the past if you don’t acknowledge all of it or it you don’t understand all of it, and most of Australia has no idea of our past. I don’t know most of it.

“But we live in a digital age. You can google it. I am coming to the end of my tether with people saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know anything about it’.

“Google it. Engage with people. You can’t hide behind, ‘We weren’t taught it in school’ because I don’t think we’ll be taught it in school for a very long time.

“A big part of our culture is just yarning around a cup of tea and I think that’s part of the Australian culture as a whole as well. So I don’t think that’s too much of a leap to extend that to talking to Indigenous people.”

Ms Allen worries that a treaty could lead to the homogenization of cultures that grew rich and disparate over 60,000 years.

“I think that a single treaty with hundreds of nations is another step in erasing the individual identities of those individual nations,” she says.

“Indigenous people all over Australia have struggled, but those have been different struggles. Down south you see different kinds of pain at different times to out west, to up north, Torres Strait.

“There are certain commonalities but you can put a blanket treaty over all of them and say, ‘Yes, you’ve suffered because of these three things or these hundred things.

“It’s more individual than that and part of respecting pain and part of respecting this struggle is acknowledging each one.”

She’s talked about the past and the future. Now Ms Allen addresses the present.

“I don’t want to be a pessimist but I think reconciliation is a long way off,” she says.

“Not to say that individual people don’t have extremely positive relationships with Indigenous people, but as a whole we still have gaps in education, in healthcare, in socioeconomic outcomes. And those gaps are massive and they are devastating.

“I don’t think you can have reconciliation without fixing that.”