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2022 AIATSIS Summit – navigating the spaces in between by re-imagining Australia through First Nations leveraging native title and broader rights

The third day of the 2022 AIATSIS Summit opened in Twin Waters on Kabi Kabi Country in south-eastern Queensland today with a fresh influx of delegates and a focus that turned largely to native title matters. 

Queensland South Native Title Services (QSNTS) is partnering with AIATSIS for the 2022 summit, which has the theme ‘navigating the spaces in between’. Around 1100 delegates will attend over the week, with 300 speakers.

Today’s program opened with a keynote address by the CEO of QSNTS, Kevin Smith, who offered an overview of the benefits, limitations and areas in need of further action resulting from the 1992 High Court Mabo decision that established the principle of native title. 

‘The Mabo judgment gave us a chance to say: “this is our home,”’ Mr Smith said. 

‘Native title is inalienable; it is technically forever. The right to self-determination and its implementation is technically forever.’

However, Mr Smith noted that the legislative response to the Mabo decision was always a compromise, and that the 30 years since the Mabo decision have not been easy.

‘The Mabo judgment is often recalled as not only the start but also the high point of native title. Maybe frustrations come directly from our unrealised expectations or indeed misunderstandings of the Mabo judgment. But those challenges are negligible compared to the untold damage inflicted by the legal fiction of terra nullius that was perpetuated for over 200-odd years. 

‘The Mabo judgment blew the grit away that had blinded this country for too long, rendering First Nations peoples legally invisible. If it wasn’t for the High Court saying “enough”, it was folly to think that the very institutions and powerful interests that backed them – who promulgated racist laws and policies for two centuries, that underwrote a perverse hegemony – would have spontaneously found a conscience and recognised First Nations.

‘But the co-plaintiffs in that historic victory shouted truth to that power and prevailed. That should be celebrated.’

Mr Smith identified affinity between the principles contained in the Native Title Act in Australia and those articulated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2007.

‘Together, native title and UNDRIP can assist with nation building. They are pillars set deep in the foundation of traditional law and custom that in turn builds a strong house for a First Nation to sustain itself and interact with the broader community. 

‘A theory of change needs a governance model to drive it. One that takes into account the complexity of UNDRIP and native title. A model that comprehends that traditional law and custom is critical to traditional authority but also appreciates that other rights and interests need to be utilised. A model capable of scalability, to deal with opportunities and challenges associated with coexistence yet consistent with traditional laws and customs that unite regions.’

Other topics discussed today included heritage protection; progress with the Yoorook Justice Commission in Victoria; strengthening the place of Indigenous peoples in universities and concepts of ‘belonging’ in academia; environmental stewardship; storytelling and colonial control; Aboriginal women’s experiences of cultural renewal, identity, and healing; land and sea management; protecting cultural and intellectual property rights; First Nations-led fire management and innovative solutions. 

The Kabi Kabi people, the Traditional Owners of the Sunshine Coast region, are the hosts for the 2022 AIATSIS Summit.

Follow the summit in real time on social media: #aiatsisSUMMIT

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Last updated: 02 June 2022