Constitutional Recognition in Tasmania

PACT: Benjamin Duterrau’s 1840 oil painting "The Conciliation", at the Tasmanian Museum and Gallery.
PACT: Benjamin Duterrau’s 1840 oil painting “The Conciliation”, at the Tasmanian Museum and Gallery.

Oath signed in oil on canvas

GREG LEHMAN details the historic deal underpinning a push for constitutional recognition of Tasmanian Aborigines.

FOR constitutional reform to work it must create meaningful change and address the current situation of Aboriginal people — our need for improvement across social and economic indicators, as well as proper access to the spectrum of Australian life.

Neither of these objectives is at acceptable levels of achievement for a First World country. There is intolerable disadvantage to Aboriginal people. Key indicators, such as suicide rates, unequivocally show the situation is unendurable for many Aboriginal people. This is as relevant in Tasmania as any other Australian jurisdiction.

Despite the death of the last of our tribally born ancestors over four generations ago, despite few remote communities with a history of reserve or mission status, and despite relative integration of Aboriginal people into rural and urban life, attempts to assimilate Aboriginal culture into mainstream Tasmanian life have failed to create equality for Aborigines.

Decades of welfare policy has dulled the sharper edges of disadvantage, but chronic inequity persists. Innate racism pervades modern society. It interrupts media discourse and sporting culture, as we have witnessed recently, and touches the lives of Aboriginal people every day.

Tasmania’s situation dates back to decisions and their outcomes for which the State Government must take direct responsibility.

Acknowledgment of prior occupation in the Constitution Act 1934 is not enough. The constitutional inquiry offers a chance to start a systematic assessment of reasons for our circumstances, and to address why Aboriginal people are yet to achieve health, wellbeing and livelihoods that are the right of all Tasmanians.

Recognition in the Tasmanian Constitution is a symbolic step, but tangible, lasting effects are unlikely unless there is understanding of past and present influences.

On return to England, Lieutenant Governor Arthur wrote in a letter to Lord Glenelg in 1837, that he “deeply lamented” his responsibility for an “injudicious course of proceedings” to Aboriginal people as a result of becoming “perplexed by the adverse opinion of others”.

The Governor wrote that “on the first occupation of Tasmania … a great oversight that a treaty was not, at the time, made with the natives and such compensation given to the chiefs as they would have deemed a fair equivalent for what they surrendered”.

Arthur had instituted an inquiry in 1830, forming the Aborigines Committee, to get to the bottom of Aboriginal hostility to settlers and try to improve the situation. It proceeded in a period of martial law and submissions focused most on removing or “extirpating” Aborigines. The committee did not act in the interests of Aborigines and compounded their suffering.

After the commission, Arthur urged the Colonial Office to negotiate treaties and set aside land for Aborigines. Professor Henry Reynolds says this reflects his awareness a serious mistake was made in Tasmania.

It probably influenced the decision to negotiate the Treaty of Waitangi prior to settlement of New Zealand.

It is ironic the Aboriginal people of Tasmania, the place that inspired more judicious outcomes for indigenous people elsewhere, have never enjoyed that recognition.

This injustice in the 19th century has continued to be argued by descendants and heirs of Tasmania’s First People since.

Following the infamous roving parties, the Black Line, and the commissioning of George Augustus Robinson as Conciliator — all decisions by the Governor aimed at removing Aboriginal families from their homes to make way for colonists — there have been repeated bids to remind the Tasmanian government that a legitimate expectation was established in the hearts and minds of the Aboriginal people, created by Governor’s proclamation or through promises made by his agents.

The first reminder of this came from people who were removed, and imprisoned, at Wybalenna on Flinders Island. Walter George Arthur, son of Rolpena (a chief of the Ben Lomond people) and David Bruny (son of Bruny Island chief Worredy) began their 1845 petition to Queen Victoria: “Your petitioners humbly state to Your Majesty that Mr Robinson made for us and with Colonel Arthur an agreement that we have not lost from our minds since and we have made our part of it good.”

This was a reference to a decision by Aboriginal leaders such as Manalargena, Woreddy and Montpelliater, leader of the Big River Mob, to accept assurances offered. An indication of the assurances was made by Robinson when he brought the last armed Aboriginal resistance group to Hobart in 1832.

Robinson made agreement with the Big River Mob to end the war, and accompany him to meet with Arthur. As the Governor’s agent, Robinson documented the terms of his deal in a letter to Colonial Secretary John Burnett: “I have promised them an interview with the Lieutenant-Governor and told them that the Government will be sure to redress all their grievances … they have placed themselves under my protection and are desirous for peace.”

Historian James Calder’s view, published in 1875, was the co-operation of the Aborigines was obtained by Robinson by “making promises that he should have known could not be kept”.

Historical records make it clear Aborigines co-operated with the government to bring peace to the colony on the basis of promises they would be able to return to their lands free to practise their culture without settler interference.

Prof Reynolds assembles documentation of Arthur’s plan to offer the western half of the island, then the North-East, as a place Aborigines would be free from settler interference. He makes it clear the plans were communicated repeatedly to Aboriginal chiefs. This agreement is referred to in a 1883 letter to the Launceston Examiner from John Smith, John Maynard, Thomas Mansell, George Everett, Henry Beeton and Phillip Thomas of Cape Barren Island. The authors remind the government of the deal made by Aborigines to voluntarily go to Flinders Island and, as a consequence, that their needs would be met and they would later be let return to their homes to practise their culture.

In his Report on the Half Cast Reserve of 1933, N. Hawkins said the islanders were “obsessed with the idea that they have a legitimate right to the land of their ancestors”, and that the “people of Tasmania should be paying rent for Tasmania”.

With this in mind, it is possible to better understand demands that began to be made publicly in the 1970s that an unbroken claim to a central element of the original agreement continues.

As Furley Gardner, a Cape Barren Island resident, said in a letter to the Examiner in 1977: “We are claiming Land rights. What is wrong with that? It is our ancestors calling from their graves. Claim what is rightfully yours.”

Aunty Furley echoes calls for justice from across the island by Aboriginal matriarchs Dolly Briggs and Fanny Cochrane Smith 100 years before.

These demands underpinned negotiations with premier Ray Groom, leading to the Aboriginal Lands Act, 1995. They also brought Aboriginal people to the table for the review of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area Management Plan in 2015, and drive ongoing requests for the return of land, joint land management and access to cultural resources.

Recognition of Tasmanian Aboriginal people in the state’s Constitution Act must acknowledge this history, its legacies and implications. Failure to do this will be to repeat the “injudicious proceedings” that Lieutenant-Governor Arthur so deeply lamented 180 years ago.

Most Tasmanians know there is too much unspeakable in the island’s history. The face of Truganini stirs a collective conscience, not just in Tasmania but across Australia.

The nation’s very first history painting, Benjamin Duterrau’s 1840 oil on canvas, The Conciliation, that hangs in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, pictures the moment the deal was struck.

To succeed in all this will require leadership from government, and a commitment to resist being dissuaded, as Arthur was, by “adverse opinions of others”.

Arthur erred because of pressure from settlers who had to defend their lives and property against attack. This reason no longer exists. The common aspiration of Tasmanian Aborigines is for a meaningful voice in government processes and to be free to enjoy their culture in their ancestral home.

Whether this should follow the precedent of the Treaty of Waitangi and create dedicated seats in the Tasmanian Parliament, or the formation of a body of Aboriginal people to advise the Parliament is a question to be answered with consultation with Aboriginal people in Tasmania, and with all Tasmanians.


Greg Lehman is a Tasmanian Aborigine with over 30 years’ experience working in Aboriginal groups, including the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and Tasmanian Aboriginal Land Council, and public agencies in Aboriginal education, heritage management, tourism and the arts. He is a research associate at the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

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