PATRICK DODSON was there on the day, 30 years ago, that prime minister Bob Hawke promised aboriginals a treaty that would at last acknowledge their rights. At the time Mr Dodson was the manager of one of the many “land councils” that aboriginals had formed in an effort to reclaim their traditional lands. He helped Mr Hawke draft his declaration. “It was a breath of fresh air that at long last Australia was prepared to sit down and discuss the way in which the country was taken from first-nations people,” the senator from the Labor party recalls.

Mr Hawke said that negotiations could be concluded within three years, but his plans were scuttled by the conservative opposition. “The whole notion of a treaty got pushed further and further to the background,” says Mr Dodson. Today, aboriginals are no closer to an agreement with the federal government than they were in 1988. Instead, the current conservative coalition had offered to hold a referendum on “constitutional recognition”—another cherished goal of aboriginal activists. Yet when aboriginal leaders suggested that any amendment to the constitution should empower, rather than simply nod at aboriginals, the government demurred.

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“We’ve had enough of symbolism,” says Jill Gallagher, an aboriginal leader from the state of Victoria. “At a national level, our country is not mature enough to have this conversation, so the states need to be willing to do it.” Several of them are: Victoria’s Labor government has been consulting with local tribes about a treaty since 2016. In June the lower house of the state assembly passed a bill to get formal negotiations going. The bill obliges the state to recognise a representative body to negotiate on behalf of aboriginals and establishes a fund to help aboriginal communities prepare for the talks. Ms Gallagher has been appointed as a commissioner to push the process forward.

Other parts of the country are following. The chief minister of the Northern Territory, Michael Gunner, recently promised to begin negotiations on a treaty that would “cede decision-making power back to [aboriginal] communities”. The Labor party in New South Wales, which is currently in opposition, promises to do the same if it returns to office.

Many aboriginal leaders have come to view state treaties as more achievable than a federal one. Australia has 500-odd distinct indigenous groups. Reaching an overarching agreement with all of them would be a spectacular challenge, even if the federal government wanted to do so. Victoria and the Northern Territory say they will negotiate with individual clans, if that is what they want. State treaties could recognise aboriginals as the original inhabitants and give them the kind of say in their own affairs that the federal government denies them. They could establish truth-telling commissions and acknowledge—and even apologise for—past atrocities.

Unlike their counterparts in America, Canada and New Zealand, the Europeans who settled Australia never struck any sort of formal treaty with indigenous people. The land was declared terra nullius: free for the taking. Aboriginals were mentioned in the constitution only to make clear they were second-class citizens (one clause stated that census-takers should ignore them). Those clauses were removed in the 1960s, leaving no mention of aboriginals at all. They were given the vote only in 1962, and only in 1992 did the courts acknowledge that the land had once been theirs.

State governments may be more willing than the federal one to face up to all this, but none would be willing to concede aboriginals’ “sovereignty”, as some activists demand. Paying settlements to individual clans and tribes could become a big drain on state budgets. Peter Yu, a leader of the Yawuru people from the state of Western Australia, says that treaties could be undone if they are not protected in the constitution. He points to South Australia, which began negotiating with aboriginal clans last year, and signed a preliminary agreement with one in February. Then an election ushered in a conservative government. It has shelved the talks, saying that it has “other priorities”.

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