Promoting and Protecting Indigenous Human Rights

Larissa Behrendt If I were the federal Attorney-General, I would immediately increase funding to Aboriginal Legal Services.  A 2004 Senate report and a 2003 report of the Office of Evaluation and Audit both found that the then annual nationwide shortfall for funding of Aboriginal legal aid was $25 million.  And that was over four years ago; there have been no increases in real terms since.  Over the period that Howard was in power, funding to Aboriginal Legal Services was cut by 40 per cent in real terms, making the system almost unworkable.

Also high on my list of priorities would be a review of the Northern Territory intervention legislation.  In particular, I would move swiftly to stop the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act and the blanket quarantining of welfare provisions.  I would hand to my cabinet colleagues all of the growing evidence that is emerging that the quarantining of welfare is not working, and certainly not improving school attendance.  I would also hand them a list of programs that have been shown to improve school attendance, including breakfast and lunch programs and Aboriginal teachers’ aides.  These programs would be budgetary priorities.  I would move to immediately reinstate the permit system and undertake a review of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, the outcomes of which would inform me as to the best ways to reinstate protections to traditional owners and return control of mining royalties to Aboriginal people, not the Minister.

It would be time to undertake a proper review of the Native Title Act and the National Native Title Tribunal.  I would commission a proper evaluation of the workability of the Act and seek recommendations to improve its ability to provide outcomes and to shift the balance back after the 1998 amendments.

I would dust off copies of the Bringing them Home Report and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, get advice on the best way to implement the key recommendations of both reports and develop a strategy for implementation.  I would convene a special meeting of the all State Attorney-Generals and their Department heads to find ways to better co-ordinate efforts to implement the strategy with timelines and benchmarks.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People would be signed and I would seek advice from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission on the best ways to entrench the rights recognised by the declaration into Australian law.

In addition, I would lobby my parliamentary colleagues to take money from home ownership schemes and other failed policies and direct that towards Indigenous infrastructure, health, housing and education.  I would also remind them that the largest Aboriginal populations are in New South Wales and Queensland and so focusing primarily on the Northern Territory means a majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are being ignored.  I would stress that they need to fix the $460 million underspending on basic Indigenous health needs.

I would fully support the inquiry into the Haneef case.  I would take the opportunity to review the anti-terrorism legislation to ensure that it strikes a better balance between fundamental rights like due process before the law with the aims of improving national security.  I would also commission reviews of the powers of the Australian Federal Policy and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

I would also be an active advocate for reinstating the separation of powers between the judiciary, executive and the legislature.  As Attorney General, I would not use my position to denigrate judges in the media.

I would appoint Hilary Charlesworth and George Williams as co-chairs of a national committee to inquire into whether there should be a national Charter of Rights, what form it should take and what it should include.  I would implement their recommendations.

I would move to establish a Constitutional Convention Committee that would hold a convention every ten years to discuss constitutional change, starting in 2009.  I would ask that the first convention consider the following matters: a Preamble to the Constitution that recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the inclusion of a non-discrimination or equality clause in the Constitution, and fixed terms for politicians.

The issue of whether the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory should become states would be revisited and I would seek to develop processes through which this could be explored in both jurisdictions.

I would legislate to make same-sex marriage legal.

Finally, I would be mindful that I would have the opportunity to make two appointments to the High Court.  I would undertake extensive consultations to identify the most capable candidates but I would certainly have Chief Justice Jim Spigelman of the NSW Supreme Court and Professor Cheryl Saunders of Melbourne Law School on my list of potential candidates.

Larissa Behrendt is Professor of Law and Director of Research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, University of Technology, Sydney.  She is a member of the NSW Bar and Chair of National Indigenous Television Ltd.