Indigenous Rights 40 Years On: Participation, Not Paternalism, Remains the Answer

Indigenous Rights 40 Years On: Participation, Not Paternalism, Remains the Answer

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum that saw more than 90% of eligible Australians vote in favour of the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as fellow citizens.  Our country's most successful referendum enabled Indigenous Australians to be counted in the national census of the population and gave the Commonwealth Government power to make specific laws in respect of Indigenous people. While the referendum was a turning point in Australian history, commemorations of the event are also a stark reminder of the problems that still exist for Indigenous Australians.  A significant gap exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians relating to, among other things, standards of living and health, political participation, the administration of justice, recognition of land rights and access to adequate housing and education.

Australian history is replete with interventions by the Commonwealth Government into the affairs of Aboriginal people, and in particular Aboriginal children which, with the benefit of hindsight, have been, at best, misguided and myopic, and at worst, tragic.  The 'Stolen Generation' is an example of such misguided paternalism.  If we are to avoid repeating history, the Prime Minister’s drastic new measures aimed at curbing child abuse in Aboriginal communities should be subject to the most diligent scrutiny.

In the last month, the Commonwealth Government has declared a 'national emergency' in response to a report that revealed the widespread sexual abuse of children in some Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.  The findings of the report have led to Commonwealth Government implementing drastic new policy measures, including:

  1. taking control of Aboriginal land and townships through renewable five year leases;
  2. banning the sale of alcohol;
  3. compulsory health checks for Aboriginal children under the age of 16;
  4. linking welfare payments to children’s school attendance and to participating in clean up and repair activities;
  5. quarantining 50% of welfare payments for food and other essentials;
  6. increased police presence in particular Indigenous communities; and
  7. replacing Indigenous community living arrangements with enforced normal tenancy agreements.

Many of these paternalistic policies raise further serious concerns in relation to the human rights of Indigenous Australians, particularly the rights to self-determination, political participation, recognition of land rights and freedom from discrimination.

Despite recommendations in the Northern Territory report, the Commonwealth Government has neglected to consult meaningfully with Indigenous representatives and affected communities.  For strategies to be effective, Aboriginal communities must be empowered, have ownership of the programs and be provided with sufficient support to enable them to run effectively.

A recently released report of the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory warns that if the Government's emergency measures are implemented without community consent and ownership, there is a risk that problems such as alcohol addiction ‘will be driven underground and that initiatives to help prevent child sexual abuse and family violence will be resisted’.

The exclusion of Aboriginal people from any decision making process on the issue confirms the Prime Minister's rejection of the idea of a human rights-based approach to social justice.  The frightening aspect of Howard’s approach is his own admission that he is trampling on constitutional rights:  ‘What matters more – the constitutional niceties or the care and protection of young children?’  As Benjamin Franklin famously observed, ‘A society that would sacrifice liberty for security deserves neither and will lose both.’  As we are learning from the introduction of counter-terrorism laws, sacrificing basic freedoms in the name of the 'good of all' will always result in a gradual erosion of our fundamental human rights.

The issues faced by Indigenous Australians must be addressed in a human rights framework.  Fundamental to good policy development is that all legislation, policies and programs developed and implemented by governments should be consistent with international human rights standards.  This must begin with the recognition by the Commonwealth Government of the right of self-determination for Indigenous Australians.

The most significant problem with the Government’s approach, faced not only by Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory but also by Indigenous Australians in general, is the lack of capacity for engagement and participation in the political process.  The outcome is bad policy that lacks an evidential basis and broad community acceptance.

The Commonwealth Government must take positive steps to ensure that Indigenous Australians enjoy the same basic human rights as non-Indigenous Australians.  The resolution of wider problems in Aboriginal communities, such as access to education, adequate health care, joblessness, poor housing and the destruction of family, culture and community cohesion, will be integral to any effective strategy to stop child sexual abuse and violence.

The whole point of the 1967 referendum was to allow Canberra to assume the national leadership role with respect to Indigenous Australians.  In 2007, 40 years on, the Commonwealth Government's paternal policies and rejection of a human rights-based approach to the issues faced by Indigenous Australians is incredibly disappointing.  Development and human rights experience, both in Australia and around the world, has taught us that if those people most affected by policies are not involved in the decision-making process, then those policies will not succeed.  As stated by Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma: ‘Current Government policy treats Indigenous people as “problems to be solved” rather than as active partners in creating a positive life vision for our communities.’

The Commonwealth Government must take a leadership role in recognising self-determination of Indigenous Australians and developing a cooperative approach with Aboriginal communities.  Community involvement in program design and decision-making will empower Indigenous people to participate in the political process and assume responsibility for issues that directly affect them and their community.  If this does not happen, the same shocking and appalling headlines will continue to reappear in 10 or 20 years time.

Ben Schokman is a Human Rights Lawyer with the Human Rights Law Resource Centre.