Aboriginal rights: a missed opportunity

The new ALP minority government relies on independents Andrew Wilkie, Rod Oakshott and Tony Windsor as well as the Greens. They have all shown some commitment to Aboriginal rights beyond mere symbolism. If the ALP chose to, it could use this parliament to push forward on Aboriginal rights and correct these wrongs. A start would be the abolition of the NT intervention, but the current policy direction says this is unlikely.
Aboriginal affairs minister
Jenny Macklin
(Image: Photoshopped)

Peter Robson Green Left Weekly September 19, 2010

Despite several symbolic gestures by state and national governments, no real plan has been put forward to reduce chronic inequality in Aboriginal Australia.

As part of a deal to set up a minority government, the federal ALP has agreed to a referendum to change the constitution so that it recognises Aboriginal people. On September 8, the NSW parliament passed legislation doing the same for the NSW constitution.

These symbolic gestures are overdue, but without a commitment to provide adequate resources to overcome the long-term inequalities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people little will change.

Unfortunately, PM Julia Gillard's appointments to her post-election ministry suggest a business-as-usual approach to Aboriginal affairs, despite the symbolism.

On September 12, Gillard announced her ministerial line-up and said the post of Aboriginal health minister was to be abolished. The portfolio's responsibilities were instead to be divided among the health and Aboriginal affairs departments.

After the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and several Aboriginal health services condemned the axing of the position, Gillard backflipped on September 14 and extended Lingiari MP Warren Snowdon's tenure as Indigenous health minister.

On September 13, Oxfam said that dropping the position could worsen Aboriginal health, which was in a state of crisis. Oxfam said: "Indigenous Australians die on average between 10 and 17 years younger than other Australians. A baby born to an Indigenous mother is still between two and three times as likely to die before the age of four."

Snowdon's reinstatement as Indigenous health minister was criticised by the AMA. Northern Territory AMA president Dr Paul Bauert said on September 14: "The problem was that I don't think in his first three years in this position that he was given adequate resources and infrastructure to achieve some of these outcomes."

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said on September 13: "While we have seen a bipartisan commitment to close the Indigenous life expectancy gap, a national agreement from [state and federal governments], and a down-payment on funding, we now need a plan for how government will see these commitments through.

"This plan needs to be developed in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and needs to address existing health inequalities around the country."

Snowdon had a huge swing against him in his safe seat in the August 21 federal elections, which he put down to ALP support for the NT intervention. The intervention was condemned as racist by the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on August 27.

The other ministerial position under attack is that of Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin. Macklin was the minister who continued the intervention under the ALP, and was the architect of legislation that would extend its policies to other parts of Australia after July 2011.

NSW Aboriginal Land Council CEO Geoff Scott wrote an opinion piece for ABC Online's The Drum on September 14. He condemned Macklin for not listening to Aboriginal people and hanging her government's support for Aboriginal rights on the NT intervention, which he called a failure.

He said: "The government view, supported by many, including some Aboriginal people, to reduce people to the status of beggars in their own land as a prerequisite for receiving assistance is not one which any fair-minded person could support."

He went on to list the failure of the ALP government to follow through on its stated support for Aboriginal rights.

"In opposition" he said, "[Macklin's] party promised reparations for the Stolen Generations. In government, Macklin and Rudd broke the promise.

"In opposition, Macklin's party promised to move Australia Day to a more appropriate date. In office, it refused.

"In opposition, Macklin's party promised an immediate boost to legal aid funding. In opposition, it delivered cuts in its first two budgets.

"Jenny Macklin promised a review of the Northern Territory intervention in opposition. In government, she ordered a review which cost Australian taxpayers $3 million. It recommended significant and widespread changes to the intervention.

"Macklin ignored her own report, putting her among such company as Amanda Vanstone, the Liberal Minister for Indigenous Affairs who ordered a $2 million review into ATSIC, and then completely ignored its recommendations."

The new ALP minority government relies on independents Andrew Wilkie, Rod Oakshott and Tony Windsor as well as the Greens. They have all shown some commitment to Aboriginal rights beyond mere symbolism.

If the ALP chose to, it could use this parliament to push forward on Aboriginal rights and correct these wrongs. A start would be the abolition of the NT intervention, but the current policy direction says this is unlikely.

From GLW issue 853