'Land of the fair go' is a serial offender of descrimiantion against the First Australians

Australia has suspended the Racial Discrimination act three times in its 35-year history, each time in relation to Indigenous people

UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was surprised, even shocked, to discover Canberra had suspended the act at the time of the Northern Territory intervention.

ABC AM - Human rights lawyer and UN committee member Patrick Thornberry speaking to Emma Alberici
Listenmp4 file - Presenter Elizabeth Jackson
Radio Australia Speaker: Emily Howie, Human Rights Law Resource Centre (Melbourne), Geneva:
ListenWindows Media Presenter: Zulfikar Abbany

Jenny Macklin
Jenny Macklin
Leading the racial descimination.
(Adapted from Bill Leak cartoon)

David Marr Sydney Morning Herald August 30, 2010

Every five years, Australia is birched by the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Canberra took it terribly badly in 2000 and 2005 when John Howard raged: "Australian laws are made by Australian parliaments elected by the Australian people, not by UN committees."

Our turn has come again in time for the independents - if they wish - to make this the issue it wasn't in the election campaign. Last week the UN committee, CERD, took apart Australia's record on race in calm but deadly diplomatic language. It noted "with satisfaction" the apology and the government's commitment to "closing the gap" on indigenous disadvantage, but set out a list of "concerns" that haven't changed fundamentally since the Howard years.

"We are serial offenders," says Graeme Innes, of the Australian Human Rights Commission. On CERD's list in both 2005 and 2010 are the failure to guard against racial discrimination; problems with proving native title; the high rate of imprisonment of indigenous Australians; the failure to compensate the stolen generations; the mandatory detention of boat people; and the continuing gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

This time Canberra is not raging against Geneva. Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin noted CERD's commendation of several Labor achievements and added: "Federal Labor has allocated record funding to tackle indigenous disadvantage, including $5.75 billion over the next three years. Labor's policy is to continue to drive long-term change on the ground. We have made a start, but we know there is much more to do."

Both Geneva and the Australian Human Rights Commission remain worried about the fragile protection offered by the Racial Discrimination Act. Innes says: "We have suspended the act three times in its 35-year history, each time in relation to Aborigines and Torres Straight islanders. We need to put a stop to that."

CERD was surprised, even shocked, to discover Canberra had suspended the act at the time of the Northern Territory intervention. It was considered without precedent. British committee member Patrick Thornberry told the ABC: "This was the first time we'd witnessed the suspension of discrimination on a very fundamental issue."

CERD has once again recommended Australia embed protection against racial discrimination in the constitution. Neither side of politics is offering that.

"The problem with Australia is that we like to view ourselves as a non-racist country," says Innes. "If we started to address that cultural issue we would move much closer to constitutional change to entrench the provisions of race discrimination legislation."

Macklin told the Herald: "In June, federal Labor delivered on its commitment to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 in the Northern Territory. Re-instating the RDA restores dignity and helps Indigenous Australians to take ownership of their lives and to drive change in the Northern Territory." The change takes full effect in December.

Innes rates CERD's 2010 findings a "could do better" report. "The sense I got from the members of the committee when I was in Geneva is that Australia is a wealthy country, we're a diverse country and they are disappointed and cannot understand why we aren't doing better in this area."

The committee of 18 nations, which includes Britain and the US as well as Pakistan and Russia, works by consensus. Its recommendations are not binding on Australia. As it turns out, they closely follow submissions made in Geneva this year by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The committee also birched Australia for having no current national policy on multiculturalism; for failing to properly resource Aboriginal Legal Aid and the preservation of Aboriginal languages; and for failing to "address the racial motivation" of attacks on international students