What Indigenous Australians really need

Myrna Tonkinson | Eureka Street | September 07, 2009

There are many convergences between two recent reports on Indigenous affairs, starting with their having been issued on the same day.

First, Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma released the final report and recommendations of the Committee that the Rudd Government had charged with developing a model for a national representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Just a few hours later, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples, Professor James Anaya, issued his preliminary findings after a ten-day visit in which he focused on the Northern Territory Emergency Response (the Intervention).

Both reports added fuel to the ongoing debates about rights and responsibilities of Aboriginal Australians. Both stress rights, partnership and respect, and invoke the authority of the UN. Both have engendered controversy.

Anaya infuriated a number of commentators, notably current and former Ministers for Indigenous Affairs, Warren Mundine and The Australian newspaper, by declaring, albeit in polite language, that aspects of the Intervention are racist, and in breach of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Given his role, Anaya could hardly have been expected to approve the discriminatory aspects of the Intervention. His remarks are embarrassing for a country that prides itself on being a good international citizen, but are not fatal. More problematic are the proposals put forward in Calma's Report, entitled 'Our future in our hands — Creating a Sustainable National Representative Body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples'.

This is an ambitious document, based on extensive consultation with Indigenous people. It sets out detailed plans for the structure, funding and operation of a national representative body. The Report stresses 'mutual respect' and advocates 'genuine partnership' between the proposed representative body and government with 'shared responsibility ... [and] ... respect for human rights'.

Calma's Report states that the Steering Committee was guided by Article 18 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which stipulates that indigenous people 'have the right to participate in decision-making in matters that affect their rights', and this participation should occur through representatives chosen by them.

This sits well with Anaya's view that the Australian Government should take into account the Declaration — which it has recently recognised, though not ratified — when framing and evaluating legislation, policies, and actions.

However, the hostile response to Professor Anaya's suggests many influential players are in no mood to consider UN Conventions and treaties, or international scrutiny, as they drive and develop policy in Indigenous affairs. This atmosphere does not bode well for the Calma recommendations.

There are further problems. Anaya critiques the duplication, lacunae and the failure to consult and to establish partnerships that have been evident in past representative bodies and approaches to addressing Indigenous disadvantage. This simply reaffirms the obvious need for improved structures and methods of delivery.

But a body such as that proposed by Calma is far from guaranteeing that result. It is not clear to me how the recommended structures will ensure effective communications between government and the widely dispersed and very diverse Indigenous communities, or how they will improve the delivery of services, obviate duplication etc.

Perhaps rather than the brief of coming up with the criteria for a new representative body, Calma and the Steering Committee should have been asked to propose ways of improving consultation, partnership and effective delivery of services such as housing, education, health.

Among the Western Desert communities in WA's Pilabara which I know best, the intricacies of UN conventions and the pros and cons of representative bodies do not loom large. They are increasingly aware of being part of wider national Aboriginal, Indigenous and Australian aggregations, but their focus is primarily local and regional.

People in these locations are dealing with pressing issues, both positive and negative: frequent (often premature and preventable) deaths and the necessary funerals; over-crowded, often unsuitable housing; new ways of obtaining funds, including a new and thriving art industry, jobs caring for their land, royalties, training and job opportunities from mining companies; asserting their wish to stay on their own lands, speak their languages and continue certain cultural practices while recognising realities of change and attempting to modify aspects of their behaviour.

Like many Aboriginal communities they are also grappling with a plethora of seemingly ever-changing policies, agencies, programs and personnel.

If Calma's plans can address some of these issues without introducing new cumbersome structures and the inevitable frustration and disappointment that accompany their failure, he will have achieved much.

Dr Myrna Tonkinson is an honourary research fellow in anthropology in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia who has done research among Aboriginal people in the Western Desert of WA since 1974.



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