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The current challenges facing Indigenous people in Australia

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice


"The current challenges facing Indigenous people in
Australia and the importance of rights"

Community Centre Friday Night Speakers

Speech by Tom
Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner,
April 2005

  1. Acknowledge traditional owners [Gadigal people of the Eora Nation],
    people living in the Redfern-Waterloo area and thank Kaye Mundine
    and Sydney City Council
  2. Introduce HREOC staff - Darren Dick, Yvette
    Park, Natalie Walker and Omeima Sukkarieh
  3. Outline what talk will
  • About self
  • An overview of HREOC and the role of the Social Justice Commissioner
  • Current issues impacting on Indigenous society
  • Finish with my observations on the Redfern Waterloo development


  • Kungarakan and Iwaidja
  • Darwin
  • Aboriginal Task Force (ATF) Adelaide, ATF Darwin, Canberra
  • India and Vietnam
  • Minister Philip Ruddock, ATSIS, HREOC

HREOC and the role of the Social Justice Commissioner

  • Sydney based - President and 3 Commissioners
  • Complaints Unit - conciliation

Social Justice Commissioner

The position of Social Justice Commissioner was created in 1993 in response to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and HREOC"s National Inquiry into Racist Violence. It was created to ensure an ongoing, national monitoring agency for the human rights of Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples, non-government organisations and governments have come to expect rigorous analysis and fierce advocacy for the promotion and protection of Indigenous human rights by the Social Justice Commissioner and this will continue during my term as it did with past Social Justice Commissioners.

The Social Justice Commissioner is tasked with a range of significant roles in promoting acceptance of and compliance with the human rights of Indigenous peoples. Specifically, the Commissioner is required to:

  • Prepare the annual Social Justice Report to the Federal Parliament;
  • Prepare an annual report on the impact of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights by Indigenous peoples (the Native Title Report);
  • Promote awareness and discussion of the human rights of Indigenous peoples;
  • Undertake research and educational programs for the purposes of promoting respect for, and exercise and enjoyment of, human rights by Indigenous peoples; and
  • Examine and report on laws and proposed laws at any level of government to ascertain whether they recognise and protect Indigenous peoples" human rights.

I have taken up the position of Social Justice Commissioner at a time of great uncertainty for Indigenous peoples. As we are all aware there are significant changes underway in the approach of the federal government to Indigenous affairs. These range from the abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) through to the movement to new arrangements for administering Indigenous programs and developing Indigenous policy.

The changes will leave the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), and specifically the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, as one of very few mechanisms remaining that are able to independently monitor the activities of governments from a national perspective.

In light of current events, the need for a Social Justice Commissioner has never been stronger. As I discuss in detail in the 2004 Social Justice Report, the abolition of ATSIC and the movement to new arrangements for designing policy and delivering programs and services to Indigenous peoples raise many challenges for governments at all levels. It has the potential to impact significantly on the enjoyment of human rights by Indigenous peoples by either leading to improved performance and outcomes by government, or by undermining the enjoyment of human rights by Indigenous peoples.

The existence of an independent monitoring agency specifically tasked with establishing the impact of governmental activity on the ability of Indigenous peoples to enjoy their human rights is essential in this climate.

My functions, as set out above, means that my activities as Commissioner will be a mix of reactive and proactive measures. Where significant human rights issues are raised by an event in the community or action or decision by government, the Social Justice Commissioner will respond to it. This is particularly where situations arise that may involve significant or systemic breaches of Indigenous peoples human rights. In these cases I respond through engagement with the relevant government and/or the media, the making of submissions to parliament or governments, appearing in court cases, or providing appropriate support (such as education and training) to Indigenous communities or groups.

However, I hope that the majority of my work will not be dictated by a need to respond to abuses of Indigenous peoples" human rights.

I proactively engage in emerging debates and issues to promote best practice and celebrate success, as well as set out a forward looking agenda to address potential breaches of Indigenous peoples" human rights before they happen.

The challenge of protecting the human rights of Indigenous peoples

Social justice is about making sure that every Australian - Indigenous and non-Indigenous - has choices about how they live and the means to make those choices.

Social justice is grounded in the practical, day-to-day realities of life. It"s about waking up in a house with running water and proper sanitation; offering our children an education that helps them develop their potential and respect their culture. It is the prospect of satisfying employment and good health.

Social justice also means recognising the distinctive rights that Indigenous Australians hold as the original peoples of this land, including:

  • The right to a distinct status and culture, which helps
    maintain and strengthen the identity and spiritual and cultural practices of
    Indigenous communities
  • The right to self-determination, which is a process
    where Indigenous communities take control of their future and decide how
    they will address the issues facing them
  • The right to land, which provides the
    spiritual and cultural basis of Indigenous communities.

As Social Justice Commissioner, my role is to monitor the ability of Indigenous peoples to enjoy their human rights. As this is the touchstone for my work, it is important to make some general comment about current debates about human rights.

It is unfortunate that we currently live in a time in which human rights are seen by some as either well intentioned platitudes; distractions from the real issues at hand; good in principle but difficult to implement in practice; or even by some as the cause of problems that we currently face in our society.

People who criticise governments on human rights grounds have been dismissed for focusing on "symbolic" or unimportant issues, while the government gets about the business of dealing with the real or "practical" issues being faced in the community.

And when push comes to shove, human rights have even been blamed for the failures of governments over successive decades. In Indigenous affairs, for example, we have been told that it is precisely because of commitments to human rights such as the right
to self-determination
that Indigenous peoples continue to suffer unequal conditions of life today.

It is a great tragedy that those who suffer most from the lack of understanding of human rights are those who are worst off in our society. Indigenous people, for example, are continually blamed and subject to community anger for the lack of improvement in our social and economic conditions. But for Indigenous peoples, such commitments have been made for thirty plus years. The reality is that Indigenous people still suffer at the hands of such good will. Good will alone does not improve livelihoods.

I am very strongly of the view that individual responsibility
is critical
for people to be empowered and to achieve lasting improvements in their social conditions. But I also believe that for too long we have let governments off the hook for the lack of improvement in the conditions in which our communities live. Effective and sustainable change will only occur with the empowerment of Indigenous peoples to identify issues and solutions and to do this in partnership with governments at all levels.

Human rights and social justice - issues for the Redfern-Waterloo Authority

Today I would like to talk about human rights and social justice in relation to an issue that directly affects the Redfern-Waterloo community - the establishment of the NSW government"s Redfern-Waterloo Authority (RWA).

First I would like to say that this talk isn"t designed to take on the RWA but instead talk about human rights standards and social justice issues that you should expect the RWA to meet. Some of these standards relate to:

  • Protection of areas of cultural and historical importance
  • Decent housing, schooling and safe communities
  • Effective participation in decisions
  • Prior informed consent on issues affecting communities and
  • Economic and social development.

All of these standards must be respected if there is going to be sustainable social and economic outcomes achieved in Redfern-Waterloo.

I"m also hoping that this talk will be an opportunity for people here today to give me feedback and comments on the social justice and human rights issues that challenge the community here. Not only about the RWA but also on other issues.

The creation of the authority created controversy. Many people raised concerns that the authority hadn"t been set up in consultation with the community ie it did not actively engage with the community in a way that respects the communities rights, and that it was not designed to properly address the social issues in the area.

I would encourage the RWA to develop sustainable social and economic outcomes in the RWA plan by incorporating important "rights" considerations within its processes. These rights focus not only on human rights protection but also on the process of engagement between the RWA and the community and are immediately relevant to the development of the RWA plan.

There are three specific rights I refer to: protection of culture; effective participation and prior informed consent and the right to development. All of these rights are important elements of the right of self determination.

Which brings me to the next point and one which the government has already recognised - the importance of sustainable social and economic development for the Aboriginal community in the area. We cannot have a vibrant, culturally strong Indigenous community if we struggle in other areas like income, education, employment and too many of our young kids going to prison. These things only bring us down. If we want to survive we have to find solutions to our economic and social issues. But not just any type of solution. We have to find solutions that suit our community and culture and they must be solutions that we have developed.

Numerous human rights, and countless strategies for community development recognise that sustainable economic and social development cannot be achieved without the people who are aiming to achieve these goals being the centre of the process.

That means, that sustainable economic and social development in Redfern-Waterloo won"t be achieved unless the residents, that is, the Aboriginal community, are at the centre of the process. This means that strategies that are being designed by the RWA or the partnership project to create jobs, provide training and employment or address community safety must shaped by 5 principles. They must:

  1. Be driven by the local residents and not just the RWA or the partnership project.
  2. Build on the existing skills of the people in the area and not rely so much just on the skills and ideas of experts.
  3. Include a chance for people to be continually learning new skills.
  4. Include a long term investment by everyone - government, community and NGOs, and
  5. It requires a whole-of-government approach where government agencies are working together on issues.

The challenges for all are great but we must all work together, we must listen to each other and we must persevere if we are to succeed to improve the social and economic circumstance of Indigenous Australians living in the area

Thank you