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Essentials for Social Justice: The Future

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Essentials for Social Justice: The Future

Presented by

Tom Calma,
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Social Justice Commissioner

at the

Hawke Centre
University of South Australia
12 November 2008

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I begin by paying my respects to the Kaurna peoples,  the traditional owners of the land where we gather today, I pay my respects to your elders,  to the ancestors and to those who have come before us, And thank you,   for your generous welcome to country for all of us.

Can I thank Professor Peter Buckskin and the David Unaipon College of Indigenous Education and Research at the University of South Australia for the invitation to join everyone here tonight.

This speech is the final in a series of six that I have delivered nationally over the past year outlining an agenda for change for Indigenous affairs;  I have termed this series of speeches Essentials for Social Justice.

Each speech has discussed a particular challenge that we face as a nation if we are to realize true equality and respect for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters.

I have made clear throughout this series of speeches that these challenges are shared ones.    They are not simply challenges for governments,  and they are not simply challenges for Indigenous peoples.

They identify shared ambitions where every Australian has a role to play:

  • With governments providing leadership,  being accountable for their actions,  embracing genuine partnership with Indigenous peoples and not being the barrier to our advancement – as they so often are.
  • With Indigenous peoples embracing the prospect of a better life for our children and families,  recognising that we need to be at the centre of creating such change and accepting the primary responsibility for the wellbeing of our communities.
  • And with the broader Australian community offering their support and treating us with dignity and respect,  with the firm expectation that we will have the same opportunity to thrive and prosper as all other Australians do,  and where our cultures are celebrated as among the great strengths of our diverse nation rather than being feared.

The first speech in this series was titled Sorry. I delivered it in December last year and outlined an agenda for addressing the needs of the stolen generations and the delivery of a national apology.   

The second speech was titled Reform and outlined an agenda for changing the way governments go about their business and are accountable for their performance. I will return to this issue as despite everything that has occurred this past year,  it is this fundamental issue on which there has been the least progress and which remains the biggest hurdle to achieving positive change.

The third speech was titled Protecting Indigenous children. It identified a range of lessons that we can all learn from Indigenous communities that are facing up to the violence in their communities, And it identified a way forward on the Northern Territory intervention to ensure that it is non-discriminatory and ultimately capable of creating sustainable outcomes for our communities. These two objectives – sustainability and non-discrimination – are integrally linked. Sustainability will not be achieved through discrimination.   

The fourth speech was titled Close the Gap and it reflected on what is needed to achieve health equality for Indigenous Australians within a generation, and to create equal life chances for Indigenous children.    This is a deceptively hard challenge. And there have been some good advances on this over the past year, but much still to do.

The fifth speech was titled Caring for Culture,  Caring for Country. It discussed the role of our traditional lands and culture in achieving economic development for our communities as well as in contributing to the challenges of climate change and other environmental issues.

ThE FIFTH speech identified major challenges for this nation in developing options for mitigating climate change without further displacing the rights of Indigenous peoples. For example, The ongoing lack of engagement with the Indigenous nations of the Murray-Darling and the lack of respect for the cultural importance of this area is extremely disturbing. it amounts to a contemporary form of dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands and waters.

So, to tonight’s speech. It is simply titled: The future.

In it, I want to reflect back on the past twelve months of the new government and see how they have performed in addressing these essentials for social justice. And in doing so, I want to identify the challenges that exist for the future.

Many of the challenges identified in the ESSENTIALS speeches relate to the way we do things and the change of mindset that is necessary to crash through the barriers that we have created over the past century and over the past decade.

Accordingly, these speeches do not identify every issue or area where there needs to be focused attention – and that has not been my intention.

What I have sought to do are two things:

  • First,  to engender a sense of hope and ambition that things can change for the better.
  • And second, to identify what some of the critical elements of this change might involve or look like.

To borrow the words of someone who is fairly popular at the moment, I set out to create a vision for ‘change we can believe in’.

The reference to Barack Obama is a timely one. The sense of hope and ambition that he has engendered among the American community and across the world is extraordinarily exciting. And it is amazing for the feeling of unity and inclusion that it creates.

Obama has been described by a number of commentators this past week as a ‘transformational’ figure.

And transformation is what we need here in Australia on issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Prime Minister himself has dreamt of this possibility.    In the Apology speech he expressed this hope as follows:

let us seize the day...  Let (the Apology) not become a moment of mere sentimental reflection. Let us take it with both hands and allow this day,  this day of national reconciliation, to become one of those rare moments in which we might just be able to transform the way in which the nation thinks about itself…

So if we look back to the events at the beginning of the Rudd government, we can see that transformation of this situation is possible and that with leadership it can capture the imagination of the Australian community, unify us and make us stronger.

Just like many people will remember what they were doing when Barack Obama was elected President of the USA, an overwhelming majority of Australians will remember what they were doing when the Prime Minister apologised to the stolen generations.

I think many people were taken aback by how powerful and emotional the Apology was. given that, for many years this is something that many Australians had been led to believe was something to fear.

It provided a glimpse – if just for one day – of what our society can be at its very best and how good it feels.

The Apology is also emblematic of what governments should generally be striving to achieve – namely, that their efforts should be based in a steely determination to uplift and support communities. 

And the Prime Minister has made very clear what is critical in achieving this – a new partnership and a new relationship. As he stated in the Apology speech:

symbolism is important but ..  It is not sentiment that makes history; it is our actions that make history. Today’s apology… is also aimed at building a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians—a bridge based on a real respect...

Our challenge for the future is to cross that bridge and, in so doing, to embrace a new partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians...

Now I have taken the Apology in the spirit that I believe it was intended – as the ‘line in the sand’ that marks the beginning of a new relationship and a new era of respect.

And so I assess the performance of the Rudd government on this basis – by considering whether its actions to date have matched up to its ambitious words of hope and respect.

And on this basis, while accepting that it is a work in progress, I would describe the performance of the new government on Indigenous affairs as follows:

  • First, some terrific initiatives that have broken away from the problems of the past;
  • Second and related, some hefty commitments that are bold and that promise much – but on which we need to wait and see if the action matches the intent;
  • Third, some very mixed messages – where some actions contain serious and worrying contradictions;
  • Fourth, on some issues a level of inaction in moving beyond the rhetoric and on others, a lack of thought, yet alone action,  on critical elements of reform that are necessary if we are to truly shake up the status quo.

So let me explain.

First, as we recall these words from the early days of the new government,  you’d have to agree that they got off to a spectacular start and they set expectations very high.

The Apology and the commitment targets to Close the Gap have seen this government take a fundamentally different approach to its predecessor.

They have almost instantaneously wiped away the absolute folly of promoting the Apology as a tool of division rather than unity,  and they have similarly rejected the folly of committing to practical reconciliation without actually setting an end goal,  which had left the government entirely unaccountable for its performance or actions.

when the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition,  and Ministers for Health and Indigenous Affairs, along with every major Indigenous and non-Indigenous peak health body and others signed a Statement of Intent to close the gap in health inequality This reflected the significant change in ambition.

The Statement of Intent to Close the Gap commits the government,  working in partnership, to:

develop a long-term plan of action, that is targeted to need,  evidence-based and capable of addressing the existing inequities in health services,  in order to achieve equality of health status and life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non- Indigenous Australians by 2030.

And they have committed to do so with the full participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; by respecting and promoting the rights of indigenous peoples, and by monitoring efforts, in accordance with benchmarks and targets.

These commitments provide the basis for the cultural shift necessary to face up to the challenges that exist for Indigenous peoples in this country. and while they were made in relation to Indigenous health equality they form a template for the type of approach that is needed across all areas of poverty and disadvantage experienced by Indigenous peoples.

The government has recognised this, and has made equally important commitments in the areas of education, employment and early childhood development.

So this Statement of Intent to Close the Gap reflects one of the most hefty commitments made by the new government.

And this is my second comment - only time will tell whether the action matches up to the intent.

As we witness one of the most significant global financial meltdowns in modern times, the acid test is – what level of priority will Indigenous affairs be given by the new government? What value do you give to these commitments? What price equality?

I firmly believe that this is one of those issues that governments have to ‘bite the bullet’ on. There is simply never a ‘good time’ to deal with Indigenous issues. Waiting for the right time is the reason why we have never seen the level of effort needed to transform the situation.

And we need a qualitatively different approach if we are to close the gap. A little bit more of the same will not close the gap.

We know that over a longer time period,  investment now will save money into the future as we transform our people and communities from being unhealthy, unemployed and uneducated. So it makes economic sense – leaving aside the obvious human issues that would otherwise fester and continue to destroy our peoples lives and communities.

So on this issue: a bold start. The level of bipartisan support as well as support across governments also means that there is an unprecedented opportunity to turn these commitments into sustained action. So we shall see.

In contrast though, the third comment I have about the new government’s performance is that there have been contradictions that exist between the commitments made by the government and their actions.

Of major concern in this regard is the rapid development of new policies but the absence of significant engagement and participation of Indigenous peoples.

Major reform processes have been announced, as well as numerous inquiries that will impact significantly on Indigenous peoples, with very limited engagement with Indigenous peoples.

I am constantly being told by Indigenous peoples that they are overwhelmed by the level and the constant nature of change occurring in their communities. Some communities have to deal with changes to local government, regionalisation of their representative structures,  as well as changes to CDEP,  Welfare to Work and other welfare programs,  reforms to indigenous education assistance,  having significant changes to the rules that govern Indigenous corporations being phased in,  as well as changes to native title laws,  dealing with issues relating to water rights, environmental protection and climate change,  and so forth.

Often one set of changes is introduced and then a further set follow – before it is possible to even know the impact of the previous reforms.

And this is before getting to the red tape that many communities have to deal with.

In this regard, not enough has changed between the old and the new governments: it is policy being ‘done to’ Indigenous peoples rather than being done in partnership with us.

Where there is a focus on consultation and engagement – such as the review of the NT intervention – there is then only a tenuous connection between the outcomes of this and the decisions taken by government. The recommendations of the NT Review,  for example,  provide an opportunity to re-engage with Indigenous communities and begin to give them a role in the running of their communities and in determining their own futures. Hopefully it will be an opportunity taken.

So despite the new government emphasising the need for a new partnership if we are to truly change the status quo, there has been very little time devoted to nurturing and achieving this to date.

And on this issue – above all others - the difference between the commitments made by the Prime Minister and the actual implementation by the government is quite noticeable.

Federal government departments have, in my view,  got out of the habit of regularly consulting with Indigenous peoples and in many instances don’t seem to know how to do it. We are certainly not at a point where bureaucrats value such engagement or understand its importance in terms of respect and in terms of improving the quality of decision making and policy formulation.

Ultimately, this is an issue of fundamental concern to me. It is why the process for establishing a new National Indigenous Representative Body is so important. For all of the faults of ATSIC, we rarely saw anything like the yawning chasm that currently exists between the actions of government and the absence of engagement with Indigenous communities.

A further example of where the approach of the new government is riddled with contradictions is the Northern Terrritory intervention.

The government has announced that it accepts the overarching recommendations of the NT Intervention Review Board. These include resetting the relationship with Indigenous peoples based on genuine consultation, engagement and partnership; and ensuring that government actions affecting Indigenous communities respect human rights and conforms with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

How does the government intend to meet these commitments that they agree with? Well the Government has stated that the intervention cannot rely on discriminatory measures into the longer term. But they have decided to continue to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 for at least another twelve months and continuing with the compulsory income management regime that is currently in place.

This position neither respects human rights, conforms with the RDA, or involves genuine engagement, consultation and partnership with Indigenous peoples.

As I have long stated, measures to protect children and ensuring human rights compliance should be seen as complementary and not as competing priorities. It is a major flaw of current policy approaches that this is not fully understood.

What I see as most disturbing about this contradictory position,  however,  is the damage it does to Indigenous peoples’ hopes and belief in the integrity of the government.

As an example, on 3 July this year there was a very significant gathering of Aboriginal men near Alice Springs for the Aboriginal men’s health summit. The outcome of that summit was the Inteyerrkwe Statement  (Pronounced In–eke—wa). It reads:

“We the Aboriginal males from Central Australia and our visitor brothers from around Australia gathered at Inteyerrkwe in July 2008 to develop strategies to ensure our future roles as husbands, grandfathers,  fathers,  uncles,  nephews,  brothers,  grandsons,  and sons in caring for our children in a safe family environment that will lead to a happier,  longer life that reflects opportunities experienced by the wider community.

“We acknowledge and say sorry for the hurt, pain and suffering caused by Aboriginal males to our wives, to our children, to our mothers, to our grandmothers, to our granddaughters, to our aunties, to our nieces and to our sisters.

“We also acknowledge that we need the love and support of our Aboriginal women to help us move forward.”

The men called for a range of measures to assist them in combating violence in their communities. These included:

  • The establishment of community-based violence prevention programs, including programs specific to Aboriginal men.
  • Establishment of places of healing for Aboriginal men,  including men’s ’sheds’,  short term ‘drying out’ places,  and more resources for long-term rehabilitation of Aboriginal men with alcohol and other drug problems,  preferably within their own community as well as ‘half-way’ houses to either give ‘time out’ or time to move slowly back into work,  family and training; and
  • Measures to build the capacity of Aboriginal men in literacy and numeracy to access locally-based jobs, and the linking of education and training to locally-based employment.

This Summit was extremely significant. Aboriginal men across the Territory participated, as well as from other states. It is still spoken of among Indigenous communities in the NT as an event of great pride and emotion for Aboriginal men.

And what has happened since?

In the Summit outcomes, the Aboriginal men called on the ‘federal government and the Northern Territory Government to respond to its final report within three months (i.e., by the end of September, 2008)’.

There has been no such response.

Aboriginal men have clearly and in the most moving way indicated that they want to be part of the solution and not treated simply as the problem.

To date, they have not been supported.

For many, their hopes and ambitions have been dashed.

Instead, in announcing the preliminary response to the report of the NT intervention Review Board, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs has stated,  and I quote, that ‘the development phase of the NTER’ – that is the phase that has been delayed by upwards of twelve months - ‘will commence when increased levels of personal and community responsibility are demonstrated’.

Aboriginal men have demonstrated such responsibility and have offered their commitment to genuinely engage in a partnership on this most disturbing and destructive of issues. They didn’t do so lightly or glibly,  and they have acknowledged that it will be hard. They did so out of genuine concern for their communities.

The opportunity to embrace this as the breakthrough moment that creates a new partnership has not been taken for now.

I cannot think of a more devastating example of the gap between commitments made and action taken. It is something that I believe the government would be very wise to address with urgency.

In assessing progress under the new government, the final two issues I have identified are circumstances where there has been inaction in moving beyond the rhetoric of the government; and then those issues on which there has been a lack of thought, yet alone action, on critical elements of reform that are necessary if we are to truly shake up the status quo.

In terms of inaction, I am very concerned by the response to the stolen generations since the Apology.

At present, there are options for compensation for the stolen generations in some states, in some circumstances through various redress schemes. But it is not universal and it is not applied equally.  As it stands, whether there is justice for the stolen generations depends on their postcode.

Beyond compensation, the government has been extremely slow to move to address the demand for support services to reunite families and to heal.

Link Ups have very clear performance indicators – reunions of families conducted by the graveside are seen as a failure. As the stolen generations become increasingly frail and aged, adequate funding for Link Ups and for all of the services they deliver remain a pressing and urgent concern.

When I delivered the official response to the Prime Minister to the Apology,  on behalf of the Stolen generations,  I stated: “let the healing begin”. Yet only limited support for healing services to stolen generations have also come to fruition. There was a national healing forum to progress this convened recently. And so I hope that this will lead to tangible outcomes in the coming months.

And so to the final element of how I assess the first twelve months of the new government. This is those issues which simply don’t seem to be on the agenda or where change is simply not occurring.

Reform of the bureaucracy and the operation of whole of government arrangements for service delivery is the key issue here.

In my view, Fiona Stanley identified these issues perfectly in her speech in this venue last week when she said that Governments are not taking enough responsibility for health and social outcomes in Aboriginal communities, are rarely held accountable for shortcomings in critical services, and fail to treat Indigenous organisations as an important part of the solution.1

Let us remember the words of the Prime Minister in the Apology speech. He stated:

The truth is: a business as usual approach towards Indigenous Australians is not working… We need a new beginning—a new beginning which contains real measures of policy success or policy failure; a new beginning,  a new partnership,  on closing the gap with sufficient flexibility not to insist on a one-size-fits-all approach for each of the hundreds of remote and regional Indigenous communities across the country but instead allowing flexible,  tailored,  local approaches to achieve commonly-agreed national objectives that lie at the core of our proposed new partnership; a new beginning that draws intelligently on the experiences of new policy settings across the nation…

And yet at the bureaucratic level,  what we have seen is business as usual.

What we have seen with the NT intervention is a ‘one size fits all’ approach that lacks the type of flexibility and tailored local approaches that the PM identifies as critical to changing the status quo.

In the second of this speech series – titled Reform - I said that:

“the capacity of government to deliver on its commitments is the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’…  the new government may not yet have fully realised it,  but they have been left with a system for delivering on the government’s commitments to Indigenous affairs and reconciliation that is severely limited in its capacity; that has developed and mutated out of an urgent desire to do better,  but which has ignored the evidence in adopting change; and which has become disconnected from the very people it is meant to service.”

I have no reason to change this view after twelve months of the new government.

It is a serious problem and one that will limit progress over the longer term if it is not elevated in priority.

So in summary – we have seem glimmers of the type of  boldness that we require to move forward but in the end,  a lot of the fundamental problems that existed under the previous government continue to exist and in some instances are not being addressed.

And so,  where to from here?

Each of the Essentials speeches sets out a series of key elements for moving forward.    So I don’t intend to repeat those issues here.    They have identified a range of essentials that must be addressed.    The need for these remains.

Instead I want to identify two further structural issues that we have to come to terms with to change the mindset and to create the ‘new beginning’ spoken of by the Prime Minister.

The first is about having a seat at the table.

The challenge for the coming eighteen months is to ensure that credible Indigenous representative mechanisms are put into place and are respected by the government.

The development of a national Indigenous representative body is crucial in this regard and requires all the efforts of Indigenous peoples to make it robust.

I simply cannot see the type of change that is needed coming without a high profile,  dedicated national representative structure for Indigenous peoples.

If we establish this – progress in addressing the remaining challenges will flow.

Imagine this: for example. A few weeks back as part of the Senate Estimates process,  all the agencies were requested to attend a dedicated session on Indigenous affairs so that the departments could all be questioned at the same time and Senators could explore the relationships and responsibilities that are shared between departments.

Imagine if representatives of Indigenous peoples were able to participate in this process and quiz departments about their achievements on Indigenous affairs – not simple their inputs but their outputs and outcomes. To test the quality of their engagement with Indigenous peoples; how robust their inquiry and consultation processes are; and so on.

This is one of the proposals in the issues paper I released earlier this year on options for a national representative body.

That is not the status quo.    It is not the old way.    But it would send a clear message to government bureaucrats that they are accountable to Indigenous peoples too.

I remain of the view that a new representative body should not have a service delivery role.    This is to make clear and unambiguous that government is responsible for how it delivers its programs – not some ‘blackfella fall guy’.

The Prime Minister early on suggested a joint policy commission to obtain a bipartisan perspective on key challenges for Indigenous affairs. With the representative body he should strive for tripartite positions – long term solutions endorsed by both sides of politics working in partnership with Indigenous communities and their representatives.

It is a tall order but the problem of lack of participation and engagement with Indigenous peoples by government is so entrenched and so problematic.

National indigenous representation must be more than an add on, and more than a process by which government simply seeks endorsement of their current activities.

I believe our Prime Minister is up to the challenge – his leadership can change the mindsets of bureaucrats and break though on this essential for social justice.

Related to this is the second challenge: ensuring a role for human rights as part of the architecture in building a new relationship.

If you look back through my concerns and critiques tonight, the failure to act consistently with human rights standards is a recurring issue.

It amounts to bad policy. And it threatens sustainable outcomes.

You simply cannot talk of genuine, robust partnerships without talking about respect for human rights.

There are three main challenges here.    First,  is to address the lack of protection provided for many basic human rights;  second,  is to address the vulnerability of the protection that does exist; and third,  is to place a focus on human rights education and dialogue.

We need better protection of human rights in our legal system as well as mechanisms to ensure that the courts,  the executive and the Cabinet have human rights at the forefront of their thinking at all times.

Accordingly, I strongly endorse the calls for a Charter of Rights that can provide comprehensive recognition of human rights consistent with our international obligations as well as remedies where rights have been abused.

A Charter of Rights can also play a vital role in improving the accountability of government by requiring a greater focus and concentration on identifying the human rights implications of policies and legislation when they are formulated.

a Charter of Rights can have a transformative effect in improving the decision making process, It would also hopefully prevent many human rights violations from occurring in the first place.

But there is a second aspect to our current system of legal protection that also needs to be addressed.    This is an issue that has very acutely impacted on Indigenous Australians.    That is the vulnerability of the human rights protections that do exist in our legal system.

On three occasions in the past twelve years we have seen racial discrimination protections removed solely in relation to Indigenous people by the federal government.

We need to move beyond the situation where governments can  ‘turn on’ and ‘turn off’ protection against racial discrimination whenever it suits.

This is permitted by our Constitution - which allows the federal Parliament to enact laws that racially discriminate against Indigenous peoples – and indeed against any other group based on race.

We need to revise the scope of Section 51(26) of the Constitution  –  the so-called ‘races power’ so that we clarify that it only permits the making of laws that are for the benefit of people of a particular race, There is no place in modern day Australia for legalised discrimination.

But constitutional reform needs to go further than this.    It should also unequivocally require Australian governments to ensure equality before the law and non-discrimination on the basis of race in the exercise of all of their powers.

I would also support a new preamble for the Constitution that recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within the fabric of the nation.

And the final component of this challenge is the provision of human rights education.

Human rights are standards of humanity that are possessed by everyone by virtue of the simple fact that we are all human.   

So while a focus on protections and guidance for governments is critical, it is not the whole story.    Community education about human rights is one of the missing links in Indigenous policy.

Human rights education is about communities having the information and the confidence to take back control of their own lives – by giving an external frame of reference of what is appropriate and what is not.

I have consistently called for human rights education to accompany other efforts to address violence in communities and to build the strengths of our people and communities.

And so to conclude,  I don’t offer criticism for the sake of it.    I offer it in the spirit of friendship and of robust dialogue that comes with an enduring partnership and relationship.

We still have some way to travel to ensure that the essentials for social justice for Indigenous peoples are locked into place. but we are heading down the right pathway – if only now we can be bold enough and we take that leap of faith into true partnership.

Please remember,  from self respect comes dignity,  and from dignity comes hope.

Thank you.


1 ABC Online: Govt rarely accountable on Indigenous concerns: Stanley, http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/11/06/2412659.htm.