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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice


Speech by Mr Brian Butler,
Commissioner ATSIC


Friday, July 19

The two reports
launched in Adelaide today provide a scorecard on how Australian governments
are meeting their obligations to ensure that Australia's Indigenous peoples
can fully exercise their rights and interests.

As we have heard,
both these reports show that, yet again, Australian governments are failing.

Poverty, low standards
of education and high rates of unemployment remain endemic and at the
same time the Aboriginal population is growing much faster than than the
general Australian population.

In addition, the
Aboriginal population of Australia is overwhelmingly young and this means
that the lack of action by Governments in key areas is condemning yet
another generation of our young Indigenous people to the scrapheap.

So-called 'practical'
reconciliation is only one small part of a huge task which lies at the
feet of this nation.

The Social Justice
and Native Title Reports we are discussing today are a wake up call to

The Federal Government's
failure to deal with reconciliation issues in good faith is alarming and
deserves full scrutiny by the Parliament on behalf of Australians.

We have a national
government which is unable to respond in a meaningful way to reconciliation
and social justice agendas.

It will not allow
native title rights and interests to be fully recognised and exercised.

And this is because
it cannot accept our inherent rights as the first peoples of this continent.

But, let's put this
into a State context.

The history of Native
Title in SA has been far from happy.

The former Liberal
State Government displayed a distinctly Jekyll and Hyde attitude to Native
Title in this State.

In Parliament it
argued for State legislative changes to further restrict the Native Title
rights of Indigenous South Australians.

It took a very convenient,
narrow, technical position in the whole Native Title debate and sought
to pacify the mining and pastoral lobby groups while paying lip service
to its moral and legal obligations to its own Aboriginal citizens.

Up until late last
year the State Government was also asserting in the De Rose Hill court
case that an Act of the English Parliament in 1834, the South Australia
, had extinguished native title throughout the Colony of South

At the same time
it was arguing its case in the courts for blanket extinguishment, the
State Government was putting out press statements saying that litigation
was not the way to go and that we should be looking at agreements!

But one consequence
of the State taking its blanket extinguishment position in the De Rose
Hill trial was that the State was not able to agree to the existence of
Native Title as part of any Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) negotiations.

Early this year ATSIC
was informed by the State Government that it had dropped its blanket extinguishment

However, up until
the election of the Rann Labor Government, the argument was still being
put that South Australian Pastoral Leases have extinguished Native Title
and replaced it with a right of access.

It is to be hoped
that the new State Labor Government will put an end to this Jekll and
Hyde approch to Native Title negotiations in SA.

The way is now clear
for the State to agree to the existence of Native Title (although still
perhaps not on pastoral leases) and I sincerely hope this will be the

But the battle will
not end there.

Changes to Aboriginal
Heritage protection laws and legislation loom as the next big battle for
the rights of Indigenous citizens of this State.

Consultations and
meetings are currently being held but I am concerned that Aboriginal people
be given adequate time to consider the proposals being put forward so
they can have meaningful input into any new legislation which may be put
to Parliament.

Again, I am sure
there will be plenty of consultation with mining and pastoral groups and
I urge the Government to ensure there is an equity of process for Indigenous
citizens right across the State.

Without the proper
recognition of our culture and our inherent rights there can be no meaningful

ATSIC's position
on these matters is quite clear.

After the Mabo decision
was handed down, the then Federal Government (the Keating Government)
responded with three major policy initiatives.

They were:

  • The introduction
    of legislation to establish a National Aboriginal and Islander Land
    Fund and;
  • The creation an
    Indigenous Land Corporation to acquire and manage land for dispossessed
    Indigenous groups.

At the same time,
it committed itself to further social justice measures for Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander peoples and sought policy responses from ATSIC
and other major Indigenous organisations.

As a result ATSIC
produced a threshold report, Recognition, Rights and Reform.

Its release followed
exhaustive consultation with Indigenous communities.

The report set out
draft principles for Indigenous social justice to guide all future relationships
between the Commonwealth and other spheres of Government and Indigenous
peoples and clear benchmarks.

Acceptance of these
principles, it said, would guide the major structural changes recommended
in the report.

These included:

  • Constitutional
  • Regional autonomy,
  • The negotiation
    of a Treaty or comparable document,
  • Compensation,
  • Improved service
  • Recognition of
    the social and cultural diversity of Indigenous peoples,
  • Protection of
    rights, and
  • Opportunities
    for economic development.

It called for institutional,
structural, collaborative, cooperative reform.

To quote from the

"It is about
a fundamental shift from welfare to basic rights, from dependence to autonomy,
from government assistance to power."

Central to the social
justice agenda is self-determination.

The report makes
interesting reading in the context of today's mainstream media debate
on Indigenous Affairs over the alleged failure of the policies of self-determination,
particularly in relation to family violence and substance abuse.

The reality is self
determination has never been properly embraced by most governments.

The report talked
of the need to achieve full social justice by 2001.

It was fully endorsed
by the Board of Commissioners when released in the mid-nineties but was
never adopted by Government as the third tier response to Mabo.

Given the huge unmet
need amongst our people we obviously feel that this is an appropriate
time to revisit Recognition, Rights and Reform.

Recognition, Rights
and Reform
is now in need of updating but the headline agenda it set
out has not changed.

But it's hard to
generate a rights debate in a sea of 'info-tainment.'

For instance, there
is little discussion of an agreement, or treaty, between us and I want
to go on record as saying that I am a strong supporter of the need for

In closing I would
like to make some observations about the Royal Commission into Aboriginal
Deaths in Custody.

After 339 recommendations,
$400 million allocated to implementing them, and the passage of 11 years,
the deaths continue.

In the 10 year-period
examined by the Royal Commission, 99 Indigenous people died in prison
or police custody.

In the 10 years after
the Commission, 115 Indigenous people died in custody, and a further 30
Indigenous people died during police operations, many of them young people
in high-speed car chases.

Eighty-one per cent
of these people died in jails.

Aboriginal people
die in custody in high numbers because they are in custody in high numbers.

This was a key finding
of the Royal Commission and has been repeated constantly since.

Bringing down the
numbers of people dying in custody requires doing something about the
incarceration rate of Aboriginal people.

I was, therefore,
profoundly dissapointed that the first Rann State budget released last
week included a multi- million dollar estimate to provide more beds in

At the same time
there were press statements that the Government would implement the Royal
Commission recommendations in SA.

So what are we talking
about here - more beds, more culturally appropriate prisons or are we
talking about a wholistic approach to confront the real reasons which
lie behind why so many of our people end up behind bars.

The Nunga Court in
SA is a start in the right direction but so much more remains to be done.

In the face of this
Indigenous Australians can only keep speaking the truth about what is
done, and what is not done; and assess rhetoric against action and outcomes.

We must hold governments
accountable; and keep saying these failures are not right - they are not
good for our people, and they are not good for our country.



updated 26 July 2002