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Norman Fry - Speech at Darwin Launch of the Social Justice Report 2001 and the Native Title Report 2001

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Norman Fry - Speech at Darwin
Launch of the Social Justice Report 2001 and the Native Title Report 2001.

Social Justice Commissioner Dr William Jonas… Minister John Ah Kit…Commissioner
Hill …Professor Bin Salik … Ladies and Gentlemen… Good
evening.

I wish to begin by
thanking Dr Jonas for the invitation to speak here tonight on a topic
that is of so much importance to Aboriginal people not only in the Northern
Territory, but also throughout Australia.

I have been invited
to talk about the Native Title Report and, having had the opportunity
to read Dr Jonas' words, I must say I welcome his report and the manner
in which it has been presented.

Dr Jonas's focus
is utilising human rights standards to assess government's delivery of
fundamental Indigenous rights. His role, in a sense, is to hold a mirror
to our society. I think it is fair to say that the manner in which a society
deals with its most disadvantaged members is an accurate measure of its
human rights status. In our society today by any measure, Aboriginal people
are the most disadvantaged.

It is the indigenous
people of this country who were promised Native Title rights in 1992.
Now, 10 years on - in a new millennium - they are still waiting for that
promise to be delivered upon.

As Dr Jonas writes,
the potential of native title rights has not been realised and, I concur
with his finding that the existing system operates to restrict rather
than enhance native title outcomes.

The adoption of the
Northern Territory Land Rights model in 1993 may have created a stable
and equitable system rather than the "Frankenstein" Act we got
and which was made worse in 1998.

The report launched
here tonight makes two fundamental points about native title in 2001.
The first is the pivotal and at times problematic role of State and Territory
governments in the administration of native title. The second is the need
for adequate resourcing for the process, particularly for native title
representative bodies.

I concur with him
on both points.

I would suggest that
the approach of state government to their statutory obligations in the
administration of native title rights has, at times, been derelict.

I am pleased that
Dr Jonas used the example of the previous NT Government's release of exploration
licence applications - the so-called "mining backlog." The CLP
government released a flood of applications onto the Land Council in a
way which made it almost impossible for us to ensure that the rights of
native title holders were protected.

We are fortunate
that the new government has brought a mood to the table that appears positive.
They are at least prepared to sit down and talk to us about how we can
make the system work better for all of us - native title holders, the
mining industry and government.

We are optimistic
of making significant progress to increase efficiency of the system and
guarantee the protection of rights. This experience only serves to highlight
Dr Jonas's point about the importance of State and Territory Governments
in the native title system.

Dr Jonas's second
major point is equally telling. We join with Dr Jonas in his call to enhance
the capacity of Native Title Representative Bodies and to provide them
with the necessary funding and responsibility to carry out their roles
efficiently and effectively.

In his report Dr
Jonas identifies three principals that should be reflected in the funding
of native title. They are:

  • The full and
    effective participation of indigenous people in decisions that affect
    them.
  • The expression
    of inherent indigenous rights; and,
  • Protection of
    culture.

With these principles, Dr Jonas has identified that not enough is being
done to represent the interests of native title aspirants and calls for
the Commonwealth to sufficiently fund and strategically empower native
title representative bodies so as to provide them with the capacity to
carry out their statutory functions.

The Northern Land
Council has been straining for many years to fulfil our many statutory
responsibilities to the thousands of Aboriginal people we represent. Our
funding levels have been maintained at the same level for many many years,
yet our responsibilities have continued to increase.

At the same time,
funding to the Native Title Tribunal has increased. This is inherently
inequitable and skews the delivery of justice and the protection of rights.

It is also vital
to continually support capacity building in our communities and our organisations
so that people are better able to exercise their rights.

The NLC has adopted
an active role in capacity building with Aboriginal communities through
our "Caring For Country" Unit and employment projects with organisations
such as Adrail, builders of the Alice to Darwin rail link. We believe
that as Aboriginal people are more capable and resourced they will be
better able to exercise and enjoy their rights.

So long as indigenous
people are being denied their basic rights, the level of equality attempting
to be attained through the reconciliation process with remain distant
and removed.

Dr Jonas writes;

"These areas
of difference tell us why the government's policy response to the reconciliation
process has failed to include inherent rights such as native title as
a platform for addressing indigenous issues."

Aboriginal people
should be provided with access to their inherent rights, to fully enjoy
those rights and not be disadvantaged by being denied native title rights.

One of the inherent
qualities indigenous people have is a collective identity and collective
rights - land rights being one of the most important. The current direction
of government policy towards "individuals" and "families"
is an attempt to shirk their responsibility to protect their fundamental
collective rights as indigenous people - native title and land rights.
We see this through the under-resourcing of representative bodies and
also the renewed attempts to wind back rights under the Land Rights Act.

The value of Dr Jonas'
report is that it shines an objective spotlight on the treatment of Indigenous
people in Australia.

We welcome his report
and retain hope that positive changes in government regimes in the Northern
Territory will address some of the issues he identifies. We also trust
that his objective discussion of capacity building for representative
bodies will allow for renewed discussions about resourcing and capacity.

I agree with Dr Jonas
that reconciliation will be a hollow word without adequate protection
of our rights. I can assure you all here tonight that the Northern Land
Council will continue to work to protect those inherent rights, and to
support the capacity of Indigenous people to enjoy them. Thank you Dr
Jonas for your words of wisdom and support.

Last
updated 23 August 2002