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Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Speech by Professor Lowitja
O'Donoghue.

Adelaide Launch of the Social
Justice Report 2001 and the Native Title Report 2001.

Tandanya 19th July 2002.

I am delighted to be here and to be part of the official launch of the
two reports: The 2001 Social Justice Report and the 2001 Native Title
Report.

Both are written
by Dr William Jonas, who is here today. As you would know he is the Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

They are both excellent
documents and they lay out in very clear terms where we are up to in this
country in terms of the human rights and needs of Indigenous peoples.

I congratulate Dr
Jonas for the sharp clarity of both of these reports and for the logical
recommendations that arise from them.

Both reports are
significant because they provide:

  • reliable information
    about the current state of affairs
  • insights about
    trends and patterns
  • identification
    of key issues, and
  • clear direction
    for action.

In short, there is
absolutely no excuse for anyone to be ill informed about the conditions
that Indigenous people face in this country - or what needs to be done
about it.

It is the responsibility
of political leaders to act on the best information available to them.

And, in reports such
as these, they have the very best information available at their finger-tips.

And so, the most
pressing question for me - and for all of us is:

Why then, do they
fail - and continually fail to act appropriately?

Year after year,
clinching evidence is provided that demonstrates the appalling profiles
of Indigenous health and well being.

Year after year,
we paint the grim picture of what is happening (or not happening) to our
people - and have to face the shameful fact that little has changed since
the last report.

In fact, in some
instances, we have gone backwards.

This pattern has
become so entrenched in our country that many citizens have come to regard
it as inevitable. People think and say things like:

  • It has all become
    just too hard to rectify or improve things.
  • Or, the lack
    of progress is the fault of Indigenous people themselves.
  • Or, they hear
    us talk of the problems and begin to feel that they've heard it all
    before… that somehow we should "get over it".

The point is of course,
that we cannot "get over it" without a strong and coherent strategy
that works on all levels towards change.

There are many terrific
groups and individuals working hard within their contexts to make a difference
- they are the unsung heroes, working away at the grass roots.

And we could not
survive without them.

But we also need
political leadership that understands and enacts its human rights
obligations. And this is exactly what we lack in the current Federal
Government.

John Howard's and
Phillip Ruddock's position is one of deliberate denial and arrogance in
relation to these matters.

The lack of progress
in Native Title outcomes is directly related to the legal structures binding
and strangling the process.

The unfairness of
these structures has been made absolutely clear to the Government - through
the tireless efforts of Dr Jonas and others.

And not only within
Australia.

There has also been
formal and urgent concern expressed by several Committees of the United
Nations, which have clearly identified discriminatory practices and breaches
of human rights in Australia.

Fundamentally, the
current government opposes the idea of inherent Indigenous rights.

Rights that come
from

  • being the original
    owners and custodians of the lands and waters
  • customary laws,
    beliefs and traditions
  • a spiritual relationship
    between the land and its peoples.

Reconciliation will never be achieved until these issues and their central
connection to land rights are recognized.

No amount of rhetoric
about "practical reconciliation" can get around this basic impediment.

We are not talking
here about issues that can be addressed superficially.

Rather, we are talking
about issues that probe the very meaning of terms such as justice, equality
and human rights.

And to understand
them we have to look at them in context.

For Indigenous people
this means taking account of our history.

Two hundred years
since white settlement, represents only three generations of people -
it is a mere heartbeat in the context of historical time.

And during this time
our people have experienced brutality, destruction, dispersal and exclusion
- and unfortunately all of this was sanctioned by official policies
of the time.

Given these formal
sanctions, it is perhaps not surprising that prevailing social attitudes
have also cast Indigenous people as less than human.

We have been regarded
as a problem, rather than as a people feeling all the human needs for
rights and respect.

Before 1967 for instance
(and now we are talking very recent history), many Indigenous people were
excluded from mainstream services and structures. They did not enjoy the
rights that other citizens took for granted.

And so there is a
whole legacy of inequality in areas such as health, housing and education.

There is inter-generational
poverty, which is linked to a history of marginalisation from economic
life and infrastructure.

There are high numbers
of Indigenous people living in remote and rural areas where there are
added problems of access to services and support.

And, if you think
about it for a moment.

If you set out with
the intention of creating trauma within a certain group of people, I cannot
think of a more successful recipe than to:

  • Make sure that
    they are not thought of or treated as human beings
  • Brutalise them
  • Tear their communities
    apart and remove many of their children without explanation
  • Make sure that
    they cannot access the means to regain a sense of control and purpose
  • Ensure that they
    lead economically impoverished lives
  • Create ghettos
    for them and make sure they live in them
  • Expose them to
    frequent racism
  • And then, blame
    them for the circumstances in which they find themselves.

I think we could
all predict the dire social consequences that would follow. There will
be a whole range of serious problems such as:

  • Significant health
    problems - both mental and physical
  • Ongoing chronic
    problems such as depression
  • Unemployment
  • Substance misuse
  • Violence, including
    domestic violence
  • Reckless behaviour
  • High levels of
    incarceration in prisons and correctional facilities
  • Low self esteem
  • Endemic poverty
  • Under achievement.

These issues are
all reflected in the 2001 Social Justice Report.

In addressing these
problems there is the clear need to look at underlying causes if we are
to devise credible solutions.

It is not difficult
to see that they are all interconnected.

And as Dr Jonas has
pointed out in the report, they represent circumstances that would simply
not be tolerated if they applied to the non-Indigenous community.

As he says, and I
quote:

Ten years on we
should not be facing a situation where rates of over representation (in
custody) have worsened like this and where deaths in custody have not
been significantly reduced.

[Unquote]

I agree with him
entirely, and I am particularly concerned at the rise in the imprisonment
rates of Indigenous women in the decade since the Royal Commission into
Deaths in Custody.

The Social Justice
Report documents that the rate has almost doubled between 1991 and 1999.

And at the end of
June 2001, the rate of incarceration was almost 30 times the rate of their
non-Indigenous counterparts. (Despite the fact that they represent such
a tiny proportion of the population overall).

The implications
of this are enormous and involve not only questions about alternatives
to custody, and relationships with the police force.

But also, questions
about what life circumstances are causing this increase and what is happening
to the families of the women concerned.

The Government prides
itself on notions of accountability.

This is continually
reflected in its language about "the bottom line" and in policies
that are supposed to reflect the concept of "mutual obligation".

The idea of mutual
obligation is supposed to embody the ideal of a fair social contract where
individuals are provided for, and in turn they make their contribution
to society.

In reality, they
are policies that are often coercive and driven by threat of penalty -
particularly for people who do not have the skills, education, or confidence
to meet the bureaucratic requirements.

And there are no
prizes for guessing that Indigenous people are highly represented in this
category.

But even if we put
such concern aside for a minute and accept that 'mutual obligation' is
a reasonable basis for social harmony.

The question still
remains as to what this government is going to do in relation to
its obligations to Australia's Indigenous people and their human
rights ?

As I have said, the
Government continues to deny and evade in ways that would certainly have
them in trouble if they were seeking welfare assistance!

As you know, currently
Philip Ruddock is the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural
and Indigenous Affairs.

I was appalled recently
to hear that he had been overheard to say that Indigenous Affairs is the
"recreational part of his portfolio".

If the findings of
the two reports that we have before us today can in any way represent
'recreation', I think that we are, at best, dealing here with a delusional
crisis - and at worst with blatant racism.

(Again there are
no prizes for getting the answer right!)

I support the cause
of fair and compassionate treatment of asylum seekers and I am an active
advocate in this area.

I am also absolutely
committed to the idea of a culturally diverse society, which I know enriches
all of us.

But these contemporary
debates and difficulties must not divert attention away from the very
significant Indigenous needs such as those identified in these reports.

Indigenous issues
clearly justify, and need to receive the focus of, a separate portfolio.

And I might add,
they require a sympathetic Minister!

I urge all of you
here today to keep the issues of Indigenous rights and social justice
alive and in the forefront of your work.

You have excellent
evidence in these reports to support you - and you have the inspiration
of the tireless work that has gone into producing them.

We need to work together
to insist that they not be ignored and left to gather dust on shelves.

I thank and congratulate
Dr Jonas, and offer my full support to the recommendations that he makes.

I am hereby delighted
to officially launch and commend to you: the 2001 Social Justice Report
and the 2001 Native Title Report.

Thank you

Last
updated 23 August 2002