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Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

SYDNEY LAUNCH OF SOCIAL JUSTICE
REPORT 2001

SENATOR ADEN RIDGEWAY

17th July, 2002

I would like to begin
by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional
owners of the land we meet on today. I would like to thank them for allowing
me to speak on their country.

I also acknowledge
my colleagues who join me today to help launch the 2001 Social Justice
Report and 2001 Native Title Report, and thank you, as members of the
audience, for also showing your support by your presence.

Introduction

I want to reflect
on the national reconciliation process, and ask some challenging questions
about how we can remove the obstacles that stand in the way of a better
and more equal relationship between black and white Australians.

As part of this discussion,
I want to focus on the current political leadership in Canberra, which
I think is a serial underachiever when it comes to reducing Indigenous
disadvantage. Not surprising when you appreciate that it is driven by
the conviction that better economic opportunities and individual initiative
alone will deliver real equality between all Australians.

Unfortunately, this
has led to a situation where Australia has not maximised the opportunities
that achievements like the 1967 referendum or the Mabo decision opened
up to us. Instead, through our political leaders, we have allowed these
opportunities to be squandered by half-hearted political responses.

At the same time,
it is important to acknowledge that it is primarily because of
the Mabo decision that Australians have begun to take a much more honest
look at the past, and have started to realise that we have a black history
that sits uncomfortably with the national ethos of 'a fair go' for all.

Ordinary Australians
- black and white - have had to grapple with native title issues at the
local level. People who were historically on opposite sides of the fence
have had to open a dialogue and give each other a voice in decisions about
land and natural resource management.

Coupled with other
revelations from our nation's past, such as Aboriginal Deaths in Custody
and the stolen generations, the Mabo and Wik decisions have given
rise to an unprecedented outpouring of community action in support of
native title and reconciliation, culminating in the bridge walks in 2000
and the release of the Documents for Reconciliation by the now
disbanded Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation that same year.

After all this work
and the investment of significant resources in the reconciliation process,
people now have a right to ask: what has been done? How can we as a nation
maintain and build on the momentum that the reconciliation process set
in train?

Practical reconciliation
- or historical denial

Yet for the vast
majority of Australians, Indigenous Affairs remains a 'problem', and predominantly,
one that can only be addressed if Indigenous people get serious about
putting their own house in order.

This is a very convenient
situation for any government. If most of the country thinks the problem
lies with Indigenous people themselves, a government doesn't have to try
too hard - and it certainly doesn't have to set the historical record
straight.

This is precisely
what the policy of 'practical reconciliation' enables the present Government
to do.

The Prime Minister
made it very clear in comments in May this year, that the measure of success
in terms of the reconciliation process, will be when Indigenous Australians
blend into the wider community and no longer stand out as an embarrassing
statistical anomaly.

The Prime Minister's
vision for a reconciled Australia is underpinned by a number of simplistic,
and in my view, unsubstantiated assertions, that do not stand up to intellectual
rigour or historical reality.

These assertions
divorce the experience of Indigenous people in this country from any historical
context, and they assume that all Australians have the same life opportunities
- that it is all a question of individual motivation and choice.

Among their assertions
are:

  • focussing on
    Indigenous health, housing, education and employment (basic citizenship
    rights) alone will overcome Indigenous disadvantage and achieve lasting
    reconciliation;
  • symbolic aspects
    of reconciliation, like an apology to the stolen generations, or a treaty,
    will do nothing to address Indigenous disadvantage and are socially
    and politically divisive;
  • there has been
    too much focus on Indigenous rights at the expense of Indigenous responsibility,
    and there is more to be gained by encouraging and supporting individuals
    to become self-reliant; and
  • by 'turning off
    the grog', and tackling 'welfare dependency', Indigenous communities
    will be able to address family violence, alcohol abuse and social dysfunction.

A few prominent Indigenous
commentators have developed and advocated aspects of these assertions
as part of a broader analysis of the way forward in Indigenous Affairs
policy.

But by using the
language of neo-liberalism, and consequently being seen to be of a similar
mindset to the Howard Government, they have been cast in the media as
legitimaters of the 'practical reconciliation' agenda.

Now, rather than
being acknowledged as a critical turning point in Indigenous Affairs in
this country, the 1967 referendum and the attainment of equal citizenship
rights that it once symbolised, is being recast as the beginning of the
era of Indigenous welfare dependence and social dysfunction - the beginning
of misery.

Many in the Indigenous
leadership now find themselves in the invidious position of being labelled
'part of the problem' and disciples of the 'rhetoric of victimhood' that
underpins Indigenous dysfunction. [1]

The reality is however,
that you cannot treat the symptoms of dysfunction in isolation from the
historical causes. Good public policy can only emerge where there has
been an honest and accurate analysis of past errors and omissions, and
a genuine commitment to meeting the needs and aspirations of the people
affected by any new policy.

I want to refer to
just three examples of where I believe, as a nation, we need to be much
more honest about our past, to ensure that we tailor our future responses
more appropriately. They are:

1. The role of
the Constitution in shaping contemporary Indigenous disadvantage. I
don't think many Australians realise that the current high levels of
Indigenous social and economic disadvantage have their roots in the
exclusion and blatant racism that was enshrined in the Australian Constitution.
However, in the interests of brevity, I will focus in more detail on
the two other factors that I believe have to begin shaping public policy
in Australia, namely:

2. The youthful
character of Australia's Indigenous population - and how this reality
must begin to drive the decisions taken by Canberra and the Indigenous
leadership alike.

3. The need for
education, capacity building, leadership growth, and sustainable models
of community governance to be at the forefront of future policy development.

The demographics
of Indigenous Australia

At the end of the
day, we need to remind ourselves that we are only 410,000 Indigenous Australians
- the largest total since Indigenous people were included for the first
time in the national census in 1971.

Even though this
is a quite manageable number to deal with, many Australians are still
prepared to accept the stereotype of Indigenous affairs as being a terminal
case of public policy failure.

How is it possible
that 410,000 people should overwhelm our imagination or our ability to
formulate responses to familiar challenges within community development?

Indeed, there are
some additional aspects to this demographic that are quite important to
remember:

  • Of the 410,000,
    about two-thirds are under the age of 25. This is a marked contrast
    to the broader Australian population where the profile is very much
    the reverse.
  • This means that
    240,000 are under the age of 25 and most of them under the age of 18.
  • 40% of the nation's
    juvenile detention population is Indigenous, as is 20% of the nation's
    prison population.
  • Less than half
    of young Indigenous people aged 15 to 19 are attending secondary school,
    and consequently, only about 10% are completing their HSC.
  • These figures
    contrast with those for non-Indigenous Australians, of whom 70% are
    attending secondary school and about 30% are completing their HSC.

In my mind, the education
statistics for young Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are both
of concern. But in the case of young Indigenous people, they highlight
just how much ground has to be made up if all Australians are to have
equal life opportunities.

It would seem apparent
to me that these statistics have significant implications for how policy
initiatives should be structured and delivered over the short, medium
and longer term.

It is clear that
in the longer-term, inroads have to be made in relation to Indigenous
educational opportunities to ensure that a new generation of leaders is
able to emerge and be nurtured. The cost of failure in this regard is
the possibility that current problems of high unemployment, community
violence, family breakdown, and general lack of life opportunities will
be compounded in generations to come.

Similarly, a group
of 410,000 people should no longer tolerate the "poor bugger me"
attitude and focus more of our energies in growing our organisations and
sponsoring our young.

Despite the gloom
of the present, we have every reason to be optimistic in recognising the
presence of an emerging class of young Indigenous leaders to open a new
phase in defining black/white relations.

In this vein, I can
only hope that ATSIC elections later this year, give us new outcomes,
fresh blood and new ideas. Not because the others haven't done their job
- because I think they have - but because those who fall into the 30%
club need to make room for the majority, indeed, it is time that, that
70% are reflected in our leadership make-up and not confined to juvenile
detention centres or our nation's gaols.

I also want to highlight
the need for Australians to throw-off the romantic notion that all Indigenous
people live in the remote outback. Only 30% of the Indigenous population
live in remote locations.

The other 70% live
in the towns, regions and cities of Australia. They live here in the suburbs
and in Redfern or Mt Druitt.

These are people
who for the most part have a telephone, watch TV and listen to radios
in their own homes. The postman goes past everyday. The whole infrastructure
of government remains within their day-to-day reach.

But for the Indigenous
people of rural, regional and urban Australia, isolation is not a factor
of distance, but a matter of prejudice. Overt and institutional racism
are the underlying causes of our contemporary isolation, more so than
any geographic realities.

If we are to tackle
the scourge of racism, we first have to overcome the ignorance and misinformation
that is recycled - sometimes by our political leaders, but also by friends
and family.

Building up strong,
accountable and sustainable Indigenous governance structures

The other point that
I would like to emphasise is that identifiable Commonwealth expenditure
on Indigenous specific programs is not simply 'on top of' the general
government expenditure that benefits all Australians.

For example: Close
to one-third of Commonwealth expenditure on Indigenous people directly
substitutes for expenditure on mainstream assistance programs.
[2] The Indigenous-specific programs deliver virtually
the same outcomes, but the way in which services are structured or accessed
is different on account of the cultural and other needs of the Indigenous
people who use them.

To name a few:

  • Abstudy is a substitute
    for Youth Allowance
  • Community Employment
    Programs substitute for Newstart Allowance
  • Aboriginal Medical
    Services substitute for Medicare supported services, and so on.

Even the Government's
own Commonwealth Grants Commission found in its National Report on Indigenous
Funding that despite the entrenched levels of disadvantage experienced
by Indigenous people across all of the key economic and social indicators,
we access mainstream services at very much lower rates than non-Indigenous
people - regardless of whether we are in urban or remote areas.

As a consequence,
the Indigenous-specific services that were only designed to supplement
mainstream services, are struggling with levels of demand that they are
simply not equipped to meet. And more often than not, it is the most disadvantaged
Indigenous people who miss out.

The recent CGC Report
also clearly recognises that the Indigenous Affairs budget has to be more
wisely spent and directed to areas of greatest need. It made some very
valuable recommendations about the need for greater Indigenous "control
of, or stronger influence over, service delivery expenditure", particularly
at the regional and local levels. [3]

I am heartened, though,
by what we've seen recently in the Northern Territory - with that Government
biting the bullet and creating regional health partnerships between Government
and Indigenous organisations and communities.

All Indigenous health
money - that is Territory and Federal money - for a particular region,
will be pooled and administered by a community-controlled health board.

This will not only
put Indigenous people in charge, it will also cut down on duplication,
bureaucracy, and the general complexity and over-administration, with
which most people working in the delivery of Indigenous services, are
only too familiar.

While the Territory
Government's action is not about rationalising the operations of Indigenous
community organisations, it does attack part of the problem at its source.
That is; streamlining funding so it is directed, effective and most importantly,
Indigenous-controlled.

Conclusion

In finishing, I want
to make these final points:

It is clear that
our current circumstance is derived from the dominant position of government
in Indigenous affairs and the failure to see Indigenous rights as a crucial
plank in changing the status quo.

No Australian Government
has ever wholeheartedly embraced the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islanders to self-determination, and the associated inherent rights that
flow from it.

Recognition has only
ever been partial - the Mabo decision is testament to that - and then,
given begrudgingly and in a compromised form. Leadership has been more
forthcoming in the law than it has in Parliament because at least the
law has remained 'colour-blind' in recognising Indigenous rights.

Far too much energy
has been expended trying to contain and restrict the application of any
rights that are recognised, and invariably more energy is consumed in
manoeuvres to limit the application of those rights once they are recognised,
native title, being the prime example.

Reconciliation is
about the next generation. It is about giving our young people the opportunity
to take up the challenges and develop the skills to avoid that pathway
to gaols and unemployment queues.

Issues such as education,
capacity building, leadership, and sustainable models of community development
must be addressed as our top priorities. And as a community, we should
be more willing to celebrate and learn from our successes.

I believe, that despite
the gloom of the present, we have every reason to be optimistic in recognising
the presence of an emerging class of young Indigenous leaders to open
a new phase in defining black/white relations.

410,000 is not a
lot of people. We can turn our future around.

In the meantime,
I join with Commissioner Jonas in his call for a Senate Inquiry into the
adequacy of the present Government's response to the outcomes of the last
decade of reconciliation. We have to have a mechanism that will make governments
accountable. And we have to hold the current government to account to
ensure it delivers - even if it is only on its limited promises of 'practical
reconciliation'.

Thank you

1.
Philip Ruddock (2002) Changing Direction, Speech delivered at the ATSIC
National Policy Conference 2002, 26th March, 2002, p. page 8.
2. Department of the Parliamentary Library (2001) Indigenous
Affairs Expenditure, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, p.7.
3. Commonwealth Grants Commission (2001) Report on Indigenous
Funding 2001, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, p. xix.

Last
updated 18 July 2002