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Valuing and Protecting Diversity

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice


Valuing and Protecting Diversity

Good afternoon.

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today.

At the outset I wish to pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land where we meet today, the Ngunnawal people.

In his introduction to the announcement of the 2020 summit the Prime Minister was succinct in his diagnosis of the challenges we face as a nation in today’s global community.  He says and I quote

‘The new century has thrown up enormous challenges, as well as breathtaking opportunities.  The ground rules of economic success are being re-written with the rise of nations like China and India.  New technologies are continuing to transform our work lives, our social lives and everything from health care to entertainment.  Our own society is changing rapidly as well as we live longer and expect greater fulfilment in our older years.

It’s a big agenda, but we need to think big.

I’m pleased to see that many of the chosen contributors to the Australia 2020 Summit are from a range of cultural back grounds representing the diverse make up of the Australian society.  With 45 per cent of Australians either born overseas or with a parent born overseas we are truly one of the most diverse nations on earth.  The challenge is how to account for this diversity; how to follow the inclusive practice and the outward looking perspective of Australia 2020. 

Let me commence my presentation today by explaining briefly the role and functions of HREOC.  Following this I will discuss a range of issues concerning my work both as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and the National Race Discrimination Commissioner.

HREOC is a national, independent, statutory body established under the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986.  It has a President and five Commissioners. 

HREOC’s enabling legislation confers specific human rights protection and promotion functions.  In broad terms, these functions are addressed under four areas of action: 

  • Human rights education and promotion;
  • Inquiring into discrimination and human rights complaints;
  • Human rights monitoring; and
  • Policy development and legislative reform.

Many of the present Commissioners occupy dual roles within the Commission.  I have a dual role at HREOC as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and the National Race Discrimination Commissioner.  Unfortunately I only get paid for one of the roles and the other is performed gratis.  Why’s this?  Because the government funds only three of the five Commissioner positions in HREOC.

As Race Discrimination Commissioner, my role specifically is to administer functions mandated in HREOC, namely the administration of the RDA and a human rights education function.

A major focus for me as Race Discrimination Commissioner is the way in which Australia’s social policies, particularly those affecting people from culturally diverse backgrounds, are evolving in response to current trends and concerns.  From a human rights perspective, our policies need to ensure that the right to enjoy and practice one’s culture and language without discrimination is protected.  This right is a fundamental tenet of multiculturalism, a policy which emerged in the 1970s in many countries, including Australia, as a response to the increasing cultural diversity of society.

For many people multiculturalism was a welcome development away from failing assimilation policies towards the recognition of the need to provide more socially equitable arrangements, particularly as a nation that hosts a large number of migrants.

After more than two decades of implementing Multiculturalism, the government advisory body on Multiculturalism found in 1999 ‘the term ‘multiculturalism’ has served the Australian community well and best describes our positive acceptance of the reality of cultural diversity and a proactive approach to addressing the challenges and opportunities arising from it’.

The ‘reality’ of cultural diversity in 1999 is today, in 2008, beyond the wildest imagination of the early advocates of multiculturalism.  Australia is one of the most diverse nations on earth.  Australians speak some 364 languages, of which 170 are Indigenous languages and between 1996 and 1998, 52% of marriages in Australia were ‘mixed’ in the sense that they involved people from different countries of origin, and 43% of Australians have had one or both parents born overseas.

In view of these statistics and the social milieu it reflects, one needs to ask: is multiculturalism still an effective policy framework to manage and optimise the opportunities flowing from the ever-expanding cultural diversity of the Australian society? In my view the answer is ‘yes’.  Not only because multiculturalism rests on the human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination but also because multiculturalism is a policy that has many benefits for all Australians.   

Of course the first benefit we enjoy is that the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity ensures that the culture of all Australians is respected and everyone has equal access to services and employment without discrimination.   

In addition to this I see multiculturalism as an investment in social cohesion, cultural enrichment, and equal access to all members of society.  If young families are our major investment for the future then Australian young families are the most visible example of the success of multiculturalism, given 52% of marriages in Australia are classified ‘mixed’ as I described earlier. 

The benefits to the economy that a cohesive, culturally rich and harmonious society can contribute are patent, if not easily quantifiable.

I elaborate upon these thoughts in my Position paper on Multiculturalism released in August last year.   For today I want to outline to you some of the economic benefits of multiculturalism as expounded in my position paper.

In my view, multiculturalism provides a dignified, equitable and just ethos for fostering harmonious relations between the many different ethnic, racial and religious groups that live in Australia today.   As a policy of community harmony it has worked well over the past two decades, replacing the failed policy of assimilation which, as you recall, decimated Indigenous communities and alienated ethnic communities.  

Multiculturalism under the current circumstances needs to be reaffirmed and reinvigorated so that it can meet the new challenges that an increasingly culturally diverse society continues to present.

Let me summarize my understanding of multiculturalism, as set out in my position paper.

Relying broadly on the work of Christine Inglis, we can trace three overlapping uses of the term multiculturalism.

  • First, multiculturalism as i state earlier is a social reality and a way of life.
  • Second, multiculturalism as a set of norms which affirms diversity and equality over an homogenous society.   In this instance, multiculturalism is a subset of the larger debate about the true ideals of a democratic society.
  • Third, multiculturalism as a public policy that aims to support and de-rive benefit from the social reality of cultural diversity by ensuring equity and access to the economic, social and cultural capital of our contemporary society.  Or as Geoffrey Levey puts it, multiculturalism as ‘a set of practical polices aimed at harmoniously integrating a culturally diverse society around liberal democratic values.’

In the position paper I also make clear my endorsement of multiculturalism as a policy framework.   Within this framework there should be a firm commitment to equal employment opportunities, education, health, housing - in fact all those rights that enable us to fully participate in all walks of life.

In this society no preference should be given to one culture or ethnic group above another.   This is what multiculturalism is about. 

Under HREOC’s mandate to promote human rights, and to educate the whole community about such rights, our Community Partnerships for Human Rights Program is being delivered under a wide range of national projects.

Amongst our projects are:

  • A national report on issues for African, and Muslim African, Australians
  • The development of English as a Second Language curricula for new arrivals addressing human rights and discrimination issues,
  • A national program in partnership with Community Languages Australia to develop teaching resources, and to conduct a human rights competition with selected ethnic language schools
  • The national Community Police Partnership Projects which will promote positive policing initiatives with Muslim communities at the local level,
  • A national roundtable on the inter-section between the law and religion
  • Establishment of a new e-portal on cultural diversity issues with a focus on supporting consultation with Muslim communities

These are just some of the projects I have undertaken in my role as Racial Discrimination Commissioner.  Not unrelated to this work, although with its own particular challenges, is the work I am doing in my role as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

Role as Social Justice Commissioner

As the Social Justice Commissioner my functions are to monitor the enjoyment and exercise of human rights for Indigenous Australians including human rights as they relate to native title. 

Under the HREOC Act and the Native Title Act, I am required to produce annual Social Justice and Native Title Reports.  These reports are tabled in the Federal Parliament each year.

The most recent Social Justice Report was tabled in Parliament on 20 March 2008 focuses on issues relating to family violence and child abuse in Indigenous communities.   It provides 19 case studies of promising practices in dealing with violence, with lessons for government and for Indigenous communities.

It also contains a detailed analysis on the human rights implications of the NT intervention legislation.  This includes a 10 point plan for modifying the intervention so that it is more effective and consistent with human rights standards. 

The most recent Native Title Report focuses on the workability of the native title system.  It argues that there is need to review the Native Title Act on the basis that the native title system, introduced 15 years ago, has not adequately protected the rights and interests of native title holders.

The native title system has become too complex, too legalistic and effectively gridlocked.  Previous Native Title Reports have also focused on how native title can contribute to promoting economic development on Indigenous land. 

Both reports are on the web and I commend them to you. 

In addition to the reports I have functions as Social Justice Commissioner to promote awareness and conduct educational activities to promote Indigenous people’s human rights.   I do this in a number of ways.  For example:

  • at present, my office is re-accrediting national curriculum for the certificate 3, 4  and  diploma level on Indigenous legal issues. This curricula has been in place for the better part of a decade now and provides accredited training options to Indigenous peoples;  and
  • I am also in the middle of a project with the Attorney-General’s Department where I have developed a training package for Indigenous family violence workers so that they can be educated in community development principles so they can undertake work on the interaction of Australian law, customary Aboriginal law, human rights and family violence.

A further example of a very significant process that I have led is the Close the Gap Coalition.  This emerged from my Social Justice Report 2005 to the federal Parliament, where I had made findings in relation to Indigenous health programs and services.

I made a series of recommendations for achieving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health equality within a generation.  Over the past two years I have worked with a broad coalition of more than 40 peak bodies across the health, indigenous health, NGO, reconciliation and human rights sectors to promote the findings of the report.

The first stage of this work culminated two weeks ago when the Prime Minister, the Ministers for Health and Indigenous Affairs,  the Opposition leader,  Ian Thorpe,  Cathy Freeman,  and every major Indigenous and non-Indigenous health peak body signed a Statement of Intent for a new partnership to close the gap in Indigenous health inequality.

There are a range of issues that I want to explore today about the ability of governments to effectively deliver services to Indigenous people and communities, and ultimately, their ability to contribute to improved outcomes in the life circumstances of Indigenous peoples.

I want to challenge you to think differently about Indigenous issues and where they fit in your daily work.

For too long Indigenous affairs has been treated as a problem being dealt with by ‘someone else’.  It should be core business across government, with the learning’s of government applied at all times and with all processes built on sound policy approaches.

Issues of Indigenous disadvantage and dysfunction are before our eyes more frequently and more prominently than ever before. 

Barely a day goes by without another chilling and heartbreaking story of abuse, violence or neglect; or of demonstrations of the impact of entrenched poverty and despair among our communities.   This creates a momentum for change and for action.

Governments of all persuasions and at all levels have expressed a determined commitment to address these issues, particularly as they relate to family violence and child abuse, and to contribute to a  better future for Indigenous people.

And yet the means by which they seek to achieve this have had, at best, limited success.

The capacity of government to deliver on its commitments is the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’. 

There are two key issues at stake here.  The first is the ability of the federal government to work on a whole of government basis, where the life circumstances of Indigenous people are not divided into smaller bureaucratic responsibilities that inevitably do not fit together or cover the whole. 

And the second is the capacity of this system to respond to the circumstances of Indigenous people wherever they live – be it in an urban or a rural or remote setting.  If you explored the current policy settings, you could be forgiven for mistakably believing that the majority of Indigenous people live in remote, discrete communities given the substantial emphasis on this by government and the lack of detailed effort on equally important tasks such as unlocking mainstream accessibility of programs for Indigenous peoples.  

Already the new government has made some bold announcements for reforming Indigenous affairs.  It has announced:

  • the establishment of a Working Group on Indigenous Reform at the level of the Council of Australian Governments;
  • the establishment of a Joint Policy Commission with the involvement of the Opposition to look at solutions for the housing situation faced by Indigenous peoples; and
  • explicit commitments to close the gap in life expectancy, maternal and child health, and literacy and numeracy.

These announcements do not deal explicitly with the problems of the federal model for service delivery that I have outlined.  If modifying this existing system is not treated as an urgent priority for reform, then it will stymie any constructive efforts to advance Indigenous issues.

Over the past decade, the community and government have come to believe that the situation facing indigenous people is intractable, too difficult to shift and for some people, the fault of Indigenous peoples themselves.

And at some point, as a nation we stopped believing that equality of opportunity for Indigenous peoples was a realistic goal.  And so we stopped trying to achieve it. 

In my view, this lack of aspiration is reflected in the way the previous federal government placed emphasis on the ‘record levels of expenditure’ annually on Indigenous issues. 

the main issue is, since when did the size of the input become more important than the intended outcomes?

What exactly was the point of the record expenditure?

I can guarantee you that if you keep on the current path, there will be record levels of expenditure every year for the next decade.  This is because there is a sharply growing Indigenous population. 

More people living in poverty will require additional services.

As best as I can ascertain it, the point of highlighting the record level of expenditure was a gentle hope that things would improve incrementally over time.

And on some measures they have – albeit slightly.  But on others they have not.  And very little of it is by design.

So while I firmly believe that these stories of disadvantage and dysfunction should be told, I also believe that they should not be told just for the sake of it

They should be told to hold governments accountable for their actions; to build support and determination among the broader community to create positive change; and to challenge Indigenous people and communities to face the demons in our own backyards.  

These stories should be told in order to fuel change, and to kick start action.

But what type of action?

This is the crossroad that we now face.

The NT intervention provides one example of government at the crossroads.

Regardless of your views on the appropriateness of the approach adopted in the Northern Territory, it has blown out of the water once and for all the status quo in Indigenous policy making. 

This status quo is the fallacy that if governments continue on their existing path, eventually the substantial issues facing our Indigenous communities will be resolved.  It is the fallacy that governments have been doing everything within their power and resources to address the gross disparities experienced by Indigenous peoples across all areas of life. 

And it is the fallacy that government efforts are sufficiently targeted to achieve their desired outcomes – namely, addressing these life disparities experienced by Indigenous peoples. This fallacy has been perpetuated by successive governments at the federal and the state and territory level. 

Through their actions in introducing the NT intervention, the former government admitted three key things. 

First, that governments were not providing Indigenous peoples with basic services that other Australians take for granted  –  policing and law and order;   health and education services;   and adequate infrastructure to name but three areas. 

Second, it admitted to the fact that the scale of investment in our Indigenous communities to date has not been sufficient to enable real change – sustainable, long term gains that can turn communities and peoples lives around. 

And third, it admitted that the change needed is not going to be achieved quickly and will require long term investments. 

So what needs to happen?

To me, the essential challenges for Indigenous policy reform are as follows.

First, there is a pressing need to ensure the full participation of Indigenous peoples in policy making processes. 

There is currently a disconnect between policy making at the national level and its implementation at the local and regional level, with a consequence that there are insufficient provisions that enable Indigenous participation in the policy process.

Much of the failure of service delivery to Indigenous people and communities, and the lack of sustainable outcomes, is a direct result of the failure to engage appropriately with Indigenous people and of the failure to support and build the capacity of indigenous communities.   It is the result of a failure to develop priorities and programs in full participation with Indigenous communities.  

There is also a challenge to build into policy a longer term vision for the well-being of Indigenous communities.  Policy development and program implementation can benefit from understanding community development principles. 

Creating change in communities is a long term process that will ultimately only be achieved by empowering and supporting communities, often small step at a time, so that they are capable of taking control of their circumstances.   This takes time and consistency of effort. 

Internationally, we have started to see the adoption across all UN activity of a human rights based approach to development.   This recognises that

People are the key actors in their own development, rather than passive recipients of commodities and services.

Although I don’t have the time to refer to them in detail, I would like to refer you to the Guidelines for engagement with indigenous peoples that is based on international human rights standards. They were produced in 2005 at the International Workshop on Engaging with Indigenous Communities that HREOC co-hosted with the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Of particular importance in the context of policy design and implementation that relates to Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders, are the following guidelines:

  • Indigenous peoples have the right to full and effective participation in decisions which directly or indirectly affect their lives;
  • Their participation should be based on the principle of free, prior and informed consent. and
  • Governments and the private sector (amongst others) need to support efforts to build the capacity of Indigenous communities … so that they can participate equally and meaningfully in the planning, design, negotiation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies, programs and projects that affect them. 

Second, ambitious targets should be set. 

Indigenous policy should not be allowed to simply drift along without ambition and without targets.  It is not good enough to rely on ‘record levels of expenditure’ as the measure of progress.

It is time to be bold and to be honest.  The lack of goals for achievement in Indigenous affairs, with targets and benchmarks to measure progress over time, is actually a failure of accountability and transparent policy.  

Close the Gap provides the basis for this for health-related targets, and you will be hearing much more about that in the near future as we release the outcomes of the National Indigenous Health Equality Summit that I convened a few weeks back.

Third, and related to this, such targets and goals should receive bipartisan support and form the basis of inter-governmental cooperation.

We need long term commitments to make real progress in Indigenous affairs.

This requires stability and determined action.  And it requires longer term funding, especially for community initiatives so that they no longer are beset from the perennial problems of pilot funding or short term funding arrangements.

Ultimately, it should lead to consolidated agreements between the states and Commonwealth for Indigenous affairs, be built into funding agreements for housing, health, education and other services, with compliance and accountability mechanisms affecting the distribution of Special and General Purpose Payments by the Commonwealth.

Much can be achieved if the federal government ensures that the targets agreed are matched with teeth for accountability and implementation.

Fourth, once goals and targets have been set, government processes must be reformed and re-engineered to ensure that they are capable of meeting these challenges.

Target setting is not a rhetorical exercise.  Once a target is set in good faith, it requires a realistic assessment of the inputs and approaches necessary to achieve it,   and then action to match resources to the level of need.

There has rarely been a time when Indigenous services have been funded to the level of need.  This is a primary reason relating to the failure to achieve substantial improvements over the past decade.

And fifth, Indigenous policy making should be based on a commitment to human rights

Fundamental to good policy development is that all legislation, policies and programs developed and implemented by governments should be consistent with international human rights standards. 

A human rights based approach encourages the adoption of proactive measures to create an enabling framework for active participation and engagement of all citizens, and particularly for those who are disadvantaged or powerless. 

The human rights framework promotes a focus on ensuring that different segments of the population are able to participate fully.  This requires a focus on gender equality; the rights of children and a focus on the best interests of the child;    as well as providing recognition and protection for cultural diversity. 

Human rights provide an enabling framework that promotes active engagement of Indigenous peoples through partnerships, shared decision making and ultimately shared responsibility for outcomes. 

Importantly, human rights also provide a framework to assist in targeting government activity to areas of greatest need. 

This is why the Close the gap campaign should be seen as a rights based approach.   And this is reflected in the statement of intent that the prime minister signed at the national indigenous health equality summit two weeks ago.

The Statement of Intent commits:

  • To developing a comprehensive, 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.
  • To ensuring the full participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their representative bodies in all aspects of addressing their health needs.
  • To building on the evidence base and supporting what works.
  • To respect and promote the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and
  • To measure, monitor, and report on our joint efforts, in accordance with benchmarks and targets, to ensure that we are progressively realising our shared ambitions.

Now some of you may have come today wondering how you can be human rights workers in your current roles.  Hopefully, I have stimulated your thinking and broadened your outlook on these issues.

Ultimately, human rights are about implementing a sound policy framework.

And human rights are for everyone, everywhere, everyday.

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

Thank you.