Enhancing rights and opportunities in Australia

 In News

Tomorrow marks the twentieth anniversary of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. What better time for all Australians to work together to enhance the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Here in Australia it has been a significant week.

Racial Discrimination Act

On Tuesday, the Federal Government announced it would not be making changes to the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA). This is a welcome relief to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia.

The fact is that racism remains prevalent in Australian society and is a major impediment to achieving equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in health, employment, education and housing. Recent research conducted by beyondblue shows that racism remains an everyday reality in Australia, with one-in-five people surveyed admitting they would move away if an Indigenous Australian sat nearby. The current beyondblue campaign Stop. Think. Respect. seeks to raise awareness of the effects of this kind of subtle racism on the mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. The campaign highlights the need to remain vigilant in maintaining protections against racism and racial vilification.

Reconciliation Australia has been working tirelessly to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are accepted and respected in mainstream Australia—whether it be in the workplace, on sporting fields or in everyday life. The proposed changes to weaken the RDA would have hindered our efforts and progress.

Reconciliation Australia, and many others, has consistently argued that the current RDA has provided strong and effective protections against racial discrimination for almost 20 years, while preserving the right to free speech. We strongly oppose any efforts to weaken the RDA.

The Forrest Review

Within the last week, we have also seen the release of Andrew Forrest’s report on employment and training for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The report presents a comprehensive framework of recommendations that address crucial issues impacting on the ability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to enjoy the same life choices and opportunities as other Australians. We believe there is merit in many aspects of the report; however, some recommendations need careful consideration and must involve further consultation on their application and implementation.

Complicated issues require a holistic response and we are pleased that the report has recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander decision making and involvement. Throughout our work we advocate for partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples—we know there are hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations already achieving impressive results in challenging environments. Government should seek to use and build on these results and experiences.

We welcome, in particular, the strong focus on prenatal and early childhood education; teaching support; incentives for housing and home ownership; procurement targets and the much warranted focus on implementation and accountability.

We also welcome the call for the top 200 companies in Australia to do more to employ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This is particularly encouraging given Reconciliation Australia’s work with organisations through the Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) program, which has already produced impressive employment outcomes.

There is no doubt that some of the measures recommended—specifically those around welfare—are controversial and have already attracted significant criticism.

Reconciliation Australia does not support measures that disempower and alienate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, especially when applied universally. We always advocate for the empowerment of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people to make decisions that are best for their communities, especially to protect the most vulnerable. If measures, such as income management, are to be adopted, significant further consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities is required to determine how they can be applied in a case-by-case manner. Careful monitoring will also be of critical importance.

Implicit in the Forrest review is a new way of doing things—a holistic approach with genuine accountability and the need for further, deep consultation. Failure to embrace this approach by the government and its agencies will undermine the likelihood of their success at the outset. This is especially so as many of the recommendations and their interactions are far more complicated than they appear and will require the reallocation of appropriate resources—both money and the right people.

The reality is that many good policy initiatives have been recommended and introduced in the past, only to fall down through poor implementation, inadequate funding and short-term and inconsistent policy application. At the core of many of these failures has been the inability or unwillingness of those charged with implementation to effectively consult and collaborate with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, organisations and communities.

To ensure these mistakes of the past are not repeated, everyone will need to genuinely listen to a broad base of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples about the implementation of recommendations from the report. Any changes must be made in close collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their representative bodies. And the changes should always seek to enhance the rights of our First Australians.

Great Governance

Yesterday, Reconciliation Australia was pleased to announce the finalists of the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards from a record pool of 113 entries.

The eight finalists represent the best of what is happening in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities around the country—they are indisputable examples of self-determination and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples leading positive change.

We encourage you to see what they have been doing—click here to find out more about the finalists.

Given the events of the last week, and on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, let’s celebrate the achievements we’ve made to date and move the conversation forward to respect, recognise and enhance the rights of our First Australians.

Dr Tom Calma AO and Ms Melinda Cilento
Reconciliation Australia Co-Chairs.

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