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Issue #1668      December 10, 2014

Gooda worried in “year of upheaval”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda believes the past year has been one of uncertainty and upheaval for aboriginal and Tortes Strait Islander people. In the Social Justice and Native Title Report, tabled in federal parliament last month, Mr Gooda said that over the past year Indigenous Affairs had been “characterised by deep funding cuts, the radical reshaping of existing programs and services, and the development of new programs and services”.

“These measures, combined with the hesitation of government to set a date for a referendum on constitutional recognition, and the impact of various government reviews, has created an atmosphere of uncertainty for our peoples,” he said.

“This is compounded by the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are represented at the national level, which is in a state of flux. New advisory arrangements have been created and existing representative structures have been defunded. The lack of clarity and muddled narrative is deeply worrying.”

Mr Gooda said the Abbott government needed to engage more deeply and properly with Indigenous people and organisations. “The Coalition government came to office promising a new era of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement,” he said.

“It really worries me to say that, even at this early stage, we are yet to see the outcomes expected of an effective, meaningful and considered engagement strategy. That a radical reshaping of the Indigenous policy space could be planned and executed with little or no involvement by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders, communities and organisations at almost any level is disappointing.”

Mr Gooda writes that the federal government’s plan to streamline Indigenous programs from more than 150 into five broad areas is to be applauded, but says the implementation of funding and administration changes has caused distress and concern in Indigenous communities, due to uncertainty and poor communication.

He writes that budget cuts have already had impacts on “frontline” services, including to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services and the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services and he called on the government to add justice targets to the Close the Gap campaign.

“Given the extent of overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the criminal justice and child protection systems, it is difficult to understand the rationale behind these funding cuts,” Mr Gooda says. “Unfortunately, it seems that the organisations best placed to provide these vital legal and advocacy services to our communities are the ones that are, or are likely to be, affected by these cuts.”

Cuts to health programs and the government’s proposal to introduce a payment to visit the doctor have also had negative effects, Mr Gooda wrote. Mr Gooda said exclusively consulting with the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council (IAC) wasn’t good enough. “Despite claims that the IAC was never intended to replace Congress, the coalition government created the IAC and removed the forward allocation of $15 million from Congress within a few months of coming to power,” he said.

“Further, the Prime Minister has met monthly with the IAC chair, as stipulated in the terms of reference, during this reporting period. In contrast, Congress has reported that the Prime Minister has not met with its co-chairs at all since the election.

“There is little doubt that the IAC members bring an impressive array of talent and experience to Indigenous issues. However, the different roles played by the IAC, as a strategic adviser, and Congress as a representative voice, should be clarified and understood.

“While it is true to say that Congress’ membership has not grown as fast as was perhaps hoped, these are still very early days. It is early days, too, for the IAC, and I trust that they will engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and advocacy bodies, as set out in their terms of reference. However, I have seen little engagement to date.”

Mr Gooda called on Prime Minister Abbott to set a timetable for a referendum on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Isklaner people as the First Peoples of our nation. And he challenged the nation to address racism.

“To move towards reconciliation and healing as a nation, rather than focussing on the ‘right to be a bigot’, we need to educate all Australians about how our colonial past affects our modern-day prejudices,” he said. “We also need to educate Australians about the impact of racial discrimination on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“This is already happening. The response from the community on the propsed section 18C (of the Racial Discrimination Act) changes shows a renewed vigour about the importance of racial harmony and a willingness to engage in this conversation.

“Taking ownership of this issue together, as a nation, is the only way to achive this change.”

Commissioner’s recommendations

That the government:

  • includes justice targets as part of the Close the Gap campaign (which Mr Gooda co-chairs with National Congress of Australia’s First People’s co-chair Kirstie Parker);
  • works with the National Justice Coalition;
  • works with states, territories and Indigenous communities to identify further justice reinvestment trial sites;
  • acknowledges that effective local community governance is central to achieving sustainable development in Indigenous communities, and support research into the concept of nationhood and building an assembly of Australia’s First Nations;
  • implements the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and
  • amends the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011 to include the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the definition of human rights.

Koori Mail

Next article – Reflections on the 16th IMCWP held in Guayaquil, Ecuador

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