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Angst over absence of action in Aboriginal affairs

By Alan Austin - posted Tuesday, 7 September 2010


Even before it is known who will form the next government despair is being felt over Indigenous affairs.

Almost three years ago the previous government began with great promise in this area. Newly-elected PM Kevin Rudd proudly announced a “new respect”. He urged that we “have our minds wide open as to how we might tackle together the great practical challenges that Indigenous Australia faces in the future.

“Let us turn this page together,” he enthused. “Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, government and opposition, Commonwealth and state, and write this new chapter in our nation's story together.”

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This speech in February 2008, Mr Rudd’s first to the 42nd Australian Parliament, was the much-heralded formal apology to the stolen generations. It proclaimed “reconciliation across the entire history of the often bloody encounter between those who emerged from the Dreamtime a thousand generations ago and those who, like me, came across the seas only yesterday; reconciliation which opens up whole new possibilities for the future.”

Most Indigenous people and their supporters in Australia and elsewhere heard this as a promise of heroic efforts towards resolving profound challenges. These included poverty, housing, education, health and imprisonment.

For such resolution, of course, the underlying issues of Indigenous identity, confidence and hope had also to be addressed. These, it was anticipated, would start with an immediate end to the despised Northern Territory Intervention engineered by the Howard government in its dying hours. And, most significantly, restoring a national elected Aboriginal decision-making body.

But the intervention continued. No peak body was formed. Consequently education and living standards advanced imperceptibly.

And then, less than a week after the election, the United Nations released its dismal findings on Australia’s efforts in eliminating racial discrimination. A comprehensive fail. The report condemned the continuing NT Intervention as proof that discrimination is structurally embedded in Australia.

Commentary on this has been swift and savage. The India-based Countercurrents.org claimed that “Australia's explicitly racist policies against Indigenous Australians and refugees have been slammed …”

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“The human rights-abusing Rudd-Gillard Labor Government violated the Australian 1975 racial discrimination act in relation to Northern Territory Indigenous Australians … Australia 's own race discrimination commissioner says the next federal government must amend the constitution to make impossible further such racist suspension of the act.”

New Zealand media also highlighted this report. Thankfully for Australia’s reputation, it has not been reported widely elsewhere.

Since federation and before the formal apology, four major advances were achieved by Aboriginal people: the 1967 referendum decision to count them as Australian citizens, the 1976 NT Land Rights Act, the replacement in 1990 of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Council (ATSIC) and the High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision overturning the legal fiction of terra nullius.

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About the Author

Alan Austin is an Australian freelance journalist currently based in Nīmes in the South of France. His special interests are overseas development, Indigenous affairs and the interface between the religious communities and secular government. As a freelance writer, Alan has worked for many media outlets over the years and been published in most Australian newspapers. He worked for eight years with ABC Radio and Television’s religious broadcasts unit and seven years with World Vision. His most recent part-time appointment was with the Uniting Church magazine Crosslight.

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