Thank you Mr Chairman,
Last year the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples undertook to provide an annual assessment of the situation for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in Australia, in terms of the obligations and duties of the Australian Government to meet its human rights responsibilities and, in particular, to achieve the ends of the Declaration.
The Australian government has implemented numerous programs and actions which do not meet international human rights standards.
Congress brings to your attention that, despite many recommendations by the United Nations over the years calling upon States to review their constitutions and laws to ensure non-discrimination, equality and respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Australian Constitution remains unchanged and allows the parliament to make laws which discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
While the Australian Government embarked on a process in 2010 to consider possible changes to the Australian Constitution to recognise Indigenous peoples in the Constitution, there is no proposal from the government to correct the inequality disorder, nor is there a guarantee that this position will change.
Congress emphasises in particular that this ongoing and never-ending review is very unlikely to meet the international expectations that Australia's Constitutions will reflect the standards of the Declaration. More likely, the review will result in no change, or limited changes that remain acceptable to the Australian people.
Whatever option the Constitution is unlikely to be changed to respect or address the rights of the Indigenous Peoples. This expectation exists because the politicians in Australia are not advocating such a result or leading public opinion on the matter.
The Australian Government’s flagship Indigenous strategy for overcoming social and economic disadvantage is called ‘Closing the Gap’. In reality 'Closing the Gap' advances policies and actions that explicitly remove and deny Indigenous control and decision-making.
'Stronger Futures' is one such strategy. In the Northern Territory, Stronger Futures has led to discriminatory treatment of individuals and communities. They are stigmatised upon the basis of their race and are patronised through centralised and paternalistic bureaucratic structures which control many aspects of their daily lives and existence. The costly administration and rollout of Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory has also meant inequality in services and programs available to Indigenous peoples in other states and territories.
Congress has called on the Australian Government to facilitate and enable the restoration of local governance and decision-making structures. These changes have not happened.
'Closing the Gap' has been in operation for nine years and the evidence shows there has been inability to meet targets and otherwise limited positive impacts.
The economic policies of the government have been poorly designed, and interrupted the progress of previous government programs. For example, the Community Employment Program now imposes more onerous conditions on Indigenous peoples living in remote communities as a prerequisite for receiving income support.
The primary focus of the government has been the management of the cash income being received in communities. The dignity of the people in these communities is impacted by the mandatory regimes that are in place to restrict expenditure on alcohol, gambling and tobacco.
Congress also brings to attention the poor quality of administration of justice. Engagement with the criminal justice system in particular is currently at critical levels for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are being detained or imprisoned at more than 25 times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians.
Current policies aimed at reducing the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in care or the criminal justice system fail to recognise or address the complexity of issues leading to clashes within the criminal justice system.
Primarily the historical context of social exclusion for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations has seen the law used as a tool of dispossession, oppression, family dislocation and racial discrimination. Also there are strong and multiple links between the justice outcomes and other social determinants.
Congress recognises that the multiple forms of disadvantage in the administration of justice, as faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, can be addressed or prevented from escalating further through improved legal assistance and by moving from a ‘tough on crime’ to a ‘smart on crime’ solution.
Congress continues to advocate for a focused approach to justice based on justice reinvestment, but the governments are not in support of justice reinvestment.
In conclusion, Congress recognises the overarching international human rights instrument for Indigenous peoples globally is the 'United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples'. Congress sees the Declaration as a core document which guides all policy and operations as they affect the lives of Indigenous Peoples and calls not only for Australia, but all States, to achieve the ends of the Declaration by taking action to incorporate the actions contained in the Outcome Document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, A/RES/69/2, into their national strategies as a matter of urgency.
Jackie Huggins is the Co-Chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. This speech was delivered in New York, May, 2016.