Without Cathy Freeman, Aborigines aren't in the race
Date: March 14 2006
MELBOURNE this week hosts the largest sporting event held in Australia since the 2000 Olympics. The country will be on show again and Aboriginal people again will be visible: some are competing, others are involved in associated arts and business events, many are taking to the street in protest.
This should be no surprise. The Commonwealth is an association of 53 nations with something in common: their experience of British colonisation. The old British Empire took this continent, without regard for the laws or property of Aboriginal peoples. By contrast, the modern Commonwealth built its identity on self-determination and decolonisation.
These Games — a moment of international fellowship, and exposure — are an opportunity for reflection on these matters. How do we Australians look in our dealings with indigenous peoples by comparison with nations we closely resemble in so many ways?
Canada is also a federation and constitutional monarchy, based on common law and parliament. Its constitution guarantees freedom from racial discrimination and requires that government respect the inherent rights of Canada's aboriginal peoples. Canada's federal government has long recognised self-government as an inherent aboriginal right.
New Zealand acknowledged Maori land rights from the outset, even if they were frequently abused. Maori have reserved seats in the national parliament. The Treaty of Waitangi, concluded in 1840 with more than 500 Maori chiefs, is seen as a founding document for the nation. Since the 1980s, the Waitangi Tribunal has created a forum to address New Zealand's unfinished business. A process for airing past grievances and then sitting down to discuss a new beginning, based on a legislated settlement, provides a safety valve for the pressures created by colonisation and racial inequality.
What can we Australians say to fellow members of the Commonwealth about the place of our indigenous peoples?
The shocking statistics on indigenous disadvantage are well known. Many people are striving every day to turn this around. Aboriginal people, often in partnership with non-Aboriginal Australians, are building enterprises, delivering vital services and holding their communities together in the face of daunting challenges.
What is most concerning about the past few years is the way in which Aboriginal people have almost vanished from the institutions of national government and political life. We lost Aden Ridgeway, the only identified Aboriginal voice in Federal Parliament. The number of Aboriginal people in the Commonwealth public service has declined over 10 years, with a sharp fall in recent times. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, afflicted by personality issues at the top, a scapegoat for long-term state and Federal Government failure, was abolished in 2005.
The representative voice of Aboriginal people within our system of government was silenced in the midst of a review the Government itself had initiated.
The Commonwealth had no institutional solution in place, except a hand-picked council with a limited advisory role.
When visitors came to Australia for the 2000 Olympics and saw a nation unite with pride behind the performance of Cathy Freeman, there was some genuine space for the political aspirations of indigenous people to be debated and Aboriginal people had access to the corridors of power. The reconciliation process was also coming to its climax. The idea of a treaty or another form of fundamental agreement to tackle the issues of unfinished business was a national issue. Today a visitor to the Melbourne Commonwealth Games will find little evidence of official engagement with these aspirations.
Significant changes are going on in the public service and attempts are being made to close the gaps that exist in government administration across the federal-state divide. But turning things around in indigenous affairs involves more than improved service delivery. There is a political dimension.
The example of the Commonwealth shows Australia can do much better in finding fresh avenues for genuine political engagement, whether it be through a treaty, a settlement process or the construction of new national and regional representative bodies.
As shared responsibility agreements run into predicted problems, the Federal Government seems to be letting go some of its ideology and resistance to political representation. Regional partnership agreements are coming to the fore and the Government recently agreed to funding for a regional assembly in western NSW.
But recent Senate hearings reveal these developments lag shamefully behind the abolition of ATSIC regional councils.
Many indigenous peoples may have to wait for years before they have an institutional voice again for talking with the government.
Hardly a gold-medal performance.
Sean Brennan is a project director at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the UNSW law school and co-author of Treaty (Federation Press, 2005).