Standing with First Nations – our plan

It is the greatest stain on our country that First Nations Peoples are not recognised in the Australian Constitution. There is no treaty, no voice, too few rights. Representation of First Nations in the Parliament is poor. There has been a government apology but no real truth-telling. A reconciliation process over the ten years to 2001 failed to gather support from the major parties. Compacts, self-government, and makarratas have been advanced then dropped. 

Paul Keating in his Redfern speech 20 years ago said it all:

… the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians. It begins, I think, with that act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice…… we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.

Little has changed since Redfern. No prime minister then or since has stood with First Nations Peoples, listened, fully understood the importance of recognition, reconciliation, self-determination and a voice to Parliament and to the people of Australia. It is not the majority of Australians who are resisting this, it is government.

First Nations Peoples must be the decision makers. The legacy of damage and injustice that continues to stain our common heritage needs to be addressed. The voices of First Nations Peoples need to be listened to as they have a right to justice, fairness, equitable land rights, and to the common wealth. 

The Parliament must fully engage with First Nations peoples in an open and transparent partnership of equals.

Our plan

2Self-determination for first peoples
– A referendum on adopting the Uluru Statement from the Heart and a constitutionally enshrining an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament

– A commitment to the principle of self-determination, evidence-based, culturally safe solutions to address the inequality faced by First Nations peoples across Australia.
– Truth-telling about history, reconciliation and treaty.

– A charter of rights guided by values of freedom, equality, justice, compassion and dignity
– Agency and equality in decision-making – co-design – over service delivery
– Economic independence, a fairer sharing of wealth 
– Control of Aboriginal land, sea, and waters, caring for country
3Standing with First Nations peoples, listening, respecting, inclusion
4Closing the gap in health and in life expectancy
5Listening to the voices of women and girls
6Fixing the housing crisis
7Justice – an end to deaths in custody, criminalisation of children, violence, and racism
8Culture, safeguarding sacred sites, language, knowledge
9Traditional management practices in caring for country
10The stolen generation

By 2001 all state and territory governments had made apologies for past injustices, as recommended by a Human Rights Commission report but it took another 7 years for the national apology.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities, and their country.

PM Kevin Rudd 13 February 2008

Following this apology, targets were set in closing the gap between outcomes for First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians by 2030 in health and wellbeing, life expectancy, education, employment, justice, safety, housing, land and waters, and languages. But targets mean little in the absence of a plan to get there. Needs-based funding, specialised training, culturally appropriate services and shared decision-making are what’s needed together with a clear-eyed picture of what must be done.

Statement from the Heart – the Indigenous Voice – must be put to a referendum and constitutionally enshrined.

The proposed Voice does not include any veto power. It simply allows First Nations to advise the Parliament on laws and policy that will affect them. As one of the chief architects of the Uluru Statement, Professor Megan Davis explained, it is focused on ensuring “Aboriginal participation in the democratic life of the state”.

The Indigenous Voice Co-design Process Final Report was provided to the Australian Government in late July 2021. The report builds on proposals from the Indigenous Voice Co-design Process Interim Report to the Australian Government.

From January 2021, the co-design members led a four-month public consultation and engagement process on the Interim Report proposals. There were opportunities around the country and online for people to have their say.

Of the 2,554 public submissions to the report:

  • 90% believe the First Nations Voice should be constitutionally enshrined in line with the Uluru Statement from the Heart 
  • a third of public submissions stated explicitly that a referendum on the Voice needs to be held before the Voice is legislated
  • only four submissions indicated a preference for a legislate-first approach.

The co-design groups used the consultation feedback to help them finalise the proposals for the Final Report.

The Indigenous Voice would provide a way for Indigenous Australians to have a greater say on the design, development and implementation of policies and programs that affect them.

It would also provide:

  • effective partnership mechanisms at the local and regional level for all governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to work together and improve outcomes.
  • opportunities for the Australian Parliament and Government to seek advice on relevant federal laws, policies and programs from the National Voice. 

The truth is that in the ten years that followed the arrival in 1788 of Captain Arthur Phillip and 1,500 convicts and civilians, the First Nations population was decimated by 90%. 

After careful inquiry I am of the opinion that this is the attitude of the [A]borigines towards Europeans: Entrance into their country is an act of invasion. 

The Government Resident of the Northern Territory, 1889:

The expansion of British colonies, including the establishments in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Adelaide, Moreton Bay (Brisbane) and Port Phillip (Melbourne), resulted in competition over land and resources, and quickly resulted in violence. Levels of frontier violence are hotly debated (see Reynolds and Windshuttle), but historical records document numerous occasions on which First Nations people were hunted and brutally murdered.

Massacres of First Nations people often took the form of mass shootings or driving groups of people off cliffs. There are also numerous accounts of colonists offering First Nations people food laced with arsenic and other poisons.

In less than twenty years we have nearly swept them off the face of the earth. We have shot them down like dogs. In the guise of friendship we have issued corrosive sublimate in their damper and consigned whole tribes to the agonies of an excruciating death. We have made them drunkards, and infected them with diseases which have rotted the bones of their adults, and made such few children as are born amongst them a sorrow and a torture from the very instant of their birth. We have made them outcasts on their own land, and are rapidly consigning them to entire annihilation.

Edward Wilson (Editor) The Argus, 17 March 1856

In 1992 the High Court handed down the Mabo decision, which rejected the doctrine that Australia was terra nullius (land belonging to no one) at the time of European settlement.

In 1993 parliament consolidated the Mabo ruling by passing the Native Title Act, which sought to provide a national system for the recognition and protection of native title and for its co-existence with the national land management system.

In 1996 the High Court handed down the Wik decision, which confirmed that native title rights could coexist with pastoral and leasehold tenures but that pastoral leases do not necessarily extinguish native title.

The former Prime Minister Howard in 1996-97 warned of that our backyards were at risk from this and dubbed talk of reconciliation a black armband view of history – dismissed as if it no longer mattered. He said it belittled past achievements and encouraged a ‘guilt industry’ – another example of ‘political correctness’. This stalled progress on reconciliation for a decade but in 2000 people around the nation walked alongside Indigenous people in an enormous show of support for reconciliation.

All of us who are convinced of the rightness and urgency of the cause of Aboriginal reconciliation will be most effective and most persuasive if we have the strength and the wisdom to speak more quietly, more tolerantly and more constructively to our fellow Australians who are yet to be convinced.

Sir William Deane, Governor General 2000

Educating the public

[We] want the history of Aboriginal people taught in schools, including the truth about murders and the theft of land, Maralinga, and the Stolen Generations, as well [as] the story of all the Aboriginal fighters for reform. Healing can only begin when this true history is taught.

Adelaide Regional dialogue – Uluru Statement from the Heart

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples informs governments on standards and protections for First Nations peoples but despite announcing support for this declaration in 2009, governments have yet to comprehensively implement them.

We will do our utmost to see that the plan prepared by Lowitja Institute for the Close the Gap Steering Committee is implemented. It is essential that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing, being and doing will be respected and understood. A fundamental understanding of culture at every level of service delivery is a necessity.

The burden of disease for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is ~2.3 times higher than for the rest of the population.

Indigenous Australians are more likely to have mental health problems and chronic diseases such as respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic kidney disease.

There is also a continued high occurrence of certain diseases — and resulting conditions — that are now virtually unknown in the non-Indigenous population especially rheumatic heart disease which can lead to death and life-long disability. Australia remains the only country in the Western world that has failed to eliminate trachoma (preventable blindness).

The Indigenous youth suicide rate remains four times that of other Australian youth. 

Some of the best examples of Indigenous health service delivery are provided by Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services but too few of these exist.

Planning and training of staff needs to be specialised. A mere 1.8% of the health workforce is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander despite being 3.3% of the population.

The aim should be to:

  1. Close the gap in life expectancy within a generation by 2031.
  2. Increase the proportion of babies with a healthy birth weight to 91 percent by 2031.
  3. Increase the proportion of children assessed as developmentally on track in all five domains of the Australian Early Development Census to 55 percent by 2031.
  4. Reduce the rate of over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care by 45 percent by 2031.
  5. Significantly reduce in suicide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people towards zero.

It is a great disappointment that the 2022-23 budget failed to increase funding for Aboriginal health services. According to the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, structural reform and substantial funding were needed in order to close the gap in health and housing. Based on government data, there is a funding gap in health and housing of $4.4 billion.

There needs to be a comprehensive National Action Plan which outlines the full implementation of recommendations from the landmark Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices): Securing Our Rights, Securing Our Future Report.

Systemic racism and sexism and far-ranging gender inequalities are perpetuating harm against women and children. There is a growing recognition that First Nations women and girls hold the solutions to overcome abuse, and advance societal health and wellbeing.

Women’s voices need to be elevated to decision-making, because what they know matters in forming meaningful and effective policy and legislation.

One in five First Nations people live in overcrowded housing and overcrowding increases with remoteness to as high as two in five people. In 2006 the UN declared that Australia had the worst Indigenous housing in the world. Overcrowding can lead to stress, poor mental health and spread of disease. Many houses, particularly in remote areas, are unsound and have poor sanitation.

Reducing overcrowding can have positive effects on health, family relationships and children’s education.

Clearly, much more housing is needed but it must also be culturally appropriate and it must be co-designed with First Nations communities.

State and Federal governments share the responsibility for Indigenous housing but the Federal Government provides most remote housing. Just $223.8m was allocated to Aboriginal housing in remote communities in the most recent budget but Aboriginal community-controlled organisations estimate a $5bn investment in remote housing is needed nationally.

The latest Australian Institute of criminology figures show there were 489 Indigenous deaths in custody since the end of the 1991 Royal Commission to June 30, 2021.

In many cases, black people have died in Australian cells due to systemic neglect – inadequate medical care, lack of attention and self-harm. 

Most Aboriginal deaths in custody are due to inadequate medical care, lack of attention and self-harm. 

While indigenous people don’t die at a greater rate than non-indigenous prisoners, they are much more likely to be in prison or police lock-up to begin with. That was the finding of the 1991 inquiry, and has continued to this day. 

Aboriginal people have the highest rate of incarceration of any group in the world. Roughly half of all juvenile prisoners are indigenous. 

The minimum age of criminal responsibility in Australia is just 10 years of age. This means children can be prosecuted, convicted and sent to jail for up to a year. They are likely to be sent to Alice Springs or Darwin, regardless of where they live.

Australian Governments have rejected the calls of dozens of countries to stop imprisoning children under the age of 14 years old, and to raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 

The Universal Periodic Review takes place every five years and involves other countries scrutinising Australia’s human rights record. In 2021 30 countries from Sweden to Norway, Chile to Canada, recommended that Australia raise the age of criminal responsibility so that children as young as 10 are not prosecuted and jailed. 

In Australia, First Nations children between the ages of 10 and 14 make up almost two thirds of the children in that age group locked away behind bars.

Five years ago the Royal Commission into the Detention and protection of children in the NT was to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 but even this has not been agreed to.  

There’s now clear medical advice that in Australia we’re locking up children for behaviours which are explained by their immaturity, disability, trauma and reduced capacity to anticipate the consequences of their actions.

Paediatrician and senior fellow at the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Dr Mick Creati

The blasting of Juukan Gorge alerted Australians to the scant regard mining company Rio Tinto had for the traditional owners of the land – the Puutu Kunti Kurrama Pinikura. They lost their material connection to sacred sites of ceremonial, clan, and family life, the basis for their political and social organisation.

History Professor, Clare Wright of Latrobe University in The Conversation.

Rio Tinto lawfully gained access to high-grade iron ore worth $135 million and nothing has been done to prevent such destruction from happening again.

Professor Wright reminds us that this is just the latest in a very long history of European people displacing traditional owners to get at the wealth in the ground. The gold rush in Ballarat, 1851-61, not only dug up vast areas of what we now call the goldfields, it brought 600,000 immigrants to the area. On first contact, there were 3,240 members of the 25 Wathawurrung language groups in the Ballarat region. By 1861, just 255 Aboriginal people remained.

The Government must implement the recommendations of the final report of the bipartisan Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia on the destruction of cultural heritage sites at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. This includes legislating a new framework for cultural heritage protection at the national level, to set benchmark standards for states and territories to meet, consistent with UNDRIP, and making the Minister for Indigenous Australians responsible for all federal cultural heritage matters. 

This process must include stronger and more effective federal laws which replace the current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (Cth) and implement the international law principle of free, prior, and informed consent for First Nations peoples. 

The Indigenous Ranger workforce that cares for IPA land and sea is currently inadequate at 1,900 rangers. Australia’s existing Indigenous Protected Area estate is 67.2 million ha. Country Needs People is calling for 5,000 rangers and even this would amount to just one ranger per 13,400ha. 

More than 30 Traditional Owner groups were unsuccessful in their application for an Indigenous Protected Area because of limited funding.

Our continent is challenged by a warming climate, invasive plants and feral animals, the breakdown of a living relationship with fire, threats to fauna and flora species and impacts on our cultural values – all of which Indigenous rangers seek to address. Our land and our seas are truly what sustain us. In this work we need governments to fulfil their part. This is not a short term or trivial undertaking. We need to work with partners who are technically competent, that can engage with us and support our leadership, that understand the resources needed to do the serious job of caring for country, and that can go on the journey with us as we work in hundreds of different contexts, environments, cultural land and seascapes across Australia

Denis Rose, Chairperson, Country Needs People

The currently projected IPA estate alone is on track to reach 100 million ha by 2021 and the Indigenous estate held in freehold title or exclusive possession native title covers around 20% of Australia’s land mass and is growing. 

We must:

  • Put greater emphasis on indigenous stewardship of national parks and protection of culturally significant sites
  • Integrate Indigenous cultural burning into natural resource management
  • Expand the successful Indigenous Ranger Program to 5,000 ranger positions to meet the needs of a growing number of Indigenous Protected Areas 

The unilateral British claim in 1788 to possession of what we call Australia had a devastating impact on the 500 First Nations groups and 750,000 to 1 million people. Within the decade that followed, the First Nations population was reduced by an estimated 90% through introduced disease, acquisition of land and violent conflict with the colonisers in which hunting weapons were no match for guns. Survivors were often used as slaves.

In the two centuries that followed, Indigenous survivors were moved to reserves or missions, ‘protection’ took the form of control and isolation. Children were permanently removed from their parents and trained as servants and farm hands.

One in five aboriginal children were taken from their families between 1910 and 1970. Aboriginal children are 10 times more likely to be in out of home care

250 Aboriginal languages were spoken around Australia at the time of British invasion. There were many dialects within each language group. Today, only 120 First languages are still spoken, and many are at risk of being lost forever.

The Australian Human Rights Commission recommends establishing a national Indigenous languages commission to monitor and regulate the maintenance and revitalisation of Australian Indigenous languages.

‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait languages are not just a means of communication, they express knowledge about everything: law, geography, history, family and human relationships, philosophy, religion, anatomy, childcare, health, caring for country, astronomy, biology and food.

‘Each language is associated with an area of land and has a deep spiritual significance, and it is through their own languages that Indigenous nations maintain their connection with their ancestors, land and law,’ .

NAIDOC Committee Co-Chair Anne Martin

A Close the Gap target was set in 2020 for ‘a sustained increase in number and strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages being spoken in 2031’.

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