A marked shift in the Indigenous policy landscape since the National Apology to the Stolen Generations continues to gain momentum and signals a more inclusive and promising future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma said today.
Commissioner Calma’s sixth and final Social Justice and Native Title Reports, tabled in federal Parliament out-of-session on 20 January, will be launched in Sydney today.
“It is easy to become despondent with the relentless grind of Indigenous affairs where one alarming set of statistics follows another,” Commissioner Calma said.
“But the positive signs over this last year in particular are tangible: we now have for the first time all Australian governments working towards targets to close the gap of Indigenous disadvantage.
“For the first time in more than five years we have a national representative voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples currently being established,” he said.
“I believe the challenge for the future is to build on this momentum to overcome Indigenous disadvantage and set equal life chances for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the only acceptable benchmark.”
Commissioner Calma said the Social Justice Report 2009 focussed on: justice reinvestment to reduce Indigenous over-representation in the criminal justice system; protection of Indigenous languages; and sustaining Aboriginal homeland communities.
“Nationally, Indigenous adults are 13 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous people and Indigenous juveniles are 28 times more likely to be placed in juvenile detention than their non-Indigenous counterparts,” Commissioner Calma said.
“I have been advocating for some time now for Australian governments to consider a tried and tested approach known as ‘justice reinvestment’, which diverts a portion of the funds planned to be spent on imprisonment to local communities where there is a high concentration of offenders.
“The money that would have been spent on imprisonment is reinvested in programs and services in communities where these issues are most acute, in order to address the underlying causes of crime in those communities.”
Commissioner Calma said the Report was also vital reading for anyone interested in the perilous state of Indigenous languages in Australia.
“Indigenous languages are critically endangered and they continue to die out at a rapid rate,” he said.
“Prior to colonisation, Australia had 250 distinct languages which expanded out to 600 dialects. Today only 18 Indigenous languages are fully intact - and even these are endangered.
“Without intervention, Indigenous language knowledge will cease to exist in Australia in the next 10 to 30 years.
“Without targeted action and cooperation from the state and territory governments, we will see Indigenous languages continue to die out.”
The Social Justice Report 2009 also highlights the importance of ‘Homelands’ in providing social, spiritual, cultural, health and economic benefits to residents.
“Homelands are a unique component of the Indigenous social and cultural landscape, enabling residents to live on their ancestral lands,” Commissioner Calma said.
“History has shown that moving people from homeland communities into fringe communities in rural towns increases the stresses on resources in rural townships. Some documented disadvantages include: increased social tensions between different community groups; reduced access to healthy food and lifestyles; and loss of cultural traditions, practices and livelihoods.”
“Policies which fail to support the ongoing development of Homelands will lead to social and economic problems in rural townships that could further entrench Indigenous disadvantage and poverty.”
Commissioner Calma also launched the Native Title Report 2009 today, which comprehensively reviews developments in native title law and policy from 1 July 2008 to 30 June 2009 and considers principles and standards that should underpin cultural change in the native title system.
“Throughout my term as Social Justice Commissioner, I have called for reforms to native title law and policy that promote the achievement of the social, economic and cultural development aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” Mr Calma said.
“Significant improvements must be made to the native title system if we are to close the disadvantage gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and to achieve reconciliation.
“During this year, we have witnessed reforms that could prove to be the first steps in transforming the native title system, such as the impressive settlement framework announced by the Victorian Attorney General and the process of native title reform commenced by the Australian Government,” he said.
“In this, my final native title report, I outline principles and standards that should guide a new approach to native title. I also explain how the native title system ought to be viewed in the context of broader reforms to promote and protect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
The Report makes 27 recommendations for reform of the native title system concerning several key areas, including shifting the burden of proof, more flexible approaches to connection evidence and promoting broader and more flexible native title settlement packages. The Report also comprehensively reviews land tenure reform.
“As I come to the end of my term, I urge governments to listen to us and work with us. Respect our voices, our rights, our lands, our resources and our waters,” Commissioner Calma said.
“Only then will this country truly be able to retreat from injustice.”
Media contact: Shyamla Eswaran 0419 258 597