Pod Rights Transcript
- Audio - 29 January 2010: Departing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma reminisces on his term. (18 minutes)
Graeme Innes: Hello and welcome to Pod Rights, a series of podcasts from the Australian Human Rights Commission. I'm Graeme Innes, the Disability and Race Discrimination commissioner.
Tom Calma has been the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner with the commission for more than five years. He was also the Race Discrimination Commissioner for most of that time. An elder of the Kungarakan tribe and a member of the Iwaidja tribe from the Northern Territory, Tom brought his Aboriginal heritage and his lengthy experience as a Commonwealth Senior Public Servant and Australian representative overseas to the role. In today’s podcast, I talk with Tom and we hear his reflections from that time and his hopes for the future. Welcome Tom.
Tom Calma: Thank you Graeme and hello listeners.
Graeme Innes: Firstly, what have been the highlights of your time as the Social Justice Commissioner?
Tom Calma: Well, I think the most important for me and that I’ll take away is the camaraderie that we’ve enjoyed here at the commission where we all work together and I think we all work for a common cause and that’s to ensure that the human rights of all Australians are respected. In relation to the job itself I think for me the Close-The-Gap campaign was a big one and that’s about making sure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People enjoy the same rights to health as all other Australians, and to make sure that we have in fact the same life expectation as all other Australians. The big one, another big one was the apology that the Prime Minister made to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, particularly the Stolen Generations Peoples.
Then there was the declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples that was passed through the UN System in 2007 and in recent years the federal governments now picked that up and supported it and in more recent times, the development of the National Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
Graeme Innes: What events in Australia in that time have caused you the most concern do you think?
Tom Calma: The big one that was a concern to me and I think to the commission and to many people around Australia was the Northern Territory Emergency Response Legislation or the Northern Territory Intervention where the government determined that 73 Aboriginal communities in the territory would loose their rights and their protections the discrimination, the racial discrimination legislation that we have. So what we had is a group of people in the northern territory who didn’t enjoy the same rights and protections as all other Australians particularly in relation to race and that’s still being worked on. I guess the other two real worrying things were where as Race Discrimination Commissioner at the time of the Cronulla Riots when we saw some very ugly scenes in Australia and something that has taken a period of time to address and we have to be able to be vigilant to make sure that we don’t see those sort of events reoccur and in more recent times the attacks that have been taking place on Indian students and that’s a real worry. For me, it’s a worry because in 1995, I went to India as a diplomat to establish the education office in India which was the start of having students come and study in Australia and so it’s very sad to see that in those past 15 years, we’re now seeing a situation where Indian students, some of whom have worked hard to come to Australia are now finding that we’re not the place that they thought it might be.
Graeme Innes: It’s very concerning, isn’t it? I’ve been to India too and I know what you mean, that strong relationship between those two countries is really challenged by all this stuff.
Tom Calma: Yeah. I think it’s the same issue that affects all international students. They're coming here for a chance at a high quality education, a place that has always been seen as a safe destination and that provides quality education in a society that’s been very accommodating of the diversity of nations of the world. But I should say that there's only a very, very small minority of people who are offending here but we as Australians need to make sure that we stamp out that type of behavior and if we know of anybody that’s perpetrating that sort of behavior, they need to be dobbed in and we shouldn’t hesitate to do that.
Graeme Innes: Absolutely right. You’ve mentioned, Tom, the Closing-The-Gap campaign, could you talk a little bit more about that and its importance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
Tom Calma: Yeah, thanks Graeme.
The Close-The-Gap campaign, well it’s interesting because you read the Close-The-Gap campaign and there’s the Closing-The-Gap campaign. The Close-The-Gap campaign which is a campaign that emanated out of my 2005 Social Justice Report which said that we needed to look at a new approach to address the inequality of health outcomes that existed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. And so if we looked through the prism of human rights, we saw that was happening in Australia wasn’t all that good to be able to make a change because what we weren’t doing was really good planning, setting targets and benchmarks and identifying where the major needs were and funding those needs at appropriate level. There wasn’t the level of engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People that was necessary and there wasn’t good coordination between government agencies in addressing health and the social determinants of health. So from that report about 40 of the big health bodies, indigenous and non-indigenous and human rights advocacy groups have been working since 2006 on this campaign and so it really I think realized some important outcomes so far. One is that the general community has become more aware of the situation. We now have, in April each year, the National Close-The-Gap day, which is celebrated over Australia, over 400 events take place, and in every public awareness. The NRL now badges their round, one of their rounds, that’s the Close-The-Gap round and things just started to happen. We’ve seen an additional $ 1.6 billion being pledged towards indigenous health which is a lot of money but it just highlights what hasn’t happened in the past and why we need such major funding interventions to be able to make a difference but it is a 25-year campaign so we won't see results overnight and it’s going to require a lot more money as we’ve seen with the total health system in Australia. And so what’s good about this campaign is that it involves the grassroots, it involves the delivery agencies, it involves government, and in fact the United Nations has seen this as really the beginning of an international standard to health that needs to be followed and places like the European Council have picked it up and the UK is also looking at a similar sort of process so you have a fair way to go. The Closing-The-Gap campaign is the government’s response to it and I look at all the disadvantage indicators for Aboriginal affairs and so, be they health education, housing, etc and so they've broadened it out to include these other areas but the difference is that the Close-The-Gap campaign is a very disciplined campaign whereas the Closing-The-Gap is still evolving.
Graeme Innes: Sure, sure. Now the new representative body for indigenous Australians, the national congress, is well on the way to establishment, what are your hopes for this body coming towards the end of your term?
Tom Calma: Well, yeah, it is well established. We’ll have it kicked off in February in a more meaningful way than what it is now. We’ve just starting to build some of the foundations and by the end of this year, it will be fully functional which is a tremendous effort because we’ve been without a representative body since the abolition of AbSec in 2004 and so a lot of the responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of the Social Justice Commission as such. It will good there to broaden it out and give other people an opportunity to have some inputs.
What it’s going to achieve is to not try and usurp the role of existing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bodies but to able to bring their representatives together to consider issues of national priority and try and influence the agenda for government on how they deliver programs and services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People and to be able to feed back up from the grassroots whether those programs are effective and how they might need to be changed. So it’s going to require a fair bit of dialogue and relationship-building with the government and not only the federal government but state and territory governments and a fair bit of work to have our people understand about their role of how they can have an input into it but I think within – and the committee’s firm believing that within five years that will start to make a dent pretty significantly and within again a longer term framework we will see a lot of the areas of disadvantage addressed and that will be within the lifetime of many of us because one of the things that people don’t all understand and recognize is that the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, over 50% are under 30 years old and we’re the fastest growing population group in Australia so the issues, the inequalities, the disadvantage that we experience today are just going to compound unless we have the sort of radical changes to approach and we want to do that in partnership with governments and working closely with governments and getting people on board so those sort of objectives can be realized but it will take some work but I think we’re all ready for it.
Graeme Innes: Tom, finally, how important to indigenous Australians has been the international part of your role? What have you been able to bring back to Australia in that context?
Tom Calma: Well I think there are a couple of areas. If we look at say first the social justice role and that’s been very important because to be able to raise issues at the international level has been good. We’ve actually taken a fairly strong leadership role at the international level. In 2005 I was able to work with the UN and some other groups to develop what now is the standard for free, prior, and informed consent and is now recognized as the international standard that we’ve developed in Australia and put some meaning to it. We’ve been able to have an influence over the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and how that’s formed and there's a whole lot of other fora like biodiversity, like intellectual property that we’ve had inputs into. And there's not only one way process of us being able to work overseas but it’s also being able to bring the learnings from overseas and disseminating that back in Australia amongst our people so over the five years, we’ve seen a shift in – well there was a change in government but shift in attitude of the bureaucrats and now we’re starting to get some fairly meaningful joint statements out with government and that’s been on the social justice of it. On the race side, it’s been again a very important journey because we’ve been able to work closely with CERD and other treaty bodies to look at issues that affect all peoples of the world but particularly to try and get some of those treaty bodies and some of the national human rights institutions around the world to start to affect us on indigenous issues and to be able to understand some of those issues and also to be able to bring back to Australia an understanding about how processes like lodging a complaint through a UN treaty body, you know, it can be very important and anybody can do it.
If they're not getting satisfaction within Australia, there are opportunities to lodge complaints with treaty bodies and so it’s developing up that relationship and we’re saying so far, the special repertoire on housing, on health, on indigenous affairs, all come and visit Australia and to report back so we’re starting to get that real good activity happening.
Graeme Innes: That’s great. So Tom, as you come to the end of your term, what are your hopes for the future for indigenous Australians?
Tom Calma: Well I think there are really a number of responses to this Graeme. Firstly, as people, we need to be recognized as the first peoples of Australia, that we were here pre-colonization and that we just have celebrated Australia Day which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, many people refer to it as survival day but what we need to do is to continually work to educate the community about the history of Australia for both people who have been in Australia a long time and for new entrants to Australia about what our history is and we’ve had a bit of a history in fact in the last few years of government trying to put it through a sanitized view of history. That’s one issue, the other is that there's a need for a whole range of constitutional changes that will come through a referenda to make sure that their constitution recognizes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People as the first peoples and also make sure that some of the discriminatory elements of our constitution are addressed and there's a lot of discussion about that but I would suspect that if we continue to maintain and build on the foundations that we’re developing now, within the next 25 to 30 years we’ll see a very different relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and the rest of Australia. It’s very healthy now. Reconciliation is moving along. We will see a lot more people start to move through the socio-economic status levels for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People because we have to look at the history Graeme, and recognize that it was only in 1967 through the referendum that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People were recognized as citizens. It wasn’t until 1983 that their first doctor graduated. We’ve now got over 150 doctors, we’ve got now 3 surgeons – indigenous surgeons, we’ve got 7 dentists, the hole of the professional areas are building up so we’ve got a big gap to actually fill but we’re advancing, we think, pretty rapidly considering our situation in Australia so it’s going to require a fair but I think the national body will have a significant influence in this and there's a lot of work and a lot of capacity building that needs to take place within Aboriginal communities but it’s positive and I think that each day I see incremental advancements and we want to make sure that Australia is a society that really does respect all peoples irrespective of your ethnic or religious background and we see that happening and it has got to increase and those at the margins are a very small minority who do have very poor attitudes to different races or religions need to be weeded out and you can only do that through really good human rights education and education about respect, about inclusion to make us fair and even better society than we are now.
Graeme Innes: Tom, as always, it’s been great to talk with you. We’ll miss your wise counsel and your strong community networks at the commission so best wishes with the next phase of your life.
And thank you to all listening to Pod Rights. Keep your pod-catchers ready for the next in the series because human rights is for everyone, everywhere, every day.
I’m Graeme Innes. Goodbye for now.
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